Most of us have had the experience during an evening walk of catching glimpses of people’s lives through lit windows. This is the psychological enticement of Mary Welsh’s collages, on exhibit at Brattleboro Museum & Art Center.
But the world of the Williamsville artist, of cut paper adhered to board, is one you haven’t encountered.
Sometimes we find ourselves inside a house with furniture, objects placed about the rooms, a set piece from which we look out through windows. Sometimes we are outside looking in.
But nothing is as we know it.
More often, inside/outside is a fluid thing, as in “Water Music,” in which a pond covered with lily pads makes up the floor; or “A Room with a View II,” in which the ocean is seen out the window but also laps at the furniture. Bathers cavort in the surf indoors.
In “Hardscrabble Farm,” the walls are made up of a Grandma Moses print; the roof has autumn leaves floating on water. Next to the house, a large barn dwarfs the house. The scale is out of kilter; sheep and a rooster crowd up against the barn’s windows and door.
All these distortions have a slightly disquieting effect, which is not necessarily Welsh’s aim. She eschews any attempt to attach to the imagery her dreams, fantasies, or phobias.
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When we met up in the museum’s small gallery at the far end of the building, I was determined to bring out the Freudian knots, nightmares, or “herstories” lurking behind her large blue eyes, under her mop of marvelously unruly white hair.
But, in fact, Mary Welsh has one of the sunniest dispositions I have had the pleasure to encounter.
“I like to break down components and put them back together in a way that makes people think about them again,” Welsh says. “I do it without thought — at least any conscious thought — and then people see things in it. It’s so interesting how people interpret them.”
This, it seems to me, is where the power of Welsh’s art — and its charm — lies. Without an agenda, as it were, viewers are free to bring themselves to the picture, to let their own imaginations roam.
Welsh described how this lifelong artistic pursuit started: with her and her artist husband, Roger Sandes, taking a journey.
“I was quite young,” she recalls. “When Roger inherited some money, we decided to quit our jobs and travel around Europe. For over a year we did this, going to many museums.
“We ended up renting an apartment in Mougins, France (where, it happened, Pablo Picasso lived in his later years). Roger was making his art. I had no art training and was bored. But there were all these great French tourist posters around. I loved them and wanted to use them somehow. I found the architecture of southern France so inspiring.
“Finally, I started cutting them up and making collages from them. Those were the beginnings. I only have one left, but my first works were of French city streets.”
The structure that the pictures are built around — in the BMAC show, mostly country manors and gingerbread-style houses — is the only element that is not collaged from found images. They are, Welsh explains, based on houses that she has seen, that she has sometimes photographed, or that come purely from her imagination. She draws them and outlines them in India ink on white card stock, which she then lays over the collaged sky, background, and middle ground.
One ingredient becomes pre-determined.
An avid gardener, Welsh explained, “Once you start you choose the time of year, the vegetation — trees, flowers, shrubbery — has to reflect that.”
One piece in the show, “Sunday Afternoon,” exults in flowers, trees — they fill the house. In the center is a large pansy, its magenta petals almost spilling out the doorway.
One of the few collages for which Welsh expressed a beginning concept was “Arcadia.” The house itself is based on one she had seen in England.
“I thought it would be fun to make a house out of the people [who] make the whole thing function,” she recalls.
For British country manors, that was many. Figures are painting or plastering the walls; others are haying. An aristocratic gentleman on horseback, taken from a George Stubbs painting, seems to oversee everything. These figures make up the exterior walls of the house.
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As Welsh and I look at several pieces together, it becomes clear that her choices of what to put into her collages is based on objects she loves, often objects that might have been in a home decades or even centuries earlier.
The vintage objects have a “distinctive visual impact,” she says.
She points to an old manual typewriter in “Love in the Afternoon” and delights in telling me the story of a child who was intrigued by such a typewriter in another of her pieces and begged her mother to get one like it for her. The mother did so. The girl, now grown, has become a writer, she says — and uses the vintage manual typewriter that was inspired by the collage.
The artist organizes her cut-out material by grouping them as “landscape,” “furniture,” “animals,” solid colors, and the like.
One of Welsh’s concerns is running out of printed matter to cut up — especially pictures of the vintage bathtubs, beds, phones, and typewriters.
“I just can’t see myself wanting to cut out an iPad for a collage,” she says.
Welsh adds that she loves to incorporate folk art, and she points to the Elie Nadelman wood sculptures that are featured in several of her works, including “Love in the Afternoon.”
A couple stands to the side in this scene. The figures, dressed in their finest, are carved with elegant smooth lines; in “Distant Thunder,” a Nadelman figure emerges from a bathtub. The female form is almost abstract in its refined simplicity, a counterpoint to the objects around her.
Both Welsh and Sandes have something of a Baroque-meets-folk sensibility. Sandes makes frames for his wife’s collages of wood painted with simple patterns (their designs unique and selected by Welsh). They go perfectly with her work.
Near the end of my conversation with Welsh, I pressed her once more about the disjunctive imagery — still hoping to plumb some depths of psychic darkness, I guess.
“If I didn’t do that, if I just made a recognizable scene, anyone could do it,” she said, affirming that the collages are personal statements by virtue of choices she makes.
Her removing objects from their typical context leave the artwork open for us to decipher as we wish, or to just enjoy the disruption to our usual perception.
And Welsh has given the gift of loosening the tried-and-not-necessarily-so-true associations, finding perhaps a truer and more poetic vision.