VISUAL ARTIST MARY TOSCANO
I’m in the unfortunate position of needing to briefly introduce Mary Toscano. I know I will fall short. Let me get this out of the way up front: I’m very biased. This is no attempt at objectivity.
Mary Toscano is an artist. But anyone who knows Mary knows that this word is entirely insufficient for her. It feels like a word that now encompasses too much and as a result has lost most of its meaning. So, if you will, think about Bleecker Street, the Hotel Chelsea, LA in the 80s, American expats in Paris, Georgia O’Keefe at Taos, salon culture, or whatever it is you think about when you consider legit artists making real work. Because that’s what Mary is.
Mary draws, paints, and prints work that explores themes of memory, isolation, identity and the passage of time—among many other things. She crafts gorgeous handmade goods at Bison Bison Supply with her husband Andrew, a musician and designer. She’s a founding member of Halophyte Collective, a group of artists and friends I’m lucky to belong to. She’s always ready with a quick bon mot. She has a rock collection and a chihuahua named Buddy. Like myself, she enjoys a well-placed invective. I like her laugh.
I visit Mary several times in her studio space at the historic Macaroni Manufacturing building in downtown Salt Lake City. It’s a warm fall and Mary is working on her phenomenal piece A Meeting of Our Parallels. Mary is tall, kind and regularly sports a buzzed haircut. She sits at a large drawing table, calling to mind Charles Schultz or some old-school architect. We sip La Barba coffee and keep up a steady flow of banter. She looks on with patience and genuine curiosity as I set up my photo gear. When I start taking photos she loves the sound of my old analog camera as much as I do. “Lots of satisfying noises going on over there.”
Mary debuted her recent work, A Meeting of Our Parallels, as a solo exhibition at God Hates Robots, a gallery in downtown Salt Lake. I was fortunate to witness Mary working on this piece in the final months before the show. She worked on the 15’ drawing in sections, and the segments I saw during my studio visits were breathtaking. I knew she was making something special. But I wasn’t ready for the experience I had when I finally saw the full drawing. I had offered to document the piece for Mary in photographs. So on a sunny afternoon I got to visit the gallery a few hours before the show opened. I entered the space alone and stood mesmerized in front of her work for a full 20 minutes. I had the same feeling I get from an original Rothko painting. A Meeting of Our Parallels felt like the visual version of a Marilynne Robinson novel: lyrical, poetic, haunting, disarmingly simple and complex at the same time. In that quiet moment I was surprised at my emotional response to Mary’s particular combination of images. Later that night the gallery was packed, full of friends and admirers eager to purchase a portion of the piece. I was grateful for the quiet moment I got alone with Mary’s hard work. And I’m proud to own a part of it.
This intro is too long. Suffice to say that Mary and her immediate social circle came into my life at a very important time. I consider myself infinitely lucky to call Mary a friend. Lucky that when I’m at our favorite coffee shop, which she works close to, I can text her and say, hey stop by for a chat. She usually does. And we talk nonstop on a variety of subjects large and small, until one of us suddenly realizes it’s been two hours and we really should be going.
BRACKET: I know you’ve been going to a studio every evening and working on this big canvas. Can you just physically describe the work itself? And your process as you go.
MARY TOSCANO: The work for A Meeting of Our Parallels consists of a 15' x 2' drawing, 7 labyrinths embroidered on cloth, little metal dexterity games, and sets of cards that are sort of directions for getting through a labyrinth. I'll try to briefly describe each piece.
The drawing: When I set out to make this drawing, I wanted to create a set of rules I had to follow that would create a mental labyrinth I had to work through to complete the piece. I decided I would keep most of the drawing rolled up as I worked so I could only ever see about 2 to 2.5 feet of the drawing at any given time. Once I finished a section, I would roll it up, and I couldn't unroll it to review what I had done. I had to keep moving forward.
The second rule was I couldn't plan ahead. I had to draw whatever imagery came to mind based on the last thing I drew. Each element relates to the things around it, and they're all connected to some central ideas, but they're not linear. When I would get stuck or lost, I would always go back to drawing the labyrinth itself, usually just a fragment of it, or maybe an exploration of how that structure might exist in a flat space, using different perspectives, etc.
The embroideries: The seven embroidered pieces all use the same labyrinth pattern, but each one is made using a different stitch. I was thinking about how labyrinths are a physical meditation, and craft and handiwork are also physical meditation. Through practice, you can become a better stitcher, and I guess the same holds true with meditation. But with each embroidery using a different stitch, I was kind of forcing myself back to being a beginner with each new piece. I was getting better overall, but I was undermining myself by trying progressively more difficult stitches.
