Because my artistic skills begin and end with stick figures, I am always in awe of artists who create works that move you emotionally and show their depth of creative visual acuity. Mary Nelson Sinclair is one of those people. I shy away from describing her painting, because each viewer sees their own interpretation, but will say it is at once rich and ethereal, emotive and vibrant with energy. She also creates objets and furniture with her equally talented husband, Matthew Cruise of Corbin Cruise. A recent first-time mom, Mary took time out of her hectic schedule to share the artists who inspire her, how motherhood has run roughshod over the best intentions of her daily goals, and her version of Proust’s madeleine.
How do you describe who you are and what you do? I am a painter. I also collaborate with my husband so I’ve gone from not just being a painter but being a designer with him. I’ve always been a little scared to say artist. You can be an artist in so many different ways. I see business people as artists; they’re creative in how they manage. A finance person can be an artist of numbers. We also live in an era where I feel like when you look at Instagram, everyone is an artist or a painter or whatever. I guess I am a creative or a maker–I hate this term, but those are the two words that people like to use right now.
What was your path to becoming a creative? When I was little I was dyslexic (or I am dyslexic, but feel like I’ve grown out of it). During reading time in first grade, I would go to a separate tutor and language therapy class with a few other kids. They taught us how to read and spell in an art therapy way; we would take our spelling tests in a sandbox. So I was taught to express myself and learn in a different way. I got to a point where I was the fastest reader in the class, best speller in the class. It really was effective for me.
In terms of skill and learning oil painting and life drawing, that started in high school, at the Millbrook School. The head of the department was my teacher throughout my time in high school, Mr. Hardy. He’s still there. He really honed in on me and pushed me to explore that side of my work. He also urged me to apply to Pratt and I got in for my freshman year but the idea of art school was a little intense, so I ended up going to the College of Charleston for two years. Then I finally thought, “You know what? I do want to do this art school thing.” So, I ended up going to Pratt after my sophomore year. During my time there I experimented in different industries with internships. I interned at Chanel, for Lauren Goodman at Domino magazine for almost two years. I did an internship at Phillips and that was in 2008, 2009, not the most ideal time to be working at an auction house.
I ended up working for a textile designer, Christine Van Der Hurd, because another way I thought I could apply my artistic abilities was to design fabric at some point. Her firm is based in London but she had a studio here as well. I worked there for three years and got great experience on how to run a small business and do sales.
I had been painting on the side and selling work, so I just said, “I need to do this full time and see how it goes.” And it was around the time that Instagram was becoming this platform where you could be exposed to people that wouldn’t have found you otherwise. I had met gallery owner Blair Clarke at that point and she wanted to try to start selling my work. It all came together and it was time for me to just say, “All right. I’m going to take this leap of faith and go for it and work for myself.”
I was personally a little reluctant about embracing Instagram in the beginning, but realized you just have to embrace it in this day and age, because that’s where everybody’s eyes are. It’s true and in terms of selling work it’s, “All right, is someone really going to want to spend 10,000 dollars on a painting that they see on Instagram?” I think the answer is yes, some people will. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the gallery Levy Gorvy? They’re up on Madison Avenue. There was a Wall Street Journal article recently and Brett Gorvy talked about the art world on Instagram. He said, “I sold a Basquiat painting for, I don’t know, maybe 2,000,000 million over Instagram to some Chinese collector.” He said, “It is super powerful.” But, for me, it does cheapen things. I’m just like, “I don’t know.”
How do you describe your work?I would say always changing, always evolving. I’m trying to go a little more representational. I couldn’t work as much when I was pregnant, I was really sick and I also couldn’t work with oil paint. Then there is the metal work that I do with my husband, that’s very different from my paintings.
Can you talk a little bit about that? So, to go back to Pratt, not only did I study painting but I also studied print making. The work between painting and print making, it’s very different looking because they’re different mediums, so it’s a little more graphic. I loved my intaglio class, which is where you etch a design or an image into copper and then print it on the press on paper. I wasn’t really into the end result on paper, I was into the process of eating away at the copper and the chemicals you use. When my husband showed me this patina he was using on brass, I was like, “Huh, this is very similar to that same process in print making.” I started messing around with it and the levels of the shagreen pattern that I predominately use on the brass pieces.
