Mary Sheldon Scott has been a long-time maker of dance in Seattle, but that isn’t her only artistic practice. In a studio tucked around the corner from her numerous positions at Cornish College, Scott has been quietly creating visual art for decades. A selection of that work is now open to public viewing for the first time.
Visual art has always been a part of Scott’s life. Her mother was an artist and she studied printmaking and drawing in college, but the collaborative and performative nature of dance naturally led to choreography becoming a public career, and painting becoming a private practice.
Cornish’s new Behnke Family Gallery opened its doors last fall, but Scott’s work comprises the first solo exhibition (June 9 – Aug 12). The light-filled corner of Boren Ave and Lenora St make a perfect backdrop for Scott’s colorful, large-scale paintings. Walking in, there’s an immediate sense of the organic. Some have literal (if imaginative) depictions of twisting vines and branching trees. Others feel like you’re looking through a microscope. Despite the clear influence of nature, the paintings are unbound to earthly colors. Vibrant reds, neon oranges, and metallic sparkles accent many works. In each, an undeniable sense of movement—a frenzied squiggly pathway or branching energy that extends beyond the canvas edges.
The presented works span 2015 to the present, but most are from the last few years. Scott met me at the gallery to talk about her works, her visual art practice, and how it relates to her choreographic process.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
How does it feel, being in a gallery full of your all your work?
I have to say it is so much fun. And unexpected. I suppose as a choreographer it would be like being on a stage or in a venue that you were never sure you’d be on.
How were the works chosen?
Bob Campbell, the curator, brought twice as many works over because he wanted to see them in the space—my studio is only two blocks away. He considered different arrangements of the paintings in the gallery and curated the exhibit.
Do you see a progression of techniques or an evolution of ideas as you look at this selection all together?
I can see where I was working on certain kinds of ideas or working with certain kinds of materials and then began to shift. And then there were always, of course, like with any art form, the surprises. The lucky accidents that show up and then you’ve got something that you have to spend the next few weeks or months or years trying to understand. Or trying to repeat and not being able to, but then new techniques and processes grow out of that.
Can you give me an example of a lucky accident?
They’re all essentially lucky accidents. When I start a new work I really just make a mess. This is the most kinesthetic part of my process—the body working with materials on larger surfaces. In this first phase I create a map that is also a puzzle. I then have to figure out how to pull what’s interesting out of this map through a kind of carving process. The last layer in my work becomes more of a decorative process as I try to emphasize contrasts of raw and refined energies that are in the work. The paintings in the exhibit were pulled from a much larger body of work, so in a sense their selection also makes them ‘lucky accidents’.
Did you feel like in the curation process that there were ones that were a favorite, but didn’t make it into the show?
Yes. There are certain pieces, some here and some in my studio, that are still talking to me. I’m still trying to figure them out….what worked and why. Some of my paintings still have a strong resonance for me and others are simply there on the canvas, no longer viscerally connected to me. I’m not trying to learn from them or be fed by them. When you transpose something, like when you make a dance for a certain stage, and then you take part of it and put it in a site specific context—that alters it. Well, in much that way this exhibit takes the paintings out of the setting in which I created and understand them and puts them onto a wall as an object, a finished work. I almost never think a painting is really finished, so in that sense I’m being faced with the reality that oh, right now in this particular moment in time, these paintings are done. And that’s a strange concept for me.
Do you feel like your process for making a painting is similar to your process for making a dance?
In painting I’m really drawn to the sense of movement inside the two dimensional space and that’s very much connected to being a choreographer. Also, the way in which I first put materials down opens a kinesthetic dialogue with the canvas, in part because I’m working on larger surfaces which involves greater physicality. Beyond that, I don’t really know how they’re similar for me.
In dance-making everything always came out of my body. I always choreographed everything. As I got older, and my facility started to alter, I had this amazing box of images and words from which I would create scripts. That gave the dancer something to work from that came from me, but which they would have to interpret. I feel that in my visual art, the ideas initially come out of the materials—how the materials behave. And that’s what I work with as I try to resolve a canvas—the residual map of the first phase of laying out materials on a two dimensional surface
Do you feel like the impulse to make dance and the impulse to make paintings is the same? Or are those bodies of work in conversation with one another?
My visual art used to be based in the human form, not in this more abstract territory referencing landscape. I think the human factor would have been a bridge as my dances were always about the body, whether it was me finding movement through my own body, or dealing with the amazing puzzle of working with how a specific dancer manifested choreographed material as we worked together to find that place where it started to resonate, to ‘speak’.
My visual art work is separate from the choreographic. In some ways I could never stand to watch my dances when they were finished, in part because they were still very attached to my body. And so anything that wasn’t quite right, you know, it’s agony. And then wanting to protect everyone who was manifesting the work out on stage. The visual works are on the wall. I find that a relief. They are no longer attached to me. So much can go wrong in live performance. The lights can go out or somebody can trip or miss a cue. The paintings do not have to re-define their reality in the same way a dance does every single night that it unfolds on stage.
What is it like to have an audience now? Does it feel like these are private?
