Art from the Heart, and World, of Mary Ver Hoef
Interview by David James, originally published in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner on November 17, 2019
“I taught aesthetic appreciation at the University,” Fairbanks artist Mary Ver Hoef recalled. “I had them do a journal called ‘Bits of Beauty.’ Five days a week they had to log something beautiful. It could be a piece of music, some good food, some kindness they saw. Something that catches their eye and warms their heart. I was trying to have them to find a sense of what their aesthetic is, what turns their sense of beauty.”
For Ver Hoef, whose recent work is currently on display at Well Street Art Company, that aesthetic lies in Alaska’s landscapes, where she finds herself and her inspiration. “I paint very much from the heart,” she explained. “I’m an outdoors person. That’s where I get my emotional recharge and great joy. Being in the mountains or on a ridge.”
The show, titled “Peart Ridges: Mountain Paintings,” presents her unique depictions of Alaska’s beauty, an approach that draws on several key influences, including two renowned artists whose work she encountered while earning her master’s at Iowa State University.
From the late Bay Area painter Richard Diebenkorn, Ver Hoef takes the idea of geometric wedges which divide paintings into sections such that a single scene is shown in summer, winter, and one or both of the transitional seasons. “That’s where I got some of the geometry, the wedges,” she said of Diebenkorn. “It gave me a way to divide my space and give the viewer more information about seasons, about the weather, time change, and as a colorist, ways to work more color in.”
Pierre Alechinsky provided her with the idea of using predellas, small paintings in insets and on borders which provide counterpoints and additional information to the primary work. Predellas are little notes that print makers have on the sides of their works. Alechinsky is known for including these in his paintings. Ver Hoef saw that and thought, “Bingo! There’s a wonderful avenue. So in the predellas that worked through my paintings through the years – not all of them have it – they’re border images. They’re different views, they’re little details of the area, they’re insights.”
She then applies collage techniques, often using cut up sections of maps, and her own fascination with colors, which enhance the works. “I always thought of myself as being a colorist. I love color.”
In “Peart Ridge 20: Glacier Island,” a coastal view in summer, with mountains in the backdrop, deep colors are found in the primary painting, while in the predellas running along the bottom she places topographical map sections over which she has added pieces of kelp, mountain studies, and images of flowers and a bird. The viewer gains a feeling for the grandeur of the scene, as well as small details one would encounter when visiting, and through the maps, a sense of place and location.
Ver Hoef came to Alaska as a child in 1971 and was raised in Anchorage. She said art has been a part of her life as far back as she can remember. “I always had crayons, and my folks were really supportive of the arts. My oldest sister was doing a lot of art, so I grew up with it around the house. Another older sister did things with ceramics.”
She headed Outside for college, initially planning on a science career. But after meeting and marrying her husband Jay, and moving to Fairbanks, she shifted her major to art, graduating from the University of Alaska. The couple then headed to Iowa where her husband finished his PhD and she received her master’s and began teaching and showing.
In 1991 they returned to Fairbanks, where her busy schedule continued. “I’d been doing a lot of shows, had a young son, I taught at the University,” she said.
After her daughter was born, she became busy with motherhood, and later homeschooling, but never quit creating. “I always continued painting,” she said. “I was a nap time painter. I’d put my son down for a nap and go right to the studio and I’d paint. Then I’d hear him up and that was that.”
While she had previously displayed her work Outside, since that time she has focused on doing shows in Alaska, and in 1999, she said, “I had the Anchorage Museum show, which was a real honor and a delight.”
This happened during a time when her approach was maturing. “It’s this whole idea that you have this beautiful world out there, and how do you put it into a flat surface or a rectangle,” she asked herself. “So I did a lot with folding triptychs and card triptychs.”
As her children grew into adulthood, she was able to devote more time to being a professional artist, taking residencies, teaching classes, and selling her work where she could. “A lot of my bread and butter comes from the Farmers Market where I started about ten years ago,” she said. “I do a lot of map collages on tiles and [coasters].”
Of her current show, which features works she created this fall, she explained, “I ran into this word ‘peart,’ which means lively, spirited and brisk. That was the word that became the springboard for these pieces. It’s joy and liveliness and spriteness. That’s what I’m after. So that’s the driving force and feeling in this work.”
For aspiring artists, Ver Hoef said having a separate income stream is important, “so that you can make art from the heart. This way your art is authentic and most honest, true, and not subservient to what you anticipate to be popular or sellable. Really true work usually shines, and may speak to others who want to add it to their lives.”
Staying true to one’s aesthetic is more important than making money, she concluded, and often hearing praise from someone is the best gift. “That’s where you get a lot of joy and reward. It’s not a financial reward, but it’s helping create more beauty.”
Peart Ridges: Mountain Paintings is on display at Well Street Art Company through Dec. 5.
Singing Wind: Paintings by Mary Ver Hoef
Artist Statement from the Bear Gallery Solo Show, 2002
The work in this show is quite diverse, yet it all originates with the Alaska landscape and weather. From the large freestanding double-sided images to the small works on paper, the driving force is a lyrical expression of this place we live. Each piece is like an individual tune echoing my experience in a place, rather than a reproduction of a locale. I am a colorist at heart, and it is from my heart's connection with the wind and weather and light and land that this art comes forth.
