In art, as in life, sometimes rules are made to be broken. This is particularly true of Ashley Mary, a Minneapolis-based artist who has followed her passion for art down bold paths of experimentation. She is the kind of artist that tries not to take herself too seriously, discovering new designs mostly through what she calls “happy accidents.” Her playful and colorful studio evokes everything she is all about. To Ashley, art has no rules and that’s the way it should be. Her positive energy and liveliness is communicated in no short order through her paintings that she hopes will inspire others. While also working outside of the studio doing freelance illustration, graphic design, and prop styling, she is a woman of all trades and brings a little color with her wherever she goes. See more of Ashley’s work below and learn what both challenges her and inspires to create every day.
Photography by Jenny Li.
Please tell us a little about yourself and your work.
I’m a Minnesota-born artist, designer and illustrator. I work out of my studio in Northeast Minneapolis where I play with collage, painting, and abstract patterns. There are no rules in my work, just a celebration of lines that dance, shapes that nestle together and paint that looks thick and textured. Vintage treasures, interior design, and the natural world inspire me. I look for interesting forms and bold colors in everyday objects and spaces to translate into my art and product design. My work is a constant exploration full of happy accidents, lively compositions and positive energy I hope to put out in the world.
Tell us about your background in formal design. How did you evolve your artistic style into what it is today?
Fun fact: my major in college was actually religion! I loved learning about all sorts of different theologies and conceptions around God for my four years at college. I really only took about four art classes total in school. I did NOT like my painting class, but my favorite was a print-making class because the instructor let me go rogue (senior-slide?) and I discovered this mash-up of collage, painting, and textiles that ended up being my gateway drug into discovering my love for art. After graduation, I kept making artwork and everything just snowballed from there. My work at the time was very whimsical, colorful, messy (nothing’s changed there) and infused with vintage ephemera. I still have a very large collection of old books and magazines, I love old things in general. Every piece I made had a little story built into it because of the vintage images I used (you can see my older work on my website). Fast forward five years, I went back to school at Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) for their post-bach design program because I wanted to move towards being a full-time creative. I would say it was simultaneously while I was getting a degree in design that my work started to move away from vintage collage and more towards pure abstraction, all the while remaining rooted in really playful color palettes with pops of pattern. It’s fun to see the evolution and you can see this common thread weaving its way through all my work. In the past year, I got back into collage but purely from a shape place and now my tiny collages inform my paintings and vice versa. My paintings have a more concrete shape language now, whereas before they might just be a mess of smears and movements. They feel a little more graphic, you can see the influence my design has within my paintings. I’m an experimenter by nature, though. Everything is constantly changing and I love the exploration there. I get bored easily and that includes with my art, so I’m curious to see what the next year holds for my style and evolution.
Your paintings are delightfully colorful and whimsical! Where do you seek inspiration for each?
Color inspiration is everywhere for me. I will pause a movie because it has a beautiful color story (who has seen the movie “Her”?! The colors!! My heart!). Or I will snap a pic of clothes piled on my floor if the color combination is striking to me. I pay attention to color in every moment, it can distract me when it’s not considered well or surprise me in unexpected places. I went on vacation in Hawaii last year and the beach was littered in these colorful plastic scraps that had been washed up over time, becoming small abstract shapes. I died. I was in heaven. I ended up coming home with a bunch of pieces I had collected and arranged the pieces into photographs. Now I’m trying to work through the series and paint my arrangement of these plastic bits. The beach’s trash became my art and I really do treasure those pieces, I hope I have them forever.
Tell us about your studio space.
