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Artist Interview – MaryLea Harris

MaryLea Harris is a creative wonder woman. In addition to being a fine artist and previously a teacher, she ran a creative art blog, Pink & Green Mama, for seven years. The art projects she created for children and shared through her blog are used by parents, teachers, and are the basis for the art curriculum used for most home schooled students. She recently transitioned to pursuing her fine art career full time. I became friends with her during this transition and it’s been an honor to witness her journey. If you are not an artist you may not realize how difficult is to put your artwork out into the world. It’s a little like taking your clothes off in front of someone else, you feel vulnerable and exposed. Even though MaryLea has been so creatively successful, it was still hard for her to transition her career and call herself an artist (even with a Masters degree in fine art!!!!).

I hope you enjoy learning a little bit more about MaryLea in this interview with her. She’s been diligently painting to create her first body of work since leaving her art blog and we’re lucky enough to have some photos of her studio and artwork.

MaryLea Harris Painting

CS: When did you first discover you were an artist?

MH: I can’t remember a time when I didn’t consider myself an artist. My parents always encouraged me to make art; my mom is a watercolorist and my dad loved theatre design, cooking, and painting. As I child, I was always drawing, building dioramas, making my own toys, sewing, sculpting with clay, and illustrating my own books. I guess I’m the opposite of that Pablo Picasso quote about “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” I took every art class I could in high school then I majored in Studio Art and Art History in college and made sure I picked a job where I could still be an artist when I grew up. For a while that was as a public school art teacher, then I went back to school and got my MFA. I raised two daughters and kept a beautiful home and garden and they were my creative work focus. Then, I started blogging professionally as a children’s arts and crafts blogger and self published 10 books filled with art curriculum for other parents, caregivers, and teachers to use with their own children. Now I spend my days in my art studio painting and creating with various mixed media projects. Despite all of that, it has taken me a long time as an adult to call myself an “Artist” while filling out forms at doctor’s offices or when meeting other adults for the first time when they ask the inevitable “what do you do?” question.

Marylea Harris Studio

CS: What is your process? Do you have a plan before you start working on a piece?

MH: I do try to have a plan — my works seems to turn out better when I do. I keep several sketch books going with ideas, colors, and drawings. The size and shape of the canvas help dictate what I’m going to make. I’m having fun playing with smaller square canvases right now for my “Happy Little Trees” and “Happy Little Leaves” series. I prep each canvas with a layer of Modeling Paste applied with palette knives to create a textured background – it’s like frosting a big square cake. Then, after it has dried overnight I think about color schemes or palettes I want to explore and start layering colors. When that colorful layer dries, I go back into the painting and use white and cream paint to explore positive and negative space, which is how my trees and leaves develop. It’s so fun and I never know exactly how the painting is going to turn out. I love the surprise as it reveals itself to me at the end.

CS: You call your tree inspired work treescapes. How and why did you start painting trees?

MH: I grew up in a neighborhood called Bellevue Forest, a community know for its surrounding oak, tulip poplar, sugar gum maple, cherry, and beech trees. My home and studio are also surrounded by woods and open fields. These pastoral and arboreal environments have had a tremendous impact on my work.

I focus on trees in my painting and consider my subject matter to be treescapes as opposed to landscapes in the traditional sense. I regard them as hybrids: a process using tree sketches and photos combined with brightly colored backgrounds created by layering paint and scraping it with those fake plastic credit cards that come in the mail. These cards are wonderful tools not only for scraping paint but also serve as an ironic reminder of our consumer-driven society and how quickly we replace nature with man-made materials.

My treescapes have three visual components that connect them: calling attention to detail by showing natural subject matter in its still state, flattening the image into a silhouette, and introducing fluid lines. As a former printmaker, I admire and am influenced by Japanese Ukyo-e (woodblock) prints for their large flat areas of color and their use of bold outlines. These prints were most prolific during the early 1600s through the late 1800s and capture nature in its still state while emphasizing beauty. I flattened my trees into simplified silhouettes and used contrasting color fields to achieve this look in my own paintings. My favorite season is winter when the bare branches are silhouetted against the sky and layered with snow and ice. This influence is most obvious in my painting Spiritual Sojourn. It has the Asian aesthetic of “less is more” and was a very spiritual painting for me to create.