The dexterity game: I decided I wanted to make a little handheld tool that would sort of mimic going through a labyrinth. I love those games with the ball bearings that you try to maneuver into holes, and the strange imagery that always seems to appear on the face—almost like a narrative or a joke to make sense of why you're working to achieve this goal only to immediately undo it. I've used a lot of snake imagery in the drawing, and I can talk a bit more about that, but I love that the snake can take the shape of the labyrinth's path. My dexterity game doesn't use the labyrinth's walls, but instead uses a snake that's inside a labyrinth, and you have to maneuver the ball bearings around the snake's body to get them into their holes.
B: Definitely talk more about the snakes!
M: Ha! Sure sure. The very first image I started drawing for this show was a large snake with a hand reaching out to grab the snake's tail. I've always loved snakes, but my younger sister is petrified of them, so much so she can't even really look at photographs or images of them. She was like my little shadow when we were kids, and I was aware of her fear. I knew if we saw a snake, I would have to protect her, even though I would want to get as close to that snake as possible. So maybe that was part of why I started with a snake. I was interested in addressing fear as a subject matter, and it seemed easier to come at it sideways. Instead of talking about my own fears, I would start with someone else’s.
B: I’m not surprised at all to find that your approach to fear carries an implicit type of caring for someone else. You were thinking about fear, but weren’t you also thinking about some way to alleviate fear? Like two sides of the same coin. Were you aware of some desire to help your sister? How did your exploration of fear change as the piece progressed?
M: I’m not sure I was thinking about a way to alleviate fear. I mean, I would like to be able to do that for myself or for my sister. And I do think that looking at something can ease anxiety around that thing. But some stuff gets scarier the more you look at it! This is sort of a silly story, but my other sister (I have three sisters, so this can get confusing!) was really afraid of lightning when we were little, so my dad checked out a book from the library all about lightning to help her understand it so she wouldn't be so scared. But it freaked him out! Not in a really serious way, he was just like, "Oh, shit, lightning is pretty dangerous. Just stay inside when you hear thunder."
Anyway, as I worked through drawing all those snakes, I had to deal with a lot of my own fears. Fear about not being a good enough artist, or the right kind of artist to do what I had set out to do, or of not having anything valuable to add to the world—I really worry about that. Am I just adding more junk to a planet that is already filled with things? And I had to come up with a way to get the drawing done on time even when I felt like it was pointless. The drawing material didn't really allow for me to erase too much, and I couldn't start over or I wouldn't finish. So I just had to feel all those fears, and keep making it because that's what I said I was going to do. I know that's what everyone who's ever made anything is doing! I'm just adding myself to a long list. But I think having this task of making work about fear and loneliness helped me be more decisive—maybe because it was like, yeah I'm alone in the making of this thing, and maybe this drawing will be dumb, but it means something to me to draw every day, and I guess that's good enough.
The cards: The cards consist of six drawings and eight written prompts that talk about different tools to make your way through a labyrinth. They're based on pretty well known methods for solving a maze, like always turning left, or leaving a marker at a crossroad. But labyrinths don't have dead ends or wrong turns. The entire path leads to the center. In my mind, though, you can still get lost in a labyrinth because the labyrinth is a metaphor for the mystery of being alive and all the unknowable stuff around us and inside of us. My card sets are directions to get through a labyrinth, but they're also about inescapable loneliness. It's lonely to be a person, and we're sort of stuck with that loneliness because we can't really know ourselves or anyone else. We can't solve the labyrinth. We can only move towards a center that's always moving away from us.
B: I’m very interested in this topic. It’s something I think about a lot (probably too much). I love your title: A Meeting of Our Parallels. It’s a sort of paradox, right? I’m not a math person, but don’t they say that parallel lines meet at infinity? In other words, it would take a really long time to truly get to know someone. Or ourselves, as you’re saying. So a meeting never really happens.
M: Yeah, the meeting can never happen. We may imagine our parallel lines are getting closer, but that's not possible. The title is a stolen line from The Form of Space by Italo Calvino. It's a short story where the narrator describes falling through space in a parallel trajectory to two other people, a woman and a man. The narrator obsesses over the shape of space changing so they can touch the woman. And they're filled with jealousy at the thought that the man might also be able to change space to touch her. The narrator imagines a point in the future or maybe a point in the past where their lines meet. But all their frustration and longing can't alter their trajectory. And their jealousy is absurd because the woman is as inaccessible to the man as she is to the narrator.
B: I love Calvino. This reminds me of the stories of Borges—who also loved labyrinths—especially the ones where he meditates on meeting himself. Trying to come to terms with who he actually is as time passes. Somewhere Marilynne Robinson said that loneliness isn’t a problem; it’s a condition. It meant a lot for me to hear her say that. It took a great upheaval in my life for me to learn this much wiser perspective. I had misunderstood the loneliness I carried and attributed it to the wrong things, simply because I didn’t understand. And honestly I was scared of it. This fear led to a pretty big crisis. But out of that crisis I understood the profound perspective Robinson has. It’s a condition. Something I’ll always carry that isn’t external to me. I have a much better relationship with it now. That crisis unlocked a deeper form of empathy and compassion I’m able to give to those around me.
