When Mary sent in her application for The Residency Project, I was immediately drawn to her paintings. Her work has the grit and grounding of someone who has lived a really long life, like an old soul. Our conversation was inspiring and insightful and I was shocked to hear that Mary actually isn’t 300 years old… although I’m still convinced she’s been here more than once.

“It’s an expression of what’s inside of you that you don’t feel like you can say with words.”


Can you describe your practice?
I’m an oil painter working on ideas of what it means to interact with other people. What the interaction between two minds looks likes. It’s misty and conceptual and hard to make concrete. I struggle through that actually because I try to keep it honest. There’s no point trying to paint that if it’s not real.

All my art is about a really real, raw feeling and I get really upset if it’s just starting to become an aesthetic thing. Or if I’m steering away from a rawness or openness. So it’s just a balance between making a picture that I think people will want to look at, but also that has that authentic feeling. When people come into my studio, I ask them “what does this painting feel like to you?” and then “do you like the way it looks?”

Is it about the Psyche of humans?
Yeah, so the way it started was… well I guess a lot of my relationships in life have just been a little chaotic. I have this fascination with what it means to be two people, but not in the physical sense; what’s going on when two people interact.

I describe each of my paintings as a story. One painting might be what it looks like when you first meet someone and you have a connection with that person, not physically, but what that mental space might be like, or what it looks like to be in a place, say where everyone’s fighting; how does that emotion look in a conceptual way. At the same time I, whilst it’s not the main point, I do want to make paintings that are beautiful to look at. I’m obsessed with feelings and interactions. I guess because all of mine have been weird and I’m trying to explore them!

When I saw your work for the first time, it felt ethereal. I really felt like I was looking at emotions. Even though there is a darkness to it (which personally appeals to me!) there’s also a real softness in your colours. The colours aren’t violent, so it’s a really beautiful way of expressing these sometimes dark and complicated feelings in a really beautiful way.

I used to have this struggle to have my portraits much more defined – eyes, nose, ears, facial features. Because often people respond more strongly to that “Oh you’re a really good painter, I can see that in your detail!” but I only just recently freed myself of that. It happened when I just smudged over a painting that I wasn’t happy with and I got some really interesting reactions. I realised that I don’t feel like I need to prove that I can paint something realistically anymore, because this style works as well, in fact, it works better with what I am trying to portray now. That’s a big struggle I have in the studio. I sometimes want to prove that I’m a good painter, but I also don’t need to either.

The more I’m tempted to make a realistic faces, I realise that the softer and vaguer it is, the more it could be you or anyone. It’s actually a really hard process.

There’s an attitude in art schools that if something is aesthetically pleasing or technically good, then the art school kind of rejects it now, because it’s not hard enough or different enough. So it was a weird atmosphere to come out of and into the real world, where perhaps audiences often respond with immediate positive feedback when it’s just pretty or realistic, to balance the two out.


What mediums do you work in?
Oil paint on smooth board or acrylic that is primed. I do a lot of sketching in my journal. I use linseed oil to thin the paint. I don’t use turps because it’s really bad! It makes me feel sick. Linseed oil is also better for the paint, especially when you’re spreading pigment really thin, because turps evaporates the oil and the oil is what holds the paint together.

I use paint brushes and my hands, a bit of sandpaper…a lot of cloth. A lot of what I do is putting the paint on and then rubbing it off with a rag.


Did you learn these techniques through art school or was it through experimentation?
Experimentation mainly. I learned the more technical stuff from an artist friend who became a bit of a mentor to me. Art schools don’t really seem to teach you those sort of skills anymore, it’s just kind of like “express yourself!”… which is good. But when you are setting up that foundation it’s a bit hard sometimes. I sort of hodgepodged it together from different sources and mentors and other artists I spoke to.

It’s the main narrative that I’ve heard in art schools, people are really frustrated that the schools aren’t really teaching you practical skills anymore. It’s like “I don’t need you to tell me to express myself, I already know how to do that!”

I did my bachelor of fine art over three years at Newcastle Uni, took a year in between and then did another year at National Art School. It was good because it was two completely different atmospheres.


