Mussorgsky, Mt. Baldy, childhood memories — a new mural by acclaimed artist Mary Weatherford captures a range of her emotions and reactions, especially her responses to Claremont’s landscape and environment.
The mural’s installation in the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum was celebrated with a dinner and public talk held in September in the Security Pacific Dining room, where the 117” high x 234” wide canvas covers an entire section of the room’s southern wall.
Through the years, the Athenaeum has hosted a stellar array of artists, educators, and captains of industry, but Weatherford is the first to leave something behind … a majestic mixedmedia abstract canvas (called “From the mountain to the sea”) that incorporates her signature use of neon lighting.
“I wanted to make something unique that is connected to this campus,” she explained during a public conversation with Professor Robert Faggen, the Gould Center’s director. “What makes this place so special? Well, there’s a mountain not very far from us. I kept thinking about it.”
Layers of earth-and-stone colors — elemental greens and varieties of black—mingle with blues that “seep like water, like the ocean,” she said. “I realized I wasn’t thinking only of Mt. Baldy but of the ocean, too.”
Other things influenced the work’s creation as well —Van Gogh’s double-square canvases and the orchestral force of Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” which her father played for her when she was a child.
Faggen asked the Ojai-born artist if there was a point in her process when the color palette began to dictate what the artwork would become.
“I knew I wanted it to be a dark painting,” Weatherford said. “This painting is supposed to be about Mt. Baldy, really. But the painting starts to tell me what to do, not the other way around. I just have to relent and go in the direction the painting is going.”
Guests included many of Weatherford’s students, college faculty and staff, Trustee Chair David Mgrublian ’82 P’11, President Hiram Chodosh, and several members of the Los Angeles art community, including David Kordansky (who has exhibited Weatherford’s work in his gallery) and former MOCA Chief Curator Paul Schimmel.
Weatherford told the audience that painting on such a large canvas posed certain unique challenges.
“I stretch the canvas on the floor and then take it off the stretcher bars which is a whole process,” she said. “I put a lot of gesso on it mixed with marble dust. That makes the paint very heavy. It looks like a fresco.”
Weatherford spent a year creating the mural—and the Athenaeum will serve as its home for the next year. This will provide students with a special opportunity to closely examine the artist’s layering of color and use of neon lighting. The electrical cords conducting the flow of argon gas into the tubing to create the neon effect are visible across the painting. The artist said it was a conscious decision based on the rule of form following function.
“The light makes a cut or hole in your vision field,” she said. “You can’t look at the painting and look at the light at the same time. It’s a perceptual oddity.”
During a short Q & A, Weatherford was asked about her favorite stage of creation.
“When it’s done,” she said, drawing a laugh from the audience. “No, no, it’s true. What I enjoy most is the end, when I can see that it finally works.”
At the evening’s conclusion, President Chodosh thanked several people for their leadership and vision in nurturing the arts at CMC, especially Faggen, Trustee Christopher Walker ’69, and late Trustee Bart Evans ’70. He also invited audience members to exit by a side door and observe how the mural’s neon and colors shimmer wonderfully on the quad, especially at night.
“I don’t think this space will ever be the same after tonight,” he said.
Tom Johnson writes and blogs for various publications, including People Magazine and TVLand.com.