The Journey Home, MaryLea Harris,  Mixed-Media on Canvas 15"x30" 2005


My father and I made a deal when I was a senior in high school: if I went to a liberal arts college for my undergraduate education, he would help me go to art school later in life. Eight years later, in the summer of 2002, I began the journey toward my Master of Interdisciplinary Studies (MIS) with Virginia Commonwealth University's Off-Campus Graduate Art Program. What began as merely a teaching re-certification class evolved into an opportunity to pursue a life-long goal: to establish myself as a working artist. Even so, it would be another eighteen months until I would take my next class. Life has a funny way of bringing us back to our roots: my final studio class in this program brought me back to the same high school I attended when I made this arrangement with my father. 

Personal Aesthetics

In college, my passion for printmaking was fueled by my love of textures and layers in art. The downside of printmaking was my exposure to harmful chemicals. My husband and I met during his cancer treatment for a malignant brain tumor while we were both in college. His cancer remission, my daughter's birth, and my own concern for the environment inspired me to pursue new non-toxic materials in painting and mixed-media work. During this program, I worked with acrylics for the first time and discovered a way to create visual layers in my work with computer emulsion transfers. My love for paper led naturally to making handmade books while another long-buried interest in textiles and fiber arts also re-emerged. 

Answering The Voice Within

My first class was a summer painting class with Kurt Godwin and I produced some acceptable landscapes, but I was not happy painting them. I didn't want to make mediocre, meaningless art yet found it very difficult to paint anything that did not look like one of my elementary art lesson examples. Landscapes were not the right subject matter for me. Standing outside with a brush in my hand, I felt like I was supposed to be painting like one of the "Old Masters" or Impressionists and that was not what I wanted to be doing. I spent a great deal of time in that class feeling paralyzed by my own inner critic. After our class ended that summer, I visited Godwin's show, Twelve Keys and the Glass House, at the McLean Project for the Arts. His layering of images within his paintings, splattered and dripped paint, and large-scale was what I had been trying unsuccessfully to create in my own work. Standing in that gallery I realized that my days as a painter were just beginning. 

My next class with Warren Corrado brought me back into the printmaking studio where I thought I would rediscover the same passion that I previously had for printmaking. Printmaking lacked the spontaneity that I now craved. I no longer had the patience to work through all of the meticulous steps required by printmaking and I still had not developed a focused theme for my work. 

I found what I was looking for during my third class, a mixed-media and computer transfer course with Bob Worthy. I was able to combine layers, textures, and think outside of the box with media I had never used before. I found a quotation on the internet by author Barbara Ueland that was helpful:  "(w)e are always afraid to start something that we want to make very good, true, and serious." I wrote this quotation on my studio wall as a daily reminder to push through and just start working. I had to ask myself what do I love and from where do I draw my strength. The answers -- family, relationships, nature -- became the catalyst for all of my work. 

The path I traveled through the M.I.S. program was a circular journey of self-discovery. I re-learned my identity as an artist in the process. I found peace and contentment in my studio making art for myself as well and gained confidence as an artist. I learned that it is important to experiment and that understanding failures often leads to new opportunities for a chance to create art beyond the original intentions.