Someone once said to me that I seem like a really happy person with not much sadness in my life. I definitely have my fair share of baggage like anyone else. But I’ve learned to carry it differently. When I hear you talking about inescapable loneliness and our struggle to really know ourselves or anybody else, I know exactly the feeling you’re talking about. Don’t you feel it just makes you want to be kinder to everybody? All the time? Understanding that inescapable loneliness literally changed my personality.
M: That Marilynne Robinson quote is exactly it for me. Loneliness is a condition. It can exist alongside all the other emotions. It doesn't negate them.
I do try to be kind, but I can definitely be better at it. I work on a customer support team for my day job, and a lot of my work is spent helping people who may be frustrated or angry before they even reach out for help. Part of being kind is trying to remember that most negative interactions are about a lot of things outside of what's happening in that moment. I know there's a perception that customer support can feel dehumanizing, but I think it's the opposite. Someone may write in for help assuming I'm a robot without feelings, and I get to treat them with kindness and care, and they get to see that I'm a real person.
It seems like the cultural definition of loneliness is something that only spinsters can feel. Maybe another way to express it then is not feeling seen. Feeling overlooked or misunderstood or incapable of expressing what you want—I think everyone has felt that. Maybe some people don't feel it as intensely, or they don't internalize it. I'm not sure. But for me, accepting that I might never understand parts of myself or feel as loved or seen as I sometimes want, helps me to not hold on to some idea of what I think I should be like to be seen or lovable.
B: Your new work is beautiful. There’s an interesting balance between exacting minute details and large white space that fills the canvas. You’ve said the piece is inspired by labyrinths. What drew you to labyrinths and what do they mean for you in this work?
M: I was thinking of the myth of the minotaur at the center of the labyrinth. Not in the sort of typical take on that story where a hero journeys to the center, defeats the beast, comes out unscathed. More like that examining anything (yourself, someone else, history, nature, whatever) is going to reveal some horrible, ugly, scary things. And who are you to destroy those things or pretend like you can conquer or obliterate them? Can we just look at them for a bit? Get a feel for the shape and size of them? Maybe we can find a way to undo or heal those things, or at least learn how to live with them.
B: Yes! This hits on something else I think about a lot (maybe this is why we get along so well—we’re always thinking about the same things). My conception of empathy, compassion, and love has changed a lot in the past few years. I went through a very difficult time where I was doing exactly what you’re describing here. I had to go inside myself and look at things more intensely than I ever had before. When I tried to articulate what I was learning to people close to me, they had already made up their minds about me from their external positions. They didn’t want to know anything about what was inside of me. I learned some pretty profound things. We start talking about these types of personal journeys and people nod their heads like it’s all well and good. But I know now that many people don’t ever go through any sort of process remotely close to that. And when they witness someone else going through it, it really does scare and upset them. Deep ideas about empathy and compassion—or healing as you mentioned—go out the window. People default to fairly superficial judgments and explanations.
All that is to say, I know and appreciate just how profound those questions are that you’re asking. And in my life it has situated me in a place where I feel like I’m only beginning to really understand forgiveness, empathy, healing, compassion, love. I’m also saying the same things you are: can’t we just look at this for a while? Let’s see how deep we can go and how much we can connect before writing people off.
M: That makes me think of this really wonderful episode of the Invisibilia podcast called The Problem with the Solution. It's about this Belgian town, Geel, where the residents take in strangers who've been diagnosed with a mental disorder and care for them, sometimes for decades. They're not caring for these people like patients, though, instead they're like roommates or guests. And all the behaviors or personalty differences aren't treated like things that need to be changed. One of the ideas brought up in that episode is that accepting mental differences without judgment makes it easier to live with each other. And sometimes it's easier to accept those things in another person the more distanced we are from them. For example, if you have a child that's lashing out or is experiencing depression, you may want to rush in to correct their behavior because it worries you, and you feel responsible for their feelings and their future. But maybe what they need is to be allowed to feel shitty for a bit, and they need to do that without worrying that their family thinks they are shit. And they need to figure out how to work through all that muck without lashing out at the people around them. We let strangers do that because we don't feel like their behavior reflects who we are, so we give them permission to be a person on their terms, while still holding them accountable to be a decent member of society.
B: Yes! What you said: “Sometimes it’s easier to accept those things in another person the more distanced we are from them.” That’s a major discovery I’ve had in the past few years. There’s a sort of inverse ratio of empathy the closer we get to someone. Compounded by the seriousness of whatever they’re going through, right? Like the closer we are and the more serious the thing, the less understanding and patience we offer. And we all do it. You’re exactly right. We start talking, talking, talking at the person. Or ignoring them. When we really could just be listening. A lot.
