Meet the Artist: Mary Ann Aitken

Mary Ann Aitken was an extremely private artist, who rarely exhibited her work during her lifetime. Her close friend Ed Fraga, wrote a text on Aitken for the How to Remain Human catalog. This excerpt from Ed’s text is a beautiful introduction to Mary Ann and the life that she led: dedicated to her art and the people closest to her.

Honesty is a word that comes to mind when thinking about my friend, Mary Ann Aitken and her paintings. She was a woman of high moral character who lived modestly and unselfishly. How many artists today could resist showing their latest paintings after finishing them? Not true of Mary Ann. She spent her life creating beautiful works but rarely exhibited them until the end of her life. But her devotion to her art also extended to her work as an art therapist at Woodhull Hospital in Brooklyn, New York. For 22 years, she worked with patients in their substance abuse recovery. Many of her colleagues share similar stories of a compassionate clinician who worked tirelessly to better the lives of others.

I first met Mary Ann when we were in our twenties. It was 1983 and I was looking for a space to work in Detroit, having just graduated from art school. I found this building on the corner of Gratiot and Broadway called The Cary. Along with my friend Kathy Rashid, we convinced the landlord to rent studio spaces for us. A year later, Mary Ann quietly moved in. She liked her solitude and coveted her time in the studio. During the day, she worked at an art store near the Detroit Institute of Arts. We both got around without a car, which at the time didn't seem to be a problem. In fact it made it easier to see the city’s quirks and discover spaces unique to Detroit

Her studio practice remained private all the years I knew her. In the five years we lived in The Cary, she never talked about her process. I think in part because she was working out ideas and trying to master her skill as a painter. She was a harsh critic of her own work. Like most artists, she doubted herself. She didn't like the scrutiny art received when exposed to the public. For her, art was very personal and intimate, an interior exploration of self and the human psyche. I recall the smell of oil paint as I would pass by her door en route to the communal bathroom on the third floor. It wasn't until 1988 that she finally invited me to see her paintings. Later that year we were evicted after being told our residency in The Cary was illegal.

Mary Ann maintained a voracious drive to paint over the entire course of her short life. As her health began to fail in 2008 she kept up the pace, especially the last two years of her life. She juggled time between New York and Detroit, but it was the time spent at her family's summer cottage in Canada that gave her the most pleasure. She was surrounded by family and nature, her art books and a cold beer. Nothing could be better. Like the early paintings, the later works are layered with thick, encaustic surfaces but are different in the use of sand, shells, and shards of broken glass, all found on the beach. Into these paintings, she literally pours in the natural world around her.

Mary Ann's sister Maureen wrote a moving tribute titled In Memory of Mary Ann in 2012. In it she writes, "When Mary Ann found out she had cancer, the news was devastating. But Mary Ann did an amazing thing: spiritually, she became stronger. She felt you couldn't always influence what happened to you, but you could make meaning of what happened to you. She took great inspiration from the New York artist Cordula Volkening, who had terminal brain cancer, and gave Mary Ann this advice: the only way out of fear is to live in the moment and paint. That is what Mary Ann did. She lived every moment with even greater intensity. She said the people she loved and painting were all that mattered, and she focused her last years on these endeavors. She made meaning out of the experience. She painted more." 

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