It just weirdly fell into place and then we thought well, why not apply it to actual objets and furniture, not just a painting. So, it works out a whole different part of my brain because not only am I just painting a finish on something, I’m actually thinking about a 3D object and what should it look like, how will it look with something on it.
Are the pieces made to order? They are. KRB, a store owned by Kate Rheinstein Brodskey on 74th Street, has an inventory of obelisks and a few of Mathew’s furniture pieces. Our mirrors are the newest thing that we’re doing and those are made to order. But say you want an obelisk size and a different pattern–everything can be commissioned.
What inspires you? I feel so inundated with inspiration because of what we have at our fingertips 24/7. I like looking at interiors, I keep magazines and literally have Elle Decors from when I was 18 years old. With my mom being very Southern, and [spending a lot of time at]my grandmother’s house [in Mississippi], interiors have always been my foundation for anything beautiful. For me, the whole aesthetic world is based in interiors. But then I love looking at old botanicals or scientific drawings of ocean creatures or fauna. That’s where you can get those beautiful organic patterns. And travel, I’ve been to India, I’ve been to Morocco. I’m very much inspired by the other Islamic and Eastern cultures and the color and the design and the patterns that you find there.
And process, a lot of my work is about process and how a material can take on a life of itself and surrendering myself to the process and then also trying to manipulate it as well.
Other artists you admire: Helen Frankenthaler, Louise Bourgeois, Mary Weatherford, Rita Ackermann.
Last thing that really caught your eye or got stuck in your head? The best place for me to look at is my saved images on Instagram. There’s a Claude Lelanne, design–a ginkgo bench. The work is beautiful. I mean, it’s unbelievable.
What do you hope somebody takes away from your work? Because I’m not so representational, I hope that people can look at my work and find something that it means or represents for them. Not to sound corny at all, but a lot of my work in the past has been about being, a moment in time and being frozen. Time is a precious thing to me, and I hope that that’s what the viewer can see is a moment in time.
What of your attributes that helps you succeed: I think I’m one of the few artists that actually likes talking to a collector. I don’t want to say selling my work because I don’t want to act like a salesman, but I think when people feel like an artist is comfortable about their work I think that helps. I’m from Texas, I’m happy and nice to people.
Do you have any role models? My mother for sure and Christine Van der Hurd. She was the only woman who I worked for who owns her own business and has run it for over 30 years. She never borrowed money. It was really interesting and educational for me to see that.
Best career advice you’ve received or you’d share with somebody else? I feel like everyone hears this but it’s true–if you’re not taking any risks there’s no way to make any progress. Otherwise, you just become stuck and complacent and I’ve been guilty of that. Also, putting yourself out there and not being afraid to reach out to someone that you do look up to and say, “Hey, can I take you for a coffee? I’d love to talk about what you think about my work. Or what you think about X or Y.” It doesn’t have to be someone in your industry, it could be someone that is a role model to you. And asking questions. I think asking questions is really important. I’m a huge question asker.
To date, what do you think has been your biggest success? And then the opposite, what do you think has been your biggest dud or failure and what did you take away from it? In some ways I see failure as being a success because you know, “Okay, that doesn’t work and now I can move on and I know I can be successful because I had that failure”. But, specifically, I had a series of paintings that totally flopped. One painting out of eight sold and I thought, “All right. Well, I really liked that but it’s not what everybody else likes and it’s not what they wanted from me.” Maybe I shouldn’t gauge whether or not the series was a success based on whether or not it sold. It was successful to me but it failed in terms of bringing me an income.
What motivates you? Right now a small human.
Three words that describe you: Impulsive, gregarious, loyal.
Three words that describe your work: Atmospheric, vibrant, layered.
What’s next for your work? I have a show at my gallery Hidell Brooks, in Charlotte, North Carolina, in the fall. I’m picking up where I left off last year. I made three paintings right about the time I found out I was pregnant. Then I stopped. They’re abstracts but a little more representational; they have this floral vibe to them. I’m picking up on those but with a little bit more of a focus on actually using floral as a reference. It’s nothing new in art history.
