Mary Herbert’s pastel-hazed topology of the unconscious mind

Mary Herbert’s art exists as a sustained engagement with and exploration of that which is elusive and shifting—memory, dreams, indefinable sensations, the terra incognita of the unconscious mind. Working primarily with pastels on paper, the London-based artist creates visions that appear both intimate and distant, familiar and uncanny, solid and spectral. Landscapes and figures drift just beyond the reach of conscious seeing, like half-remembered faces surfacing in the hazy realm between sleeping and waking. Mary’s monochrome drawings evoke the quality of blurred photographs taken on black and white film, recalling her early work during her undergraduate degree which focused on the materiality of photographs. In Mary’s current work, informed by her postgraduate studies at the Royal Drawing School, this fascination with photo-documentation has evolved into a scepticism of the purported capacity of the photograph to deliver an objective vision of reality. Her smoky greyscale images are, like photographs, composed of light and shadow, and yet, rather than attempting to convey a photographic reality, the blurred landscapes and subjects instead attest to the unreliability of that represented reality.

The concepts underlying Mary’s practice of image-making converge in her colour pastel drawings. Distant mountains loom over seascapes and forests; plants and animals appear to radiate with an ethereal, phosphorescent glow; figures and faces emerge only to dissolve at the threshold of clear perceptibility. Cool, muted hues and swathes of shadowy charcoal are disrupted by bright flares of vivid reds and oranges, like a dusky dreamscape giving way to moments of startling clarity. Mary’s images gesture towards the aspect of Jungian psychology which theorises the existence of a “collective unconscious”, a kind of memory vault in the unconscious mind connected to ancient, ancestral, universal knowledge. The pastel haze of Mary’s drawings offers a vision of this known unknown, glimpsed through the fog of memory, or through the hazy veil between the conscious and the unconscious.

‘Smoke dream’, soft pastel on paper, 16 x 13 cm

AMM: Hi Mary! What have been some key moments that led to you pursuing art as a career? Have you always known you wanted to be an artist?

MH: It’s been a slow coming to terms I think rather than something I have always known. I think a lot of artists say a similar thing, but it’s something I can’t not do. I was lucky to have a home environment growing up which encouraged play in all its forms, and art was one of the places where I could explore ideas and feelings and ask the questions that were rattling around in my head without needing to give concrete answers, and so I think my curiosity ended up being funnelled into it. It’s taken me a long time to grow in confidence but there have been a couple of moments in my life which gave perspective on it and pushed me to do it, usually involving a loss
of some kind.

AMM: Between your undergraduate studies in fine art and your postgraduate focus on drawing, how have your work and your practice evolved?

MH: My foundation and undergraduate courses were really expansive in terms of using everything as material for work, and my practice at Goldsmiths was quite sculptural, although the source material was usually photographic imagery. I spent a few years after graduating working in museum and gallery education, where I became interested in the therapeutic potential of art, and learned a lot from making work with those who don’t necessarily identify as artists—including children. One of the discoveries through this work was re-connecting to drawing, and seeing myself as someone who could do it. I think there is a myth that we are told about drawing in school which is pretty toxic and which I have experienced a lot in working with people. There is a fear that we’ll do it wrong and that if we can’t represent reality as photographically as possible, that we can’t draw. I think non-verbal communication is undervalued in our education system and this excludes many people and forms of learning. Doing a postgraduate course in drawing was a decision to go back to square one in a way, and practise making work with the simplest materials possible, as well as focusing on putting the hours into this one practice.

I think all of these experiences have formed the work I’m making now, but drawing definitely feels like the most natural way in to making work for me.

‘Wait a while here’, soft pastel on paper, 26.5 x 23 cm

AMM: Can you tell us about some of the materials you use in your work? Do you find any particular advantages or disadvantages related to your chosen medium?

MH: At the moment, I’m mainly working on paper, and I’ve got a bit addicted to a particular kind of watercolour paper. Surface is really important, not that it has to be new and pristine—I love working on found bits and pieces and in fact the more precious the surface and time invested in preparing it, the more blocked I feel about working on it, but it’s nice when the surface feels good to work on and feels right for what you’re trying to do on it. I feel like different materials lend themselves to different modes of working for me. If I’m working with some imagery that I have an idea of already, then soft pastel is my first point of call, but if I’m just trying to get stuff out then I might experiment with materials that I feel less fluent with, like paint, ink and oil pastel. Not to have to think too consciously about things whilst working is really helpful for me so I think I’ve gravitated towards materials that can just be picked up without too much technical knowledge. I’m one for over-complicating things when I think too much, so simplifying materials helps!

AMM: We love the short descriptions which accompany your posts on Instagram—we notice that you reference dreams a lot. Are dreams and the interpretation of dreams important in your practice? Do you keep a dream diary?