How did you first start with your art practice?
I think the thing that drives a lot of artists maybe; being an angsty teenager and not feeling like I fitted in. I’ve always drawn. When I was a little kid I drew a lot of horses and I loved it and I got great feedback, so I just continued. In High School, I started really getting into it. Mostly it’s an outlet, something to distract myself from circumstances that weren’t ideal. I just continued and I knew that I wanted to pursue it in some capacity. At one point I thought I just wanted to be an illustrator or do album covers, slowly I evolved into just wanting to paint. With most people I think it’s a bit of a mental health thing as well. It’s something that’s just yours, an expression of what’s inside of you that you don’t feel like you can say with words. A way of dealing with experiences and emotions.

You become part of a community as well, because you can make something and say “this is how I feel” and put it out there and other people say “that’s amazing, that’s how I feel too!” rather than just saying it and it tends to drift off in the wind. With art there’s something concrete, leftover after the feeling or moment is over.

I think everyone wants to feel like they’re leaving something behind; like you planted something. Even if it’s just one little thing. You’ve left something, a little monument and art is probably the ultimate of that.


What revives and refreshes your creative spirit?
Watching beautiful films. Listening to beautiful music. Reading beautiful books. I’ve always been a huge reader, that’s kind of how I escaped the world. I would kind of lock myself away and get into the book, and then when I come out of it, I feel like I’ve lived in that world and I want to express my feelings from that “book life.” Looking at other people’s art as well, that inspires me to go and make art as well. Taking time away from art, revives my spirit as well. I need to remind myself why I love doing it, by not doing it for a little while.

What’s the reason you continue with your practice?
I ask myself that often! Because it’s not really a practical line of work; you study it, you work on it, you put your whole body and soul into it and you still can’t necessarily live off it!

But I keep going because, I can’t imagine not doing it. If I try and imagine that version of my life, even with everything else in it, it would be really good but I’d just feel hollow. So even when it’s really tough, draining, annoying at least it feels like the one thing I’m meant to do and I’ve always felt that way. I guess it’s my calling – as silly and cheesy as that is. Something I feel like it’s not making a difference, I mean I could go an be a doctor or you know help refugees; things that I feel really strongly about and get really sad about and it feels like I’m not doing anything practical to help, but then at the same time I know the world needs art, things where people’s emotions can be shared. I would never discredit a beautiful film or a beautiful song. So I shouldn’t discredit my own practice as being worthwhile.

I’ve never been one to hide if I’m sad or happy, so it’s good to be able to put them into something. The way I am with my emotions, especially in relationships, is that I feel like I need to say I LOVE YOU, every minute, or I’m just going to explode. I need to express myself and the same with my sadness. I am lucky that I have a medium that allows me to sort of externalise positive and negative feelings and if someone else can get something out of it, that’s really good.


What’s the last dream you remember?
I have incredibly vivid dreams. And usually they are generally quote scary. I think because when you escape so much angst during the day, it tends to come out at night. Like… people are chasing me, or it’s the apocalypse or I’m trying to find my dog! I think a lot of my paintings have an apocalypse vibe… so maybe that’s why! I’ve been in it many times!


Do you have any rituals?
Yeah.. I think tea is my ritual. When I come into the studio, I want to have a cup of tea, sit there and drink it. Same at home; have a cup of tea, pat my dog, water the plants. Just little things where it makes your world feel in order. It’s comforting and it makes you feel like you’re in control of your world. Yep – tea’s my ritual

There’s this idea of everything having to be really necessary in Western Culture – if it’s not practical with a concrete need to be there, then we sort of see it as an indulgence or something, but then you take away all these rituals and people start to be sad and they don’t really know why. They feel unsatisfied. A ritual in my mind is just a little thing that can give you satisfaction… or a big thing. It’s about peace. If you take away all those little moments of peace and you’re only working towards a big goal that’s practical or recognisable, then you don’t have any little bits of fuel along the way. Rituals give you a booster.


What are your other outlets?
I like to write. I always think that if I hadn’t gotten into painting, I would have gotten into writing. I wrote a little short novel when I was young. Mostly in my journal and little poems. If there’s a piano I will sit down and plug away at it, even though I have no idea what I’m doing, the same with guitar. If the power goes out – that’s the first thing I will do, is grab the guitar and play. If I ever give up on art, I’d like to be someone who just plays piano and plants plants!!