Is anything new? No, nothing is new. If you look at art history, most major artists have this period where they’re looking at florals and there’s a reason. And it will be the first time that I’m actually using something that representational. Using the aesthetic from this poured series from last year, I’m going to be pushing in that direction. Then, I would like to do more furniture pieces. It’s just always how much time do we have? It’s all so time consuming. And hopefully we’ll expand. I would love to have an outpost in London. I’ve spoken to my old boss about doing something with her so we can get our name out in that audience.
Life goals: To get my Masters in Fine Arts, be a good mother and wife, and to always enjoy the present.
Daily goals: Brush my teeth before noon. I’m not even kidding, that’s how it is. I won’t shy away from the new mom realities because I feel like we live in an age where Instagram makes motherhood look like this beautiful fucking thing and it is but it’s also really daunting. So, I’ll be honest, that’s a daily goal–to brush my teeth before noon. It’s getting easier. It’s getting earlier in the day.
Favorite inspirational/motivational book: I have a few. Just Kids, by Patti Smith. It’s such a great book and I loved reading about New York at that time. Robert (Mapplethorpe) went to Pratt, and there’s all these little references to these places that were around campus. There’s another book that’s sort of similar but it’s fiction, it’s called, The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner. It’s same era, another artist chick in New York in the ’60s, ’70s. And then to be honest, the last year has been parenting books. My newest one is Montessori from the Start, it came in the mail yesterday.
Daily rituals: I mean, I did, for sure. Those have gone out the window, too. I would say making my coffee and having that set up first thing in the morning is, honestly, most important. I would love to be able to sit and meditate everyday but…. I would say taking 20 minutes a day to go do something for myself, and it’s not the same specific thing everyday. My husband makes sure I do that. He says, “Go out for a walk. Go do something for yourself.”
Hidden talents/hobbies: I feel like because I do what I do, not really. I’m able to do what I love and not to say that painting is a hobby, for a lot of people it is because they have a nice, stable steady job.
Favorite charity: I love Free Arts NYC. There’s one that I always wanted to get involved with and, of course, now it’s going to be even harder, which is God’s Love We Deliver. My mother’s friend who passed away a couple of years ago, not from HIV but he was HIV positive, was very involved and it’s just something that I want to give my time to. And honestly, this isn’t really a charity but I give back to my high school as much as I can. It’s a nonprofit and it really did shape who I am today.
Do you collect anything? I’m a little bit of a hoarder. I collect French opaline, the beautiful turquoise glass. My mom bought me a piece years ago and then it just snowballed. Now I hunt for it and it’s a total unicorn, if you find it, it’s insanely expensive.
Favorite small indulgence: I was buying an oat milk latte at our little Brooklyn coffee shop everyday and they’re like seven dollars. Finally I thought, “I’m going to make these at home.” Now, I have my frother, I have my oat milk.
Biggest splurge: Our barn/studio that we are currently working on upstate!
Album currently on repeat: I’ve gone back to middle school and have been listening to a lot of Radiohead lately. My favorite album that’s literally been on for the past two weeks, is The Bin.
Scent that brings back memories: I love this question. It’s bacon. Every time I smell it, I’m immediately transported back to my grandmother’s house because that’s the scent that woke you up to in the morning. Her cook would be preparing this amazing meal. You would start with a grapefruit with the little grapefruit spoon that’s spikey at the end. Then she would bring out this plate of bacon, a poached egg, and this toast that no one in our family can replicate. We swear she caramelized it or something. But, that smell and actually, it’s the house my mom grew up in Mississippi where this all took place. Last year, it burnt to the ground in a freak accident (my grandmother had passed away before.) And it was also when I found out I was pregnant. It was the weirdest day of my life.
Every time I smell someone cooking bacon, I get this feeling of “Oh my god, I’m back there.” It can bring tears to my eyes.
Lucky charm: I’m more of a lucky number person. 18 is a huge number for me, it’s just popped up in my life in weird ways. I’m not going to lie, I was hell bent on having our child be born in 2018.
And you made it? We made it.
Favorite hour of the day: It used to be 5:00 pm but now that’s the witching hour. And it’s definitely never been the morning and never will be. You know what? I would say late morning. Because that’s when baby is happiest–she’s happy, she’s fed, she’s slept. It’s fun and we have a really nice time together.
Follow Mary Nelson Sinclair: Instagram.