Studio art major Mary Marshall Martin ’24 recently immersed themselves in one of the most renowned and selective residency programs for undergraduate artists in the country, an experience they would not have necessarily anticipated just a few years ago.
“I hated painting in high school,” they admit. “I always had an interest in art, and I entered Hollins on a studio art track, but I never wanted to be a painter. I was really into illustration and drawing.”
Martin says their perspective was transformed, however, when Associate Professor of Art Elise Schweitzer became their painting instructor at Hollins. “It was absolutely life-changing,” Martin recalls. “What’s so wonderful about Elise is that she will show you how to paint and then give you the space to do the work you want to create. I can paint but I also have my own voice.”
One of the high points for Martin in their journey to realize their artistic vision occurred this summer when they became the first Hollins student to attend Yale University’s Yale Norfolk School of Art. Founded in 1948, the intensive, six-week summer residency program for rising college and university seniors cites its mission as providing “a once in a lifetime experience…that supports young artists in a vital moment of growth. So many of Yale Norfolk’s alumni go on to make significant contributions to the field of art and credit Yale Norfolk with a profound impact on their lives and art.”
Martin was one of only 26 students accepted into Yale Norfolk’s residency program this year from more than 200 applicants across the country. Competing against undergraduates from independent B.F.A. programs and prominent universities such as Yale, Brown, and Penn, they say they knew getting into the residency would be “kind of a shot in the dark for me,” but they believe their education in a more intimate art program such as Hollins’, and hailing from a small town in North Carolina, made them an interesting candidate.
Yale Norfolk also found Martin’s art compelling. “I do these large-scale figure paintings that cover religion, gender, sexuality, and other topics, and I think the combination of my background and my work with the video essay I had to produce for my application where I talked about what I wanted to do during my residency helped everything fall into place.”
During the six-week session, residents engaged in art courses Monday through Wednesday, 9 a.m. – 4 p.m., and as Martin explains, “When you weren’t in class, you were expected to be in the studio.” Residents were given their own individual studio spaces and could expect weekly studio visits and critiques from faculty, which included program codirectors Byron Kim and Lisa Sigal as well as teaching fellows chosen from graduates of Yale University’s M.F.A. program. “We had a lot of goals to meet, including a final exhibition, so we had to keep making work.”
Because of the regimen, Martin says they developed a newfound sense of self-confidence. “Even though I was confident in the fact that I wanted to be an artist, I’ve always had a lot of anxiety about critique and conversation about art, and it was hard to find my voice in my work. It was there, but it wasn’t there. Now, I’m confident in expressing my ideas and talking to other people about my ideas. Having that experience and then coming back to Hollins is amazing: I can go into the studio and know what kind of work I want to make.”
Martin also relishes the “amazing, lifelong friends” they made at Yale Norfolk. “It’s such an intense, scary thing to want to be an artist, so it was wonderful to form bonds with others who want their career to be making art. Having these people who have the same sort of goals is really powerful.”
For their final work at the residency, Martin created a 17-foot-long swimming pool figure painting. It has become the basis for their senior thesis, in which they plan to create a series of swimming pool paintings. “I’m playing with the idea of the swimming pool as kind of a visual metaphor for anatomical existentialism, and I’m doing these large expressionistic self-portraits. It’s not fully formed yet, but it’s in a really good spot.”
Martin’s thesis will build upon the legacy of other prominent artists, from Paul Cézanne in the 19th century to contemporary painters such as David Hockney and Noah Davis, who have used bathers and/or swimming pools extensively in their work. “There’s always the joke about how, if you’re a figure painter, you’re probably going to do a bather series, and classically everyone looks at Cézanne’s bathers,” they say. “I always said I’d never do a bathers series but that’s probably going to be my thesis.”
They add, “Different artists such as Hockney and Davis have explored what swimming pools mean to them specifically, so I’m also trying to figure out what a swimming pool means personally in my work.”
Martin says there is the possibility they will apply to enter graduate school after earning their studio art degree next spring (the Yale School of Art is at the top of the list of schools they are considering), but it is more likely they will follow the advice given to them by Byron Kim at Yale Norfolk and wait a couple of years. In the interim, “I think it would be exciting to move to city somewhere and still make work. There are some residencies, both in this country and internationally, to which I’m thinking about applying. I definitely have some options and I’m figuring that out right now.”
Martin praises Schweitzer and the entire art department for the foundation they gave them to make those decisions. “I think studying art is so important, and the art program here is wonderful. In this small environment, you get to know everyone and it’s such a cool space. I could never have imagined the opportunities that I’ve gotten while being here.”