By Megan Swoyer
After artist Marceline Mason graduated from West Virginia University with a degree in art, one of her professors suggested she should apply to graduate school.
“He said to try to get accepted into one of the schools that are ranked in the top 10 in the country, so I applied to Cranbrook Academy of Art as well as some other schools,” Mason recalls. She was accepted at Cranbrook, in Bloomfield Hills, which led to a move from rural West Virginia to Michigan.
About a year ago she graduated with a Masters of Fine Arts in painting from the renowned art school, and has since found a home/studio for herself and her four cats (Damien, Harvey, Bubbles, and Baby) in Hamtramck.
Living in Detroit has transformed Mason’s body of work, which was evident as she talked about her recent show at the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center in Birmingham, which featured paintings depicting abandoned and lived-in houses around Detroit. Fascinated with neighborhoods and communities, the artist conveys the very soul of the homes she paints through studied brushwork and a unique color palette.
“I grew up in West Virginia, in the country. I had one neighbor,” she says. “Now that I live in a city, I see so many personalities and nuances of houses and neighborhoods — and I see colors that I didn’t grow up with.”
Built decades ago, many of the homes she paints have dilapidated front porches, overgrown flowering shrubs, antiquated trim, weathered adornments, and uneven steps. She’s especially attracted to decorative wrought iron. “I love those old, funky iron things (that go up the side of a porch or entryway); they’re kind of feminine.
“I see the houses when I’m running,” continues Mason, who says she’s quick to slow her pace and take a snapshot of whatever calls out to her — and might later inspire a painting. She admits that sometimes, she’ll paint on-site. “When my car broke down recently, I took it to my favorite mechanic in Royal Oak. While he was working on the car for four hours, I painted in a nearby cemetery.” Using dusty whites, pinky-browns, light-lavenders, khaki- and gold-greens, earthy siennas, and strokes of unexpected pastels, Mason encourages the viewer to absorb her somewhat muted world.
Her works are exact, but they’re not; that is, they’re architecturally accurate and right-on with regard to perspective, yet the dominant feature is the mood that’s immediately felt when looking at Mason’s art. If one were to look at photographs of the homes, the mood would be as evasive as a ghost who may or may not dwell in the empty abodes. The feeling, Mason says, is dependent upon her choices of color, value, and unique angles.
Speaking of accuracy, the artist says, “classical realism is totally perfect,” and although she certainly appreciates the work that goes into a detailed style as well as photorealism, “I prefer 19th-century academic realism, where there’s something that almost looks real, but there’s an emotional and personal feel to it, as well.” You sense that when observing her paintings; each of the homes seems to tug at the past, and you wonder: Who lived in this home and sat in that chair on the porch? Did kids get off a school bus nearby and walk up these steps daily, holding the wrought iron railing? Was the overgrown rose bush that still blooms the pride and joy of its owner, who may no longer be on this earth? Mason likens her detailed-but-not-overly-painted approach to renowned artists John Singer Sargent and Mary Cassatt. “They’re detailed in their, say, faces, and they have the light exact, but there’s a mess of brush strokes that brings emotion to the piece. In painting, if you get too detailed, it feels like you’re squeezing it to death. What I set out to accomplish is done by a leap of faith, and then deciding if it’s good enough or not.”
Beyond houses, Mason paints landscapes, interiors, figures, and animals. She’s shown her works at the Detroit Artists Market and the Scarab Club in Detroit, in addition to The Hatch Gallery in Hamtramck and the Black Box Gallery in Dearborn. Currently, some of her work is on display at the Honigman Business Law Firm in Detroit. “I’m split between oil and graphite,” Mason says, adding that she has a whole body of work that’s in graphite on paper or clayboard, mostly of forest scenes or interiors of houses. Often, she’ll coat a finished painting with a flat matte varnish or a shiny gloss varnish, which provides a beautiful sheen. “I like both, but sometimes I like the reflection on the gloss varnish to add an extra layer of atmosphere to the work; atmosphere is what drives my work.” When not working on her own art, Mason is a part-time art teacher for Art Road, a nonprofit organization that brings art classes to schools (K-8) that have dropped their art programs.
Mason says a lot of what goes into creating a good painting is intuitive, kind of like her path to become an artist. “My first memory of drawing was trying to sketch a hand but not having the motor skills yet, so it was a really crazy hand,” she says with a laugh. Fast-forward and she’s in college with a dual major: biology and art. “I couldn’t sense how I’d have a career in art, but then, halfway through college, I wanted just art. It felt right.”
See more at marcelinemason.com.
This article was originally published in the December 2018-January 2019 issue of Detroit Home magazine.