I moved into my first studio about a year and a half ago at a time in my life where I was spending a lot of my time at an agency doing design and art direction, but really wanting to move more into doing my own work and painting more. Before I moved into my current space, I had a smaller room in a studio I shared with 3 other businesses. We were all crammed in there with one tiny window and it was all very comically small for our needs. But it felt amazing just to be anywhere besides my house painting (and to be able to spill paint with no abandon which I am very gifted at). My studio meant I finally could paint larger scale, invest in some supplies to help me run more efficiently, and feel like I had a place to invite clients (because no one needs to see the mess that is my home). Today I share a new space in that same building with my talented friend Laura Waldman, owner of Minny & Paul. My studio is located inside a building in the arts district of NE MPLS, called Northrup King Building. Northrup was where seeds were processed back in early 1900s. Now it is home to over 150 artists and small businesses. Most of us open our studios on the first Thursday of every month, making for a pretty unique experience for patrons. I remember walking the studios of this building maybe 10 years ago before I even knew I wanted to be a full-time creative. So to be here now feels really special to me, a lot of my creative community is in this space with me. I am someone who feels very connected to their physical spaces and nesting is a big part of my being a creative and feeling settled and ready to go. It’s a bit compulsive for me. I want the space I paint in to feel just minimal enough to create something new in it and just messy and colorful enough to inspire me. One of my favorite pieces in my studio is my desk I had handmade by Jeff Tapper of MN Creative Woodcraft, paired with my yellow Herman Miller chair. I’ve got this giant metal barrel I got from a junk yard that has a giant Chaquita banana logo on the side (it used to store banana puree). My shelves are full of hand-made treasures I’ve collected from other artists along the way. Objects hold a lot of meaning to me, I’m a collector by nature and so I hope when someone comes to my space that it’s this full experience they get to know me through my collections within it. Pee Wee’s playhouse was a big influence in my life… hoping to fuse some of that inspiration into my space.
What does a typical work day look like for you?
Every day is completely unique, which I love. I couldn’t imagine having to do the same thing every day. I used to do that and it was not a great fit for my personality. I become really unenergized and restless in monotony. But most days, I wake up early and I spend a significant amount of time on my computer doing design work for a client or my own business. This week, most of my computer work was in preparation for a few murals I’m working on and a video I’m helping art direct and prop-style for. Last week, I was neck-deep in some products I’m working on. If I’m going real stir crazy, I’ll take my work to a local coffee shop just for a change of scenery. But really, I can be in my studio all day, it’s my happy place. Eventually, if I have it my way, I’m in my studio painting for a few hours. I painted the whole day once this week and it felt amazing. In the evening I might snag a drink with a cute girlfriend (all my girlfriends are pretty cute, don’t know why) or head home to eat dinner and snuggle with my pups. Back to work in the late evenings usually putzing around on my computer or working on a collage (my coffee table seems to be the hot spot for this activity) or playing with an illustration. I like to keep my hands busy.
What, in your experience, have been the biggest challenges in starting and sustaining your own business?
Everything all the time?
– Finding the money to start new projects, or get that new space, or just basic supplies.
– Imposter syndrome. Feeling like you shouldn’t be doing it, talking about it, sharing it, trying it.
– Sometimes I feel like I can’t work fast enough and then I see ideas I’ve had race by me (Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert talks about this in a great way).
– Scheduling your time so that you are not only meeting client deadlines, but you are actively creating something new for your own soul and happiness.
– Running the actual business when all you want to do is create (project management, account management, etc.)
– Feeling pressure/anxiety to saying “yes” to everything and then the ramifications of doing that. Or feeling punished or guilty when you do say “no.”
– Keeping track of sales/expenses/taxes/savings.
What is it like being a maker/artist in America right now?
Two thoughts come to mind right away. I feel fortunate first and foremost that I have customers and clients who see the value in art and design and are willing to invest in that for their own personal enjoyment or business needs. Anyone who purchases my work is supporting me directly. That belief in the work, that is so incredibly special to me. And with social media, now more than ever people have easy access to your work and I’m grateful for all the clients that discover what I’m doing through these channels. It’s my livelihood. Right now, though, the maker/artist industry feels so oversaturated in some capacities that you’re seeing a lot of work be recycled in a way that bums me out, bores me, and worries me. I think about it a lot, but at the end of the day try to keep my head down and stay consistent in trying new things.
What do you love most about your community in Minneapolis?
Most everyone seems to really root everyone else on in their endeavors. There’s a large collaborative spirit amongst creatives (from my perspective) and people are happy to help network one another. The creative ladies specifically in this city are a powerhouse! DANG! The females do not mess. The majority of my projects and experiences are lead by almost all women (unintentionally, it just happens this way and I love being witness to that kind of energy. I think Beyonce said it best, “Who run the world?”