Viewers who know my work will recognize the strong color, inset predella images, diagonal geometry and calligraphic marks that define my style. This show includes the greatest number of paintings with my newest formal element, the color grids. Indeed, “Blue Dream” is composed almost entirely of overlaid grids with a sprinkling of calligraphic “stitch marks”. “Montague Quarter” and “Castner Quarter” are two in a series of four paintings that synthesize all the aforementioned formal characters. The “Light” series share common compositions and use color variations to evoke the mood of each month of the year here in Fairbanks. I have long been exploring the idea of changeable art, developing multiple views or images within one physical painting. Results of this journey are seen here in the inset predella images, the small carved folding wood triptychs, and the large double-sided paintings.
One could view this exhibit at various movements within a piece of music, with different melodies, characters and structures; as variations on a theme. I hope that in this visual symphony you have a glimpse into my joy of this land, the thrill of the wind on a ridge, the tingle of an alpine view, the peace of a soft summer evening breeze.
Mary Ver Hoef, Mountain Weather: A Solo Exhibition
Catalog Essay by Kesler Woodward, Anchorage Museum of History and Art, 1999
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
T.S. Eliot - "Little Gidding"
A restless explorer of both art and place, Mary Ver Hoef also knows where her home is. Alaska is the place to which she comes home, both from her travels and in her work. Ver Hoef grew up in Ancorage, in the shadow of the Chugach Range, and it seems an especially felicitous convergance that these, her most ambitious and complex works to date, should be seen in an institution within view of those peaks.
The path from childhood in Anchorage to return as one of Alaska's most respected artists has been a twisty one, and each turning has left its mark on these works. Always an outdoor enthusiast, Ver Hoef studied sciences at universities in Alaska, Colorado, and Montana before choosing to express her understanding of the land in an artistic, visual manner. She began undergraduate instruction in art at University of Alaska, Fairbanks in 1982. Graduate school in painting at Iowa State University followed, where, by graduation, in 1989 she had found and internalized a host of influences, transforming them into an idosyncratic style, which, continually enriched, remains the foundation of her work today.
The influences on Ver Hoef's work are readily apparent. By 1987 she was aware of and conciously trying to incorporate the influence of Richard Diebenkorn's “Ocean Park” paintings, applying geometry and shifting frame references to Alaskan landscapes. The Diebenkorn influence has been thoroughly transformed and internalized by her personal vision into something organic and lilting, in a path that master never explored. It remains apparent not just in the persistent sectioning in Ver Hoef's work, but in her insistence on moving back and forth between representation and abstraction.
A representational gulf yawns between the coupled, back-to-back abstractions of First Thaw and Chinook, and the readily recognizable landforms of, for instance, the paired Autumn Parfait and X is for Xanthophyll. But we understand the importance of the landscape spirit, which never quite disappears in the former, just as we recognize the insistent love of painterly abstraction in the latter. A pair like Donjek's Trail / Donjek's Ridge provides a transition between these poles, as do others in the exhibition, but we do not need that aid to find the continuity in her concerns.
The influence of painter Pierre Alechinsky is equally strong, and similarly transformed by personal vision. In Alechinsky, Ver Hoef discovered the useful devices of predellas and borders, but just as importantly found a way to loose energetic marks and her own restless energy on her imagery. The expressive marks with which she builds her paintings and the use of physical as well as visual collage date from this period.
From early childhood, Ver Hoef's strongest responses to the landscape have been centered on color, so it is no surprise that color is a key tool for her expression today. It is indeed the most salient unifying characteristic in her work, helping to bridge that broad band from representation to abstraction and back again which she continually traverses. A particular range of intense blues, greens, yellows, and pinks dominate her pallette, played off against less frequent bars of more grayed-down slates and russets. The paintings which result are consistently high-keyed, buoyant, soaring with life. Color, more than any other element, is the emotional carrier of the content of her work.
Paintings that say as much as these do about the unique character and energy of the landscape derive from more than formal experimentation and art historical exploration. Ver Hoef's work is grounded in the experience of landscape itself. She has spent a lot of time on foot in the places she depicts, and it can surprise no one who has looked closely at these paintings that she has also seen them often from the air.
Finally, however, an artist's work is more than the sum of her experiences and influences. These paintings sing about the land, the light, the weather, and the human experience of embracing them in a wholly individual way. The use of freestanding, back-to-back paired images forces us to experience the paintings kinesthetically, waking restlessly through and around them, holding each image of the pair in our memory as we move towards its companion. The experience is a small-scale metaphor for the rambles of the artist herself.
The device of stretching the paintings, like hides or sails, from frameworks of indigenous branches is a risky but ultimately powerful one. Ver Hoef has incorporated bark and twigs with painted images off and on for more than ten years, but never so ambitiously, nor in such an integral way as here. If they make us think of the stretched pelts or hides, they may also engender other apt and aged allusions to sails: not of modern craft, but the square sheets and rough masts of ancient mariners.
It is the ability to wake our imaginations in this way which makes art so vital to the human experience, connecting us to traditions which link us all. Very much a painter of our time, Mary Ver Hoef's ambitious horizons include not just Alaska, and not just the art of our day, but find sustenance in centuries of artistic connection between the northern landscape and the bounding human heart.
Like Edvard Munch and other Northern Symbolist painters at the turn of the current century, Ver Hoef uses the landscape as a way to say something not just about place but about the human spirit's linkage to that place. It is from such deep wells, not just the local landscape or the art of her own time, that Ver Hoef seeks to draw.