MH: Dreams are something I’ve fairly recently become conscious of drawing from in my work. I think a seed was planted when I talked about a dream I had in therapy. When we spoke about this particular dream, the therapist asked questions I never would have thought to ask. I was able to imagine what I would say to someone or how the darkness or a fire made me feel (in this dream the fire was burning down a house but it felt liberating). Things which symbolise fear don’t always make us fearful in dreams, and this idea of the fluidity or plurality of images and symbols fascinates me—how one thing can embody several opposing forces at once. I think this opened out a little door in my work, a reason to accept and take responsibility for some of the imagery that kept on recurring in my work before. I think one of the things that keeps me drawn to dreams is how they 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. Jung had this idea that dreams are a sort of embedded knowledge that we have of ourselves and what came before us, as well as sometimes providing foresight. I think the state of dreaming goes against a lot of how we are conditioned to see things—it is a non-linear activity, linking to feminine, cyclical, spiral conceptions of time rather than a completely forward and upward progression.

I don’t keep a dream diary as such but my sketchbook functions as a kind of dumping ground and then a place to sift through these things. There’s no judgement in there and it’s full of small scribbly thumbnail drawings. Since lockdown started I can see there are more regular drawings which relate to dreams. I think having less sensory input from the outside world has somehow enabled more access to the inner one. It’s fluid too, and I’m interested in how these images feel when I’m consciously making them, in wakeful hours.

‘Another Sea’, soft pastel on paper, 14 x 25 cm

AMM: The hazy quality of your images is very compelling—can you tell us about this use of a blurred gaze?

MH: It’s something that evolved through drawing a lot, and in parallel to coming to know that it’s the stuff that is inside that I’m trying to get at. A completely sharp focus or a perspectival approach to image making always felt a bit jarring for me when I tried to do it, like there was too much information and it wasn’t leaving enough space, yet there is definitely something about making images of recognisable things that appeals to me.
I find the idea of illusion very interesting. We know a two dimensional image is an illusion, but when it is a photograph we also can’t help but read it as a documentation of something that truly exists. We’re constantly communicating through photographic images and the more we do, the more blurry and subjective they become as documents of truth or reality. So perhaps this blurred gaze is poking around in this photographic realm, and maybe operating just a little outside it, but borrowing from it.

There is also something about energy or charge with the blurred image—it’s not smooth and sleek but crackly and fuzzy. I want the images to feel charged even when serene and perhaps the hazy sensation is one way I’ve found to do this.

AMM: There is a definite vein of the mythic and otherworldly running through your work—can you expand on the thinking behind this? Are you presenting imagined narratives, making allusions to pre-existing stories, or rather crafting scenes according to imaginative intuition and memory?

MH: I’m definitely acting on what’s coming up rather than making allusions to pre-existing narratives consciously, but I love the feeling when images that come up might hold the same space as these ideas. I’ve recently been allowing myself to play more freely with this imagery. I have been finding that when I finish a drawing, sometimes I’ll have a moment at which I can directly associate the imagery with something that’s going on inside or around me—it’s quite a strange feeling. I would like to read more around myth and its connection to the unconscious. I have a copy of Women Who Run with the Wolves as a starting point.

I also see the otherworldly and mythic reflected in the work of a lot of my peers and contemporaries and I wonder if it’s a reaction to the current moment that we find ourselves in the midst of in the UK and globally. Our systems, ideas of progress, capitalism and patriarchy which are breaking, environmental destruction, abuse of power and oppression, and all of them constantly reflected back at us through imagery—the consumption of which has been heightened during the pandemic. I feel like in these circumstances the imagery that we make as artists is perhaps bound to be otherworldly.

‘A mirror’, soft pastel on paper, 14 x 21 cm

AMM: What do you hope to make the viewers of your art see or feel?

MH: When someone feels something about a work I have made, it makes me want to keep going. I feel a bit like I’m digging inside of myself for things which might make some kind of sense to me, and by extension others—if someone feels something then this ‘charge’ I’m searching for is activated and it’s working. That’s a really good feeling. I hope that the things a viewer might see or feel are nuanced and maybe conflicting, and perhaps not the same as when looking at the work for a second or third time.

AMM: What kind of visual references influence your work? Are there any particular artists whose work you feel resonates with your own?

MH: There are so many artists and visual references like layered strata that influence my work. I find landscape itself and the imagery of nature to be a rich source, as well as the various ways people have depicted it over time. I’ve recently been looking at optical phenomena such as the Brocken Spectre (something I saw while walking and didn’t know it had its own name) which is a kind of halo of light around a shadow cast over mist.

I’ve recently discovered the work of Katelyn Eichwald whose paintings I keep returning to. Often small scale and intimate, her work feels like it has a lot in common with the kind of writing I love, where a lot is said with just enough. I admire the way she can paint an image that explores the edges of many things—they can feel sinister, humorous and sensitive, otherworldly and everyday all at once. Maja Ruznic is a painter whose work really resonates for me at the moment. Her process of making is intuitive and the resulting paintings seem to vibrate and appear and disappear from the canvas. I admire the way she talks about her process and the influences in her work. She talks about trans-generational trauma and healing, nostalgia, and also a spiritual connection with the world and her work, which is something that a lot of the artists whose work I admire have some level of enquiry into. I also feel really lucky that I have creative relationships with other artists whose work really resonates with me and who I learn from. Holly Mills and Cheri Smith are two artists I feel particularly close to and talk about work a lot with.

