Illusion, experience and dream: the soft pastel drawings of Mary Herbert
The artist creates blurred drawings that have a “crackly and fuzzy” feeling, using this language to explore dreams and memories.
- Harry Bennett
- 11 November 2020
- Reading Time
- 4 minute read
Mary Herbert was born in Welwyn Garden City before she moved to Broxbourne in the Lea Valley, so there are no bonus points for guessing what first inspired her beautiful, ethereal, soft pastel drawings. “I spent a lot of time buried in music and the landscape around where I grew up – the canals and marshland and woods,” says the artist, now based in South East London. “As soon as I was old enough, I’d escape into London to go to gigs and see art.”
She went further in 2006, moving to Archway in the capital to do her art foundation at Byam Shaw, where her eyes were opened to many different ways of drawing. She then moved to Peckham for her Goldsmith’s BA, and then on again to gain a postgraduate diploma at the prestigious Royal Drawing School. “I feel pretty lucky to have had access to both the city and countryside growing up,” she says, explaining that this has had an influence on the work she produces.
“I was lucky to have a home environment growing up which encouraged play in all its forms,” Mary recalls. “Art was one of the places where I could explore ideas and feelings and ask the questions I had rattling around in my head without needing to give concrete answers.” First starting to take photos around the age of 11, Mary distinctly remembers “feeling a sense of being able to fix the things I was seeing into something that I could look at again and show other people,” often taking photographs of objects and scenes generally considered fairly insignificant and everyday. “It gave me a sort of magical feeling to see them formed out of light and chemicals on some paper,” she says.
“During my degree there was a lot of questioning of the relevance of skill in making art, and any drawing I did, I’d burrow away into a folder,” Mary says, “not being brave enough to show anyone or say it was my work.” Mary’s work still contains something of that initial sensitivity however, which now reveals itself in a subtle tone of voice and softer hues.
After literally going back to the drawing board in her postgraduate diploma, Mary expresses the importance of understanding the simplicity of drawing, in doing so finding the practice that feels the most natural – using the simplest materials available, “as well as focusing on putting the hours into this one practice.” This emphasis on materiality is instinctive within Mary’s practice and she cherishes the tactile nature of physical mark-making (“It never fails to excite me,” she tells us).
Similarly, she found inspiration after her own schooling, going into museum and gallery education, where she continued to learn from making alongside others, including children. “I enjoyed witnessing the freedom of imagination that children have when making,” Mary says, explaining that she thinks “non-verbal communication is undervalued in our education system and this excludes many people and forms of learning.”
Mary’s work has a calmness to it – a tenderness that reveals more the more you look at it. There is a kind of poetry to it. She explains that several themes recur throughout her work – dreams, memories and streams of consciousness – “although the distinction between these three things is pretty negligible and often they’re all three at once,” she points out. Recently reading texts that explore themes of loss, nature, nostalgia, experience and trauma, as well as “how [these feelings] are held in the body,” telling us “most of them come from a personal enquiry into these things, which I find really compelling.”
Just as the themes blur, so too do the soft pastels that Mary works with, creating a gentle and liminal feel to the work. “Perhaps this blurred gaze in my images,” Mary suggests, “is poking around in the photographic realm... There is also something about energy or charge with the blurred image – it’s not smooth and sleek but crackly and fuzzy.” In creating a fraught energy to the work, Mary leaves the audience with a hazy, dreamlike sensation. She suggests that this may have come from when she first discussed her dreams during therapy, using the ambiguity and subtlety found in their interpretation to function “as a door into all the stuff we can’t control or logically explain, the unknown, and how the activity of dreaming links to memory, particularly in a trans-generational or collective sense.”
Across this year’s lockdown as things were slowing down, Mary tells us that the reduction of “external stimulus definitely allowed a quietness to happen in which I found it easier to access the stuff that was going on inside.” In a series depicting the dreams she had, Mary had a breakthrough in translating her feelings; finding a solace in translating both her feelings and finding solace in bringing together observations from the outside world and what was going on inside, “I think also because this feeling that everyone was being affected by the same thing at once (albeit in very different ways) was something that I’d never experienced before, and I found it gave a weird sense of purpose to the images that were coming out.”
In the process of working on ‘several upcoming shows, Mary is excited about the coming year; beginning to return to larger-scale work, saying, “I’ve begun painting a bit more now I’m back in the studio and so I’m also excited about taking the language I’m finding in drawing into painting.”
Mary Herbert: A long time in the desert (© Mary Herbert, 2020)
About the Author
After graduating from Winchester School of Art, studying graphic arts, Harry worked as a graphic designer before joining It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in March 2020. He nows works as a freelance writer and designer, and is one half of Studio Ground Floor.