Kenyan artist Mary Collis had the foresight at the outset of the Covid-19 curfews and cessation of movement to consider how some folks could go stir-crazy without the opportunity to have a bit of rare beauty in their daily life and possibly even see a beautiful painting or two or three.
Or at least they could have a chance to see dazzling colours blended in bouquets and virtual explosions on Facebook to fill their hearts with sweet ideas rather than the dreaded notions of testing positive and then where would that lead?
So Mary decided to design a timely online exhibition of artworks that she has created over the past 30 odd years. Her only desire in so doing, she said, was to ‘uplift everyone’s day during their house arrest.’
Currently she’s about to post her 80th artwork on Facebook. Posting one almost every day, Mary might not have known she would be running her one-day, one-work exhibition for so long.
But that is no problem for this prolific expressionist painter whose versatility, vitality and sheer love of visual art has kept her vision fresh and ever-alive to the infinite array of beautiful images to be found all over the country.
Her online exhibition requires patience however since she never offers more than one image a day. But for that one, she invariably annotates it, giving a brief caption including the title, size and medium used, be it oil or acrylic paints or watercolors.
She often explains the artwork’s source of inspiration and often shares a brief anecdotal story to offer context and location of the art. She occasionally will tell who bought the painting, when and where it currently resides, be it in Mumbai, Zurich, London or the south of France.
Occasionally, she will quote either another painter as her source of inspiration, be it Gustav Klimt, Pierre Bonnard or even the Scottish artist Dame Elizabeth Blackadder.
She can also refer to poets like Sylvia Plath, novelists like George Sand and of course, photographers like her award-winning daughter Mia whose childhood sketch that Mary painted and is Number 64 in her online collection.
Very much a ‘plein air’ (or outdoor) painter, most of Mary’s artworks were created on site in the open air. Her most memorable canvases are probably her series of gardens that she’s painted over the years, many of which can be found in and around Nairobi.
She spent many hours painting the vast and multicoloured garden of the late Erica Boswell in Tigoni. The fashion designer who owned Jax Boutique on Kimathi Street (across from the Stanley Hotel) for many years had given Mary free access to come and recreate the riotous color schemes that Nature (with assistance from Erica and her gardener) had designed in the Boswell garden.
But Mary has covered an array of other topics in her exhibition. For instance, her ‘Red Rain’ is an expressionist work that she admits she wishes she still owned since it has sentimental as well as aesthetic value. It served as a cover for one issue of ‘Msani’, the short-lived art magazine that she and Carol Lees, as co-founders of the late RaMoMa Gallery, created in the early 2000s.
She also spends some time periodically in Cape Town where she creates Monet-like studies of the sea and the skies. Painting them at various hours of the day and month, she has clearly found both the waters of False Bay and the skies at the Cape infinitely fascinating.
Depending on how much longer we will be living in lockdown mode, we may have a chance to see many more of those subtle yet colorful studies of Nature’s unfettered beauty.
Having been trained as an interior designer, Mary ranks among the so-called ‘self-taught’ artists who has learned from the masters, only via books (which preceded YouTube videos as effective learning tools).
One valuable lesson that Mary’s ‘Lockdown’ Exhibition has to offer, especially to fellow artists, is the value of carefully and conscientiously documenting your artworks.
For Mary, may no longer own most of the paintings she has exhibited in her daily show; but since she has taken care to keep high-resolution photos of all her work, including relevant details, she is able to re-introduce herself to us as one of Kenya’s most important expressionist painters.
Hopefully, she will soon transform her show into a book, YouTube video or documentary film to introduce an even wider audience to her artistry.