Colorado-born artist, Mary Lou Blackledge first started out in her painting career, she had a simple goal—to gain a better understanding of the physical world around her by painting what she saw. To Blackledge, if you saw a beautiful tree-lined street that you enjoyed looking at, you painted it. If you saw an animal that made you smile, you might paint that too. But as I stroll through the space that is both the home and studio of Blackledge, I notice a marked change from her early works of paintings replicating the physical world. As I wind my way up her home’s spiral wooden stairwell, toward her white, light-filled studio, I find paintings not of physical beings or of objects, but of images that stem from the deepest pools of the imagination.
I have set up an interview with Blackledge at her home studio in hopes of satiating my thirst to discover local art trends occurring in Colorado, but as we tour her space, dotted with large, whimsical canvasses bursting with color and imagery unique to the beholder, Blackledge confides that she is still discovering trends in art herself. It is evident from her current and inspiring works that push the boundaries of the imagination, a departure from her earlier, more traditional paintings, replicas of the physical world, that both the landscape of art in Colorado and Blackledge’s art, are continuously evolving.
With a background in drawing and draftsmanship, Blackledge began her painting career in France while teaching at a college for electrical engineers. Inspired by the buttery light France is famous for and that is celebrated by artists old and new, Blackledge did what most traditional artists do—she painted what she saw. Then, portraitures, street scenes and animals were her favorite subjects, and when she moved back to Colorado, she held on to that traditional style. For a while anyway.
“When I returned to Colorado I continued to paint the land here, that I grew up in,” said Blackledge. “I was becoming more and more interested in how color could communicate form and content, and slowly, my landscapes were becoming more and more abstract.”
It wasn’t until 2001, when a particular invitation was extended to Blackledge to exhibit her art at a local, evocatively titled art show called ‘Windows to the Divine’, that the nature of her work began to evolve. But along with that invitation, came reservations. How could an artist so accustomed to painting the physical characteristics of life, begin to paint the unknown?
“I determined that I could not just submit a landscape to a show that had that kind of title,” said Blackledge. “I began to paint in a much more abstract form that had no real figurative content whatsoever. It was at that moment I began to source my work from my own imagination, rather than what I saw around me in the physical world.”
For the ‘Windows to the Divine’ exhibit, Blackledge painted three paintings—all more subjective, colorful, and optimistic than she had produced ever before. “This was the beginning of very experimental works for me that I then began to develop and work on for the next 10 years,” said Blackledge. “I became very interested in how the human imagination can pollinate our work in any field and how each one of us can be more creative, the more we learn to use our imagination. It became clear to me that this would become a very interesting experiment.”
Believing that the human imagination, like every function of the body, needs to be active to be truly effective, Blackledge began creating works that both draw viewers in and that foster active participation by the viewer by forcing them to use their imagination to interpret the painting. “My approach to this is twofold; I invite people into my work by creating vibrant, colorful abstract compositions. Within these compositions I embed imagery that is suggestive of figures, animals, landscapes— all which are elements of a hidden story within the painting. So, first you are drawn in through the color, then your imagination gets switched on. It’s fascinating to me to see how many different images people see in my work, that even I have never seen.”
Blackledge believes the human imagination is the most powerful tool human beings possess and that people should take the time to daydream, despite today’s sometimes hectic pace of life. “The human imagination is the real powerhouse behind our creativity. When the human brain engages itself in an imaginative way, we can find new solutions to old problems. I think the human race is ready and hoping for new solutions in every field of work and life.”
Along with more experimental subject matter, Blackledge began naming her works of art with more thoughtfulness than ever before, providing a jumping off point for her viewers to understand her paintings.
“When I name my paintings, I want to give the viewer a literary guide to the visual elements within the painting,” said Blackledge. “For me, the title is a very important part of the painting. It’s almost like the preface to a novel.”
One of her recent works, entitled Dancing on the Edge of the World, appears to feature a main figure of a woman dancing on a hemispheric shape, surrounded by other images who appear to be observing her. “This painting has elements from many cultures: Chinese folklore, the London skyline, a Chinese gymnast, animals, and several figures who are dancing and creating their own story within the painting,” said Blackledge. “To me, naming this painting, Dancing on the Edge of the World, is a jumping off place for a viewer to make their own interpretation of what this painting is about.”
Another unique attribute of Blackledge’s works is her intentional omission of any sort of rough draft or pre-sketch with her paintings. “I recently sold a painting called Stepping into the Void which is the essence of a creative act—when you begin a painting without a concept already in your head, you are essentially stepping into the void,” said Blackledge. “People do this all of the time. If you are a scientist trying to discover new therapies for illness or anyone that’s trying to find a new solution to an old problem.”
Blackledge sources her artistic inspiration from one main medium, color. “I experiment actively with what I call ‘color harmonics’,” said Blackledge. “Color has frequency like every organic thing on the face of the earth. I tune into the frequencies of color. I strive to create a palette of colors that will excite each other, stimulate each other, and I try to create a high level color harmony in each painting.” Blackledge’s painting process begins with selecting colors she feels are exciting and that will play well together. “I don’t do any pre-conceptual drawings, I work strictly with color, form, texture and marks [brush strokes],” said Blackledge. “Then, I usually do an underpainting to warm up the canvas—typically a color I believe will later emerge. Sort of the back story of the painting. Then I add texture, then I add more—I keep working over it until I feel that the story has been told.”
Locally, Blackledge has noticed several art trends in Colorado, and believes the genre of art is constantly evolving. “I think the Colorado art scene is very exciting right now. There’s a trend toward blending traditional elements with more modernistic elements within the same room, in the same home. Even mountain homes are beginning to feature more contemporary artwork,” said Blackledge. By blending art into a traditional setting, spice and flair is added into the home, making art one of the most expressive forms of home decor. “I think it’s exciting when people purchase art that excites them, not because it’s a certain style. Art is really the soul of the furnishings of a home. That’s where the personality of the people that live in the home shines through.”
Blackledge is passionate about Denver’s burgeoning art scene and exhibits her art locally at Denver’s Arts District on Santa Fe. Blackledge is a firm believer that the Arts District on Santa Fe is a huge benefit to Colorado, helping to put the state on the map nationally as a center for the arts. “An area like the Arts District on Santa Fe is instrumental for artists looking to work in a collaborative space. There are a lot of serious people looking to buy art, people just out enjoying art—whatever your intentions, the district serves as the creative heartbeat to this city,” says Blackledge.
For those new to collecting art, Blackledge offers straightforward advice when it comes to collecting. “Like any endeavor I think you want to inform yourself, expose yourself to as much art as you can, and you will begin to find that you are drawn to certain types of work. The experience of visiting galleries is educational, and is a good way to experience the artistic side of our community.”
No matter what one’s experience with, or level of interest in art may be, Blackledge’s personal story demonstrates that art is indeed evolving and that there is no wrong way to interpret art when it comes to the imagination.