As we said last week, Mara Clawson is a young artist whose work has been widely exhibited, and she has received national awards. She owns her own business, When the Colors Get AlongTM. Mara also has Familial Disautonomia, a rare genetic disease of the sensory and autonomic nervous system. 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: There was a drawing I wanted to ask about – it’s an older one. Yochevet? Is that a self-portrait?
Michelle: [Corrects Stephania’s pronunciation.] Mara, can you tell the story of Yochevet?
Mara: A long time ago I [drew]… a portrait of a tear [shaped] Yochevet. I thought it was not good and I crumpled it … but weeks or months later Mom noticed it in my backpack and I said, “That’s Moses’ mother” and Mom was surprised.
Yochevet, Mara Clawson, 2004
Michelle: I found a crumpled piece of paper in her backpack and opened it up, flattened it and that’s what it was. And we were kind of in shock. If you look at the color pastel of Yochevet, and this time she didn’t say Yochevet, she said, ‘That’s Moses’ mother’ – that was pretty powerful. You can see the color version online – it has a sort of baby Moses floating down the river in front of her.
Stephania: I just thought the face was stunning. Obviously the eyes were large, but it was so expressive! I was particularly impressed with that one, particularly since you were pretty young when you did that one.
Mara: Yes, I was 12, before I had my bat mitzvah.
Stephania: I wanted to ask about another piece – “Spring of Sunflowers” – were you thinking at all of Van Gogh?
Mara: I work from my own imagination, I try and make originals! People told me that my art looks like Van Gogh. So my parents showed me the Internet about Van Gogh. Even though people thought the style look similar it’s different from my own work.
Stephania: I thought you might be trying to copy Van Gogh.
Spring of Sunflowers, Mara Clawson, 2016
Mara: Of course not – that’s cheating! And besides, my family friend knows my designs besides Van Gogh and she says it’s the mark making … that looks similar. Because I went over and over and over to get the color.
Stephania: “Statue of Tears” – I wanted to ask what was the meaning of that one? What was behind it?
Mara: That’s from Arts Enables… It’s an angel statue. I usually try to draw living things, but this time I decided to do an angel.
Stephania: Why was the angel crying?
Mara: It cries when it’s raining outside. Also, sometimes I draw tears because I never have tears of my own because I have dry eyes. I take eye drops to make tears.
Statue of Tears, Mara Clawson, 2017
Stephania: So that’s why you like to draw tears, then?
Mara: Yes. I’ve never had tears in my life. Because I have FD since birth. Familial Dysautonomia.
Michelle: So your autonomic nervous system is not well developed and not well regulated. You can have problems with your heart rate, your breathing rate, your temperature regulation, your blood pressure. When you stand up, to keep your blood from pooling in your legs, your blood vessels should constrict, but they don’t with FD, and so your blood pressure can go too low or can overshoot and end up dangerously high. But she does her best with this positive attitude that you always have and this great smile. She just fights on through it.
Mara: It’s like my emotion battles whatever I have.
Stephania: Shifting gears a bit, one of the articles I read about you said that you are a public speaker. What things do you like to talk about?
Mara: About life, love. Or nature.
Stephania: When you talk about nature, do you like to focus on endangered species and environmental issues?
Mara: Yes. I do whatever I can to help life, and help the world wherever I can, so the world won’t tear [itself] apart. I did a polar bear. I heard the North Pole is melting and also that polar bears are endangered.
The reason why the North Pole has problems is because what mankind is making so far, and because so many people love and are eating meats. Me and my family are eating healthy foods like plant burgers. We are doing whatever we can… Plus I want to have snow again. I was born in January.
Breck: There’s one with snow, “Walking in the Winter Weather Day.”
Michelle: That is an oil pastel. She didn’t do oil pastels until 2015 when we bought her oil pastels which she said are like butter, and suddenly all these pictures came out!
Breck: It’s interesting how with different media different things come out.
Michelle: I say to others, “Buy the expensive art supplies early because it is like a different experience.”
Breck: Yes, I tell my students that, too. “Don’t try to save money on your paints because they have less pigment in them.”
Walking in the Winter Weather Day, Mara Clawson 2015
Stephania: Can you tell me about your iPad classes that you’re teaching? I presume you are doing them by Zoom right now? Who attends?
Michelle: Mara's helpers do all of the Zoom technology, camera setup, etc. All of her classes have been to a community where students have some sort of disability. This includes adults with aphasia, adults with other disabilities, and a camp for kids with learning disabilities.
Stephania: What do you do in an average class?
Mara: [When] I teach in a Main Street Zoom³, I draw a fast iPad bird and then I show them how to draw it.
Stephania: What do you hope people feel when they experience your paintings?
Mara: Whatever design they like, whatever they like to draw, whatever they dream of, feel happier or sad or whatever they feel, whatever helps their life being. Because I want to help the world.
Stephania: That’s interesting, Mara, when you say whatever they feel like being, because maybe if they want to feel sad looking at your painting, and that’s a good thing, too.
Mara: Like my “Searching for Home” painting, the homeless girl has tears of her own, too.
Searching for Home, Mara Clawson, 2015
Stephania: I’ve asked about what you like about making art. What do you like about being an artist? What’s good about being an artist?
Mara: I love the colors to mix. I love to do it freely and have fun. My mind [is]… so focused.
Stephania: What do you hope for your future as an artist?
Mara: To keep moving forward. To show what colors are made of. And I love to help people and to make people happy with my art. Wherever people like to help me, I let them, and they let me know when I can help.
Stephania: So do you want to take any kind of classes when you say people might help, or do you want to help others?
Mara: Both. It’s like teamwork when you help each other, not just yourself. I never had someone teach me, I taught myself.
Breck: You know, you did a painting called “Green Meadows” that has a deer in it? [It] has the deer’s face looking at us, facing viewer, and [therefore] it looks like its nose is coming forward. That’s a difficult thing to do. You did a good job on that.
Mara: Thank you. I looked very hard to do the shape before I drew on the paper.
Michelle: The inspiration for it was there was one deer that looked us straight in the eye out behind our house, right? When the tiger lilies come out, the candy store is open for the deer!
Stephania: So how did you draw the deer face?
Mara: I drew it from memory because I used to watch “Bambi!”
Green Meadows, Mara Clawson, 2019
Stephania: Thinking both as a successful artist with your own business and as a teacher, what would you say to a young person (say in high school) who desperately wanted to become an artist?
Mara: Don’t be like me. Be who you are, whatever your imagination, or you follow your heart to whatever you like to draw. Don’t give up just do what you like to do; my parents never give up so I can spread my wings…
Stephania: I’m finished with my questions. Do you have anything you’d like to ask Breck?
Mara to Breck: What art styles do you teach in class?
Breck: I have them work from life. I try not to teach a style. I try to let them have their own style.
Mara: Just give them hints, that’s good. At least you don’t give them too much information, just [let them] do what they like.
Breck: Yes, I try to give them hints to help them draw what they see, but I try to let them have their own style.
3. Main Street: Mara is referring to Main Street Connect, an inclusive affordable housing apartment complex and community center (in Rockville, MD) where 25% of the building’s units are set aside for adults with disabilities. It is a community that values and celebrates people of all abilities.