‘Slipping through fingers’, soft pastel on paper, 17 x 28 cm

AMM: Beyond the visual, where do you find inspiration—for example, writing, philosophical theory?

MH: I find reading really important, although I am quite slow as I’m constantly writing out quotes. I don’t often directly reference text while making, it’s more that it seeps in and comes out in unexpected ways. A few texts have been really influential for me recently: Rebecca Solnit’s A field guide to getting lost, Maggie Nelson’s Jane: A Murder, Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain, Bessel Van Der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score, and Sventlana Boym’s The future of nostalgia. These texts variously explore ideas of dreaming, the unconscious, embodied experience, our relationship to nature, loss, illusion, nostalgia, collectivity, and trauma and how it’s held in the body. Most of them come from a personal enquiry into these things, which I find really compelling.
I have also been slowly reading Jung’s autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections. It’s an autobiography made up of accounts of inner experiences rather than descriptions of things that happened to him. I found this idea of writing a life story purely through inner experiences helpful, and reading it has given a bit more form to my understanding of the idea of the unconscious—although I still feel like it’s a slippery concept, which makes it all the more interesting. He even at one point describes it in spatial terms: “everything which arises out of the unconscious has a top and a bottom, an inside and an outside”.

AMM: What is your process when it comes to creating a piece of work? Do you work from photographs, memory, imagination?

MH: With my recent small pastel works, they usually start with thumbnail drawings in my sketchbook. These are sometimes recollections of dreams, memories and streams of consciousness (although the distinction between these three things is pretty negligible and often they’re all three at once). The thumbnail drawings tend to dictate the format of the paper. I’ll often start a few versions of the same thing so I can work between them. Sometimes I’ll have an idea of what colours make up the image and other times I have to find it through the drawing. I’ve been using lots of different source imagery for reference which I sometimes find because I need to reference a specific thing and sometimes I’m not sure what I’m looking for and stumble across it.

AMM: How has your time participating in artist residencies impacted or changed the way you work?

MH: Residencies have been really formative for me and I feel very lucky to have had those experiences. Both residencies have been in Scotland, and experiencing that landscape played a big part in the making of the subsequent body of work. The first residency was actually the first time I’d had a whole studio to myself and this was a big discovery too—I was able to work without the feeling of being watched. Meeting and working with other artists on the residencies was also brilliant—it’s a really special way to get to know another person and their practice as you are in a sort of art-making catalyst.

‘Holding onto something’, soft pastel on paper, 14 x 21 cm

AMM: What is your setup like when working?

MH: I like to switch between working small and large scale, and so I’ll sometimes work at a desk and sometimes on the walls or floors in my studio. My lockdown discovery has been having all my pastels out on my desk. I would usually have them in tupperware boxes and cart them between the studio and home in case I wanted to draw something I saw, but since lockdown I’ve had all the colours out on my desk and for once I can see them all together. It sounds like a really small thing, but this has definitely impacted the way I’m using colour in the drawings.

AMM: When you’re not making art, how do you spend your time?

MH: I like to walk—at the moment this involves walking as many different routes around local parks, but usually I’ll find any excuse to get out into big open space. I also miss swimming a lot at the moment, and am dreaming of going to the sea or a lake. I have discovered skipping during lockdown—I never learned to skip as a child but recently
I had one of those moments where something clicks, and suddenly I could skip. It reminded me of when I learned to tie my shoelaces.

AMM: What do you like about the artistic community in London? Do you find much opportunity for collaboration and creative exchange?

MH: London is like a swirling pool of many art worlds, and so it can feel a bit overwhelming at times. I feel really lucky to have collected peers from different pockets of artistic communities in London during my time here. In particular, I have a really strong creative relationship with many of my peers from the Drawing School, for which I am really grateful.

AMM: We see you’ve taken part in online exhibitions during the Covid pandemic—what do you think is the role and significance of art in times of crisis?

MH: Some of my favourite artworks have been made in times of crisis or in response to change. I think art can reflect back and visualise what we are experiencing, and to give voice to these things is powerful and potentially transformative. It can also be a doorway into imagining other worlds, and other ways of doing things. It’s part catharsis in the moment, and part documenting something that can last as a reminder.

AMM: What aspirations do you have for the future of your artistic practice?

MH: My biggest aspiration is to be able to keep doing it. To have a long, sustained practice which grows slowly and is able to go down the various paths that present themselves would be amazing. I feel like it’s been a long journey to get to this point and so I’d like to keep going!

Find out more about the artist:

Interview by Rebecca Irvin for ArtMaze Magazine.

‘The watchers’, soft pastel on paper, 15 x 24 cm

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