MaryLea Harris favorite art tools

CS: What is your favorite tool in the studio?

MH: I have so many things I love about my studio now. My husband and I built a huge work table for my studio and it’s covered with this wonderful, splattered, colorful drop cloth that makes me happy whenever I’m working on it. It shows remnants of all of my old projects and I love the messy, artsy history it reveals. The big table is perfect because it gives me room to spread out while I’m working on multiple paintings at a time and still leaves room for snacks, my cat Hazel, and my daughters to join me while I work. It’s hard to pick a favorite “tool” because I use so many. I love my assorted paint brushes, I’m partial to Filbert and Angled brushes. I also have a variety of recycled glass Ball jars on my table filled with water while I’m working so I can be lazy and rinse out brushes without getting up and going to the sink. I’ve been playing with Modeling Paste and Palette Knives to create textured backgrounds for my paintings. I also have a junky old hair dryer that I couldn’t work without; it helps me “speed dry” sections of paintings while I’m working so I can keep going!

Marylea Harris Studio

CS: Do you still have the quote “We are always afraid to start something that we want to make very good, true, and serious.” in your studio?

MH: Yes, I do. I had Barbara Ueland’s quote printed on vinyl years ago and didn’t put it up in the last studio so I just stuck it to my studio’s inspiration wall this September. it’s lost a bit of it’s “stick” so I’m helping it out with some Mod Podge! It’s a great reminder for me to see every day.

Barbara Ueland Quote

CS: When you aren’t in the studio what do you do?

MH: I avoid housework as much as possible and spend my free time reading stacks of library books, Pinning recipes, crafts, and painting ideas on Pinterest, volunteering at my children’s school, hiking with my family, and re-tossing endless loads of wrinkled laundry in the dryer. I can be found walking our retired, rescued racing greyhound, Pippi, around the neighborhood twice a day.

CS: What are you working on or thinking about now?

MH: If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll notice that my feed has been filling up with colorful tree paintings lately. I’ve been working on a new series in my studio for the past few weeks. I’m calling it my “Happy Little Trees” series. They’re fun to make and I’m enjoying playing with colors, layers, and textures. A bit more whimsical than some of my more serious work but tons of fun to make and they are being received well by friends and family. I have experienced a lot of grief, change, and growth in the past two years after losing my best friend, Lisa, to lung cancer, losing my grandmother, and another close friend, Leslie, to cancer. I watched two more friends get diagnosed with cancer and start their own journey of healing as we learned we would be relocating for my husband’s new job. Last fall, I moved across the United States from Virginia to Oregon to start a new life and new career path with my husband and our two daughters. I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on the events of the past two years and have come out on the other end stronger, more resilient, and ready to make art again. I’ve quit craft blogging – it was fun for the 6 years I did it, but not it’s not a part of who I am anymore. My calling has always been to make my own art and be true to myself as an artist.

My Happy Little Trees series is meant to be whimsical and colorful. I’m exploring color, texture, and line. I’m focusing on the interplay of “positive” and “negative” space as I reflect on my own positive and negative growth experiences from the past few years. I’m using these trees as a form of art therapy to explore living more simply while celebrating nature, color, texture, and line. I want the viewer to feel happy and playful. I want them to be in the moment and feel joy. Life is short and is meant to be celebrated.

Marylea Harris Happy Tree

CS: Where can we find your work? Do you have any upcoming shows?

MH: I will have a solo exhibition at Lumin Art Studios in Tumalo, Oregon on October 11th, from 1-4pm. I will be adding a shop to my website soon,, so my work will also be available online.

  1. Amy Turner (Reply) on Friday 3, 2014

    What a beautiful interview article. MaryLea Harris, your art is both intriguing and inspired! I loved learning about the intelligent and therapeutic processes that you dance between when creating! Thank you for making your art and for embodying courageous vulnerability to share it with the world. I look forward to watching more of your fine art come into being.

    • MaryLea Harris (Reply) on Friday 3, 2014

      Thank you for your kind words Amy. I think I should print this out and post it on my studio wall!

  2. Barbara Taylor (Reply) on Friday 3, 2014

    Wow! What a talented group! I love MaryLeas whimsical trees! My favorites are the 7th small painting(no name), Royal Gorge Fire Tree, Tsunami, and Put a Bird on It. They make me happy:) Great job MaryLea !!