Mary Bentz Gilkerson is an artist who uses color and light to connect people to the experience of place. Gilkerson notes, “For the last four years I have been making a small painting every day inspired by the landscapes I travel through, mainly near the roads and highways around Columbia, SC, especially Lower Richland. I’m drawn to the ordinary spaces we move through, especially ones that are within view from the road, a strange intersection of nature and culture. We move so fast that we don’t take time to observe the world around us in the way that people did before modern transportation and technology came along. My work seeks to focus on the shifting patterns of light and color that tell us what time of day and season it is, to notice the small and subtle as well as the large and grand.”
Gilkerson holds an MFA in drawing and painting from the University of South Carolina. A native South Carolinian, she lives and works in Columbia where she is a professor of art at Columbia College. She has received grants from the S.C. Arts Commission and the Cultural Council of Richland and Lexington Counties in addition to having been selected as a Southern Arts Federation Fellowship Finalist. Her work is in the permanent collections of McKissick Museum, Palmetto Health, Morris Communications Company, and Seibels Bruce Group, among others. She has been recognized for excellence in teaching by the South Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities (SCICU).
A sense of place, a connectedness to the land, is very important to me. Maybe that’s part of being Southern. You can be completely immersed in the landscape here in the Deep South, sometimes to the point of being overwhelmed. The atmosphere, the color and light, take on a physical quality that I’m trying to capture in my paintings.
I don’t feel like that ties me to recreating the landscape I’ve worked in literally. In fact by the time I’m finished it may look more like an entirely new, very different landscape. My work is much more about the EXPERIENCE of place than the reproduction of place. I’m interested in the light, in the way that it reveals atmosphere, weather and passage of time through the play of light and shadow. These can completely transform the natural forms of the environment, creating an entirely different emotional and visual response from the viewer.
For the last several years I have been working with places that I consider deeply engaging and mysterious – rural Charleston, Edisto Island, Edisto River, Cowassee Basin, Congaree Swamp and Three Rivers Greenway in the middle of urban Columbia, SC. These are all places that I have a personal connection to, landscapes that I feel like I engage with on a regular basis.
Direct experience is an important part of my approach. When I’m working in an area, I take regular walks, repeating the same path over and over in different weather and different times of the year. I make drawings, sketches and photographs on site that become the source material for my work in the studio. In the process of walking and drawing something about the essence of the place begins to take over, something that is found in the bare bones of the lines that describe the relationship of earth, sky and water, reflection and light.
When I paint, I’m looking for light: the way it moves across the surface of the landscape revealing its subtle topography. The process of close observation in painting is one of seeking out subtle differences, like a tracker looking for footprints. The more you observe, the more you see. You begin to see the changes that differences in the light, some minute and some dramatic, make in the way that we see the forms. The same vista will appear completely different depending on the time of day and the weather. I’m fascinated by how those things change, so I’ll keep going back to the same spots over and over again. Returning to paint the same part of the landscape means that I become very familiar with it, but I’m still surprised at times by the colors created by the light.