Friday, August 3, 2012

Mary Beth McKenzie

By Terry Howell Stanley
The Art of the Portrait Journal
Issue No. 47, 1st Quarter 2010

oil on canvas, 64" x 48"
Mary Beth McKenzie is not an artist who claims to have found overnight success immediately after first putting paint to canvas. Her path was deliberate and focused, encompassing study with several of today’s acknowledged Masters, as well as the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Cooper School in Cleveland, the Art Students League and the National Academy of Design. McKenzie struggled to find her artistic voice for nearly five years, during two of which, she discarded more of her art than she kept.  Persevering as student, artist and instructor, she has emerged as a celebrated member of today's fine art community.

Mary Beth McKenzie cites Robert Phillipp as one of her most influential instructors and mentors. 
Painting as his student at the National Academy of Design and modeling for him in his studio, McKenzie explains the education she received by watching Phillipp develop paintings was invaluable. “…his remarkable enthusiasm and excitement for life as well as for painting was contagious. I never left his studio without feeling a renewed motivation and inspiration. He really enjoyed the act of painting, and through his bold handling of paint I became aware of a more sensuous side to painting, a lushness of paint surface and a beauty of color. I loved his loose, seemingly effortless way of working.

“He was also a link for me with the great tradition of painting. He had such wonderful stories about artists he had known personally or had had some contact with, such as John Singer Sargent, Frank Vincent Dumond, and many German artists like Wilhelm Leibl and Adolf von Menzel - people I could only read about. Up until the time he died (at eighty-seven) he still painted almost every day. Being around him made me realize that painting is a way of life; and the faith he showed in me also encouraged me to believe in my self as and artist. “

Dying Swan
oil on canvas, 50" x 60"
Burton Silverman was another major influence, and McKenzie credits him with helping her learn to actually think more about her painting subject. During classes with Silverman, McKenzie developed lasting friendships with Ron Sherr, ark Isaacson and Sharon Sprung. She also came to know Nancy Buirski, Everett Rayond Kinstler and Harvey Dinnerstein, all of whom have influenced her thought process and her art.

When asked which artists she particularly admired, she responded “I have always been very influenced by Rembrandt and Velasquez, particularly by their dramatic use of light and dark.   Rembrandt left an amazing number of very revealing self-portraits, a visual diary, as did Van Gogh, Kathe Kollwitz and Egon Schiele. ...I frequently use myself as a model. A self portrait is extremely personal."

While most of her oil paintings are large using a combination of brush and palate knife, she makes a point to work directly from life or sketches done from life.  "I enjoy having an interaction with the subject as well as having a direct response to color and shape," she explains.  Sometimes I think that drawings are even more personal than paintings because drawings are so immediate. All the lines remain on the paper, and you can see how the drawing evolved. You can see how the lines were searched for and the choices that were made when certain lines were emphasized. I particularly love the drawings of Rembrandt, Degas, Matisse, Kathe Kollwitz and Egon Schiele. All of these artists devoted a great deal of themselves to drawing."

Since McKenzie is well known for her expertise in oils, pastels and monotypes.  When asked if she felt working in more than one medium was something she recommended, she explained, “I think that everything you do feeds back into your work and alters your way of seeing. For instance, I studied Sculpture for a year and I feel it was so important for my painting. My understanding of the figure, of volume and space was different after working in 3 dimensions...also my understanding of anatomy was greater. This had a huge impact on my painting.”

oil on canvas, 37" x 26"
She goes on to express, “I also love the paintings of:  Uccello,  Bruegel, Matisse, Ceyzanne, Vuillard, Edward Hopper, and more recently Diebenkorn, Freud, Uglow.  The abstract relationships:  geometry,  patterning, their use of shape and color and line are all part of my response to these artists.”

Her most important message to artists and art students is “Composition is everything: If you don’t have a good composition it doesn’t matter how well you execute a painting, you will never like it.” 

"I have always been preoccupied with the human figure... people alone or in relation to other people or objects. I am not always sure why a specific subject interests me. Someone evokes a feeling in me, but I don't always know what it is and cannot verbalize it."

McKenzie, elected to the National Academy of Design in 1994, has taught at both the Art Students League and The National Academy of Design and is the author of “A Painterly Approach: Working in a broader, more abstract way in oil, pastel and monotype.” (Although the book was written in 1987, the valuable lessons and advice contained therein remain relevant).  Her work is included in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum’s 20th Century Paintings Collection and in it’s Print Collection, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, New Britain Museum of America Art,  the Brooklyn Museum of Art and others. She will be one of the featured artists at the group show at the Butler Museum in the fall of 2010.


  1. I really like reading "...painting is a way of life." Mary Beth's work is incredible, as is her creative journey.

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