What is the most challenging thing about your practice?
Finding the balance between something that looks good to other people… I mean I know this sounds funny, but I’m someone who needs validation! (we all do!)
It’s weird actually, because even though we are in this world of social media where you can just post something and immediately gain feedback, but my paintings don’t really do so well in that way, because they are so soft, you really need to see them in the flesh. But the other challenge is that sometimes I just don’t want to paint! Because I have to open myself up, it’s not easy. I can’t just sit back and let it happen. I have to make it happen. And there’s that famous quote “You can’t wait for inspiration, you just have to show up and go to work!” But with most jobs, you know what you have to do when you arrive. When you show up to work as an artist, you have no idea what you have to do. How long you have to do it for, if it’s going to work, there’s no instructions, you can do a million paintings and you can still start it not knowing what you’re going to do. I feel like every time I come to a blank board, I feel like I have to learn how to do it all over again.

Also the struggle of not making the same thing every time. Especially on my current work, I’m not using reference or a real scene. It’s all coming out of my head. So it becomes difficult that the works are always independent and different. The struggle to keep pushing it forward whilst maintaining your vision.


What has been a significant moment for you creatively so far?
I think it was when I realised that I didn’t have to prove that I knew how to paint or draw something realistically. When I abandoned that, I freed myself.

In any other industry, you measure success is by how hard it is to do. People respond to something, because they don’t know how to do that. So if they don’t know how to paint a technical painting, to them, that’s amazing! So to get that gratification, that’s the best way to go about it. But what most people perhaps don’t realise, is that most people can actually learn how to do that quite easily. But to learn how to express yourself in a more abstract way, you can’t teach that.

So it is a hard thing to let go of. Because you’re letting go of… Sort of almost guaranteed good feedback.

When you don’t need that, it’s when you free yourself.

You have to let go of the expectation of showing people that what you do is valid.


What inspires you?
Sunshine, books, movies, plants… but mostly people. My relationships inspire me. The way i feel day to day inspires me… like I never know what’s going on with my own emotions. As cliche’ as it is, just life inspires me. Even just when I see people through the window of the train. I was looked out and saw this couple having the longest hug ever. I took that with me for a week and tried to paint the way that feels.


If money were no object, what would you do?
Well, I think I would be doing something pretty similar, except more time to walk my dog and read books. Those circumstances are more about where I am. I still feel like I would work my job. I feel like I will always need something else, rather than what I’m already doing, because I’d start to go even more crazy than I already am. I need something real life to grab me! A lot of artists I know become teachers for that reason. But probably just have a massive awesome studio filled with plants and lots of greyhounds!

What do you see yourself doing when you’re 45?
Pretty much what I’m doing now. Where I’m living and what I’m doing is all pretty sustainable at the moment. I don’t really need anything more than what I’ve got. I’m oddly satisfied. I got lucky! When I used to come to Sydney and see all these beautiful terraces, I said to myself, some day when I’m like 40 and I have a dog, I’ll be doing that! And I just lucked out and already have it. But hopefully I’ll be doing more exhibitions and be a little more comfortable in my practice. Reading more books! I do struggle with not being taken seriously because I’m so young and i hate that. I wish I had alternate identity that went along with my pieces.


What does Create or Die mean for you?
On a molecular level, your body is always creating new cells until you die… so there’s that. You have to leave something behind, otherwise it feels like there was no point to you being alive. And so, to leave something behind, you have to create something. Parts of you die if you’re not being creative. It takes out the spirit of life. I don’t think there’s much point to being alive if you’re not creating in some way. I don’t think most people would be happy if they weren’t being creative in some way or another, whether they realise it or not.

Mary will be featuring her work and opening up her studio for Create or Die’s Showcase & Open Studio on the 29th & 30th October. Head to the event page to RSVP & keep up to date as the program is released:


See more of Mary’s work here: http://www.maryvangils.com/
or follow her work on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/maryvangils/ 

~ Conversation with Deb Morgan ~
Photo Credit: Ash Zombola