M: Why is that so hard to do?! I know this on an intellectual level, but I have to remind myself of this all the time. Mary, when someone you love is telling you they're worried or sick or angry, don't try to fix it for them. Listen to them. Ask them what they need. Or make them have a mini dance party with you—that's always a good plan, right? Just put on Prince and emote-dance your way around the living room.
B: Prince solves everything. Snakes, birds, hair, hands, fruit—these are all strong images in the work. From the small portions I’ve seen, something about them feels archetypal. But are you thinking about them in that way? It feels like some sort of personal mythology. How did these specific references come to you?
M: I suppose the imagery is archetypal, though I'm not really thinking of it in that way. Rocks, birds, hair, bones, and hands are images that belong to all of us. Culture and upbringing and environment shape the specific way those things appear to us, and they show us how we use and interact with those things. So the way I depict them is specific to me, though I don't always understand it. But the way you think about the way I've depicted those things is specific to you. I can't really control that, and now we're spiraling around each other. I didn't set out to create a personal mythology, but I think examining something over and over has that effect. There are certain things like rocks that I've been drawn to my entire life. I have the world’s most ordinary rock collection that I've added to since I was four. Drawing some of those rocks felt like little security anchors as I worked my way across the big expanse of the paper. I could talk about each image, but would that ruin the work for you? I want you to see it without seeing me—or at least without searching for me.
B: It absolutely wouldn’t ruin the work for me! I could listen to you go on and on about each image. Your rock collection may be ordinary, but it’s the particular ordinariness of your specific rock collection that makes it interesting. I can’t wait to see this piece all laid out in its entirety. We’ve been talking about identity and interior spaces. I like how this work balances complex, detailed mysteries like labyrinths and snakes with ostensibly mundane, simple things like rocks or hands. In your piece I saw a snake juxtaposed with a moth, and it was gorgeous. There was so much latent energy in that image, even though for me there’s no association or particular meaning. Are those types of connections just intuitive for you?
M: I'm glad you like that part. It does feel like it has a lot of energy, but I didn't know it would when I blocked out the moth facing the snake. Those two appear right at end of the drawing, or the beginning, depending on where you start. The other end of the drawing has a snake overlapping butterflies, so it starts and ends with similar elements, but they feel really different. And of course I couldn't see the first section of the drawing when I was working on the last part, and over 8 months had elapsed since I'd seen that first snake. I knew I wanted to sort of end where I began, but the drawing experience felt really different after all that time. I was worried that I would unroll the entire piece and the snake at the end would make the snake at the beginning seem childish or odd, but they're fine. They can be in the same work. I'm cool with that.
B: At this point in our conversation you’ve laid out the entire piece and exhibited it at your solo show in an art gallery. What about the drawing experience felt different toward the end? How did you feel the first time you unrolled this 15-foot piece and took it all in?
M: By the time I got to the last 3 feet of the drawing, I was in a really good rhythm. I knew I was going to finish all the work in time, but I wasn't sure what it meant to finish the drawing. I completed it on a Sunday, and I was scheduled to install it that Tuesday. The moment I finished, I rolled it up without looking at it. I thought, I'll just wait until I get to the gallery. Then I made a pot of tea and sat in my studio for an hour. As I sat there, I realized that I didn't want to see it for the first time with anyone else around. So I unrolled it. And I felt really proud. This is dumb, but as I typed out this memory, I felt my throat and chest get tight. I think it overwhelms me to feel proud. It's not something I say that often about myself. Or maybe it’s because I don't feel done making work on this subject matter, and I miss the drawing.
B: I was proud to know you when I saw it. That’s for sure. At the opening reception for your show, you allowed people to buy portions of your piece in one-inch segments. When the show ended you cut the piece up to give people the sections they bought, resulting in a fragmented work of art spread out all over the place. Why was this fracturing of the piece important to you?
M: The fracturing of the work was an idea I had from the inception of the show. The gallery I showed at has a rule that no one piece can cost more than $400. I knew I wanted to make something large, so to keep within that limitation, I decided I would sell the drawing by the linear inch. Now, initially that was just a lark, but as the other rules and themes started to take shape, it became a more important element for a number of reasons. First, I like the idea of making something that's a bit extravagant, but then making it affordable. Maybe someone who can't afford to buy art could still afford a slice. Second, the work was made in a fragmented way, and it's about unknowable stuff, so cutting it up means it will remain that way. No one person can see the whole thing. They all have a version of the drawing that exists and expands from their fragment. Third, all the new owners are linked to each other through the drawing—I like that. It's an invisible thread that runs among everyone who participated in it. Not just the people who bought it, but anyone who saw it whole and sees a fragment someday.