We recently had the pleasure of chatting with Mara Clawson, a young and prolific artist from Maryland. According to her bio, Mara’s work has been exhibited in six museums and 15 galleries across the United States. She was the winner of the VSA/Kennedy Center Emerging Young Artists with Disabilities Award for her video, To Survive. Mara is also the subject of the documentary film, Living Art by David Rochkind of Ground Media, which premiered in six cities as part of the 2019-2020 ReelAbilities Film Festivals and other screenings in Chicago and Minneapolis. Mara not only creates art, she owns her own business, When Colors Get AlongTM, teaches iPad drawing classes, and is a public speaker.
Mara has Familial Dysautonomia (FD), a rare genetic disease of the sensory and autonomic nervous systems. It results in poorly controlled blood pressure, heart rate, temperature regulation, and interestingly, the inability to produce tears. This last has figured strongly in Mara’s work. Mara herself is a delightful, ingenuous, and caring person. Breck, Mara, her mother Michelle, and I had a lovely conversation one Sunday in January 2021.
Artist Mara Clawson
Stephania: I guess I’ll begin by asking a classic question: why do you enjoy making art?
Mara: Ever since I was 11 and … I didn’t know what to do, and they offered me charcoal pastels and said draw anything you want so I drew a bowling ball with pins knocking down. And because I love mixing colors – it makes me who I am.
Breck: It feels good, doesn’t it? Especially during the pandemic, because it’s something you can do inside. It’s kind of a relief – sometimes I feel so cooped up inside. It feels good to do artwork anyway but especially now it gives you something to do indoors. It keeps you from being bored! Do you like doing drawing?
Breck: I could tell, in your work.
Mara: I draw landscapes, portraits, people, food. I just finished one of a compass.
Breck: I saw one on your website called “Making Tastes” – you did that one in 2020, right?
Making Tastes, Mara Clawson, 2020
Michelle: You know, Mara titles all of them, and I’m always amazed by her names. They’re often “ing” –action words. “Making Tastes,” that’s the one with the chef’s hat on, right? You sold that one in Houston, didn’t you?”
Mara: Yes, that’s in oil pastels.
Michelle: I think that was January 2020 because it showed in Houston in February 2020, so it was pre-pandemic.
Breck: I haven’t had a chance to show my pandemic artwork, either.
Stephania: How old were you when you first began making art?
Mara: With my doodle things I was only 3 but shapes and things I began to make when I was 11.
Stephania: What mediums do you prefer to use?
Mara: Soft pastels, because I started when I was a child. But later when I was in Arts Enables¹ I worked with oil pastels and learned I could mix it better so I’m very happy to do oil pastels, too. I also do ceramics with VisArts sometimes.² I also do acrylics [painting] at Arts Enables.
Stephania: Do you prefer working with pastels or your iPad?
Breck: Yes, I saw where you use Procreate in the digital art. Some of my students use it and they like it. Do you like Procreate?
Mara: Well, Procreate not very messy in your hands and you can do whatever you want. It’s like having an art store in your fingertips. There are jillions and jillions of colors - whatever color goes together.
Stephania: Where do you get inspiration from the most? Are you getting it from things you see in the outside world, maybe walking around outside? Maybe not right now, during the pandemic!
Mara: From reality!
Stephania: I didn’t know if you maybe got it from watching TV or reading magazines or things like that, because I noticed you did one of a pangolin, which I loved.
Mara: That’s from a newspaper.
Make Way for Pangolin, Mara Clawson, 2016
Stephania: Ahhh! I never knew what a pangolin looked like or even heard of one until the pandemic started.
Mara: It’s one of those endangered species. I wanted to help these poor creatures. And I like to paint what things I remember that I watch… But it’s not gonna pop out like a firecracker, I have to think about it; sometimes just think about it.
Stephania: How do you decide when a painting is finished?
Mara: I guess when the picture makes sense. When it makes sense, with the colors [especially]. When the colors get along. That’s where I got my website name.
Stephania: Do you ever work outside? I was thinking some of your plants and birds were so lovely I didn’t know if you were actually outside looking at them.
Mara: Sometimes. Some are from my imagination. And some of my landscapes are from online [photos] and I use the pictures to make a landscape.
Stephania: Tell us a little more about what’s different working on an iPad vs. working with pastels on paper.
Mara: The iPad is brighter and the colors are more vivid. Working with [soft] pastels I am using my hands and I can mix colors; I use my fingers. With oil pastels, I color over and over until it makes sense.
Breck: I like the feel of putting the paint on the paper. Do you like that, too?
Mara: I like every kind of design of paper, [pastels], or pencil I use. It feels good, whatever I mix on paper.
Breck: The digital painting you did of Natasha, the dog – that was very nice.
Natasha, Mara Clawson, 2018
Stephania: Was that a commissioned piece?
Mara: No. I volunteered. My best friend lost her dog, so I decided to draw a portrait of their French bulldog to show how Natasha missed her, too.
Stephania: I read online that sometimes you do commissioned work?
Mara: Yes, sometimes – like my friend Carol has been everywhere and since the pandemic she can’t go to Hawaii, so her husband Jerry asked [me] to do a landscape for her, full of memories, to make of her favorite beach. It’s for her 70th birthday.
Stephania: So landscapes are part of the commissioned work you do? Do you also do pet portraits or people portraits? It looks like online some of your portraits might be, but I didn’t know if you did those commissioned.
Mara: Some are commissioned. Like my friend’s grandma who died. They asked me to do a portrait – it was the first portrait I did. It has no color in the skin, but it does have her shape and her “real-life person.” When we took it to their house they loved it. It looks like their lovable bubbie was standing right there.
Ruth, Mara Clawson, 2016
Breck: Is that the one online that is titled, “Ruth?”
1. According to their website, “Art Enables is an art gallery and vocational arts program [in Washington DC] dedicated to creating opportunities for artists with disabilities to make, market, and earn income from their original and compelling artwork. In addition to earning income from art sales, artists build the skills, relationships, and experience necessary for a successful career in the arts. We offer our artists the creative space, materials, and marketing support they need to develop and succeed as professionals.”
2. VisArts is a nonprofit organization in Rockville, MD whose mission is “to transform individuals and communities through the visual arts.” Mara was referring to the VisAbility Artlab at VisArts, which is “a supported studio art program for emerging adult artists with intellectual and developmental disabilities seeking to launch a successful career in the arts.”
Part 2 next week.