I haven’t had that much feedback yet from people who don’t know me. That will come and that will be interesting. But at this point in time I can’t really say how it’s going to influence me. I’m glad that these works are getting seen. That feels really positive. I’m curious about how they will live and breathe outside of my own little world. Maybe that’ll be one of the outcomes of this, or maybe it will lead to other opportunities to share the work. I keep making it, so…
How long does it take to make a piece? And do you work on one until you’re done or multiple at a time?
I work on multiple visual pieces at one time. With dance I was always focused on a particular work. With my visual work, if I get stuck on one I can just leave it alone for a time and work on another. I like to move between paintings, because I think certain ways of processing a work are better served if you can allow time in. Dance would actually benefit from that, if you could get it to a certain point and then put it aside for a while and let it stew and brew. But you can’t really do that to performers. So I think often performance work goes from conception to stage in more linear time, whereas I can put a painting away for days or for years if I’m really stuck. That’s a real advantage. How much time does it take to understand how to go beyond what you’ve done or what you know?
It’s funny you bring it up because my collaborator Jenny Peterson and I just made a piece based on material we abandoned in 2014. And it was such a rich thing to look at—what we thought it meant when we were making it and what it means to us looking at it now. Given everything that’s happened in our lives, everything has happened socially, politically. And now we’re working on an evening length piece, so we’re going back to the thing we made recently and being like, after six months, what does it mean now? So there’s all these iterations, which is a really fascinating way to work.
I went through something similar during a period after my Mom died in 2017. I was looking at all the visual artwork she left behind. That’s one thing about a choreographer, they don’t leave a hell of a lot behind. But a visual artist leaves a lot behind unless you’re famous and people are collecting your work. Your family can take a few pieces, and maybe some friends, but then what do you do with the rest? My mom worked small. I go back to my studio and I work on a larger scale and I’ve got as much work as she did. So I went through everything I had, every single piece of paper or canvas, and tried to really look at all the unfinished works to see if they resonated, if I could finish them instead of starting something new. I went through a period where rather then starting new work I tried to really respond to work that didn’t get finished or that I was not that satisfied with to see if could push it through. I love that idea of revisiting older work or ideas that still speak to you. I love that question: What did you do 10 or 20 years ago still talks to you?
Yes. Or I end up in this pattern where I think I’m making something new. And then I’m like, Oh, this is the same piece. I thought it was new but now I see how it relates very directly to this other thing that I’ve made previously.
If you look at many art forms, especially visual art, they’re working with thematic territories that they explore over and over again. For example, an artist might paint ‘the seasonal garden’ for years. In visual art that’s perfectly acceptable. I think dance doesn’t unfold that way as much.
I mean if you talk to anyone about Mark Morris the first thing they say is Oh he’s examining the music, right? So I think people have their shticks maybe.
We all have our shticks a little bit. It’s hard if you’re repeating something not to have it become a kind of shtick. Or perhaps more respectfully like a marker. I think that’s the word.
Yes, markers. Maybe shtick is a little too demeaning. Do you feel like you have markers in your work?
My glitter glue period! That’s a marker. Using the sumi-e ink.
Show me! I don’t know anything about visual art.
This is sumi-e ink, this black material. And if you take it with a fairly dry brush, because you want it still to have little stiff bristles, and you drag it down over a textured subsurface, it separates. This is one of the happy accidents—the ways in which it provided all that detail. I did the stroke, and I kind of knew how it would behave in a general sense, but you never know what it’s going to do specifically. So to me that’s the magic of materials. You might not be able control it fully, but you can at least frame it towards the direction you want. It’s informed accident, conscious accident, but there was no way I knew exactly what the ink was going to do at each specific place of interaction.
Is it a little bit like putting an improvisational section into a dance work, like a score?
Yes, it would be because hopefully you’ve chosen your performers in such a way and the material is clear enough, and interesting enough and framed enough that it will behave a certain way.
Do you sell your paintings?
Yes, minimally. I’ve been getting more and more serious about painting over decades, but becoming more public in my practice hit the window of COVID. This show is a surprise coming out of that because I’d sort of thought well, that time has passed. To me, one question COVID raised for artists is: what does it mean to make art if there are no outcomes? I think all mediums faced this question. I came to the point of view that for my life to have the kind of meaning in it that we get as creators, I would do it no matter what. That’s very freeing because you’re not looking for any form of outside approval, you’re simply engaged. And I think that’s a healthy place to be in in relationship to your work. It’s simply a conversation between you and the process that you’re engaged in.
What would you say to artists who might be interested in changing genres or getting into a new form?
If it’s pulling you, don’t stop yourself before you spend a lot of time with it. It took me years, decades, to feel that the visual work was coming up to a place where it was starting to feel a certain way to me. I think choreographically I was on stages way before that. In Seattle with 12 Minutes Max, and all the opportunities that support early and emerging artists, one gets to test their work out. I didn’t engage in that way in the visual realm. It was just my own voice going This isn’t strong enough yet. So it took a long, long time for the work to evolve. We should be deeply interested in the work we are doing. Not necessarily day to day, hour to hour, but I think most artists, no matter what form they’re in, are over and over again pulled into a place of deep interest and engagement in the creative process.
Mary Sheldon Scott’s works can be viewed at The Behnke Family Gallery at Cornish until August 12, 2023. The gallery is open Thursdays and Fridays from noon to 7pm, and Saturdays from noon to 6pm. 1077 Lenora Street, Seattle, WA.