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Mary Jarvis - Inspired by Redwoods - Fulton Crossing Studio


artful musings: Mary Jarvis - Inspired by Redwoods - Fulton Crossing Studio

Artful Musings - Mary in the Redwoods

By Maja Wood

A massive branch from a redwood tree lies on the ground, cut in half lengthwise, to serve as a bench. Two elderly men sit on the pew, one staring up at the rays of light filtering in through the trees. The other glances toward me and gives a silent, solemn nod.

It's Sunday morning in Armstrong Woods. A few hours from now, small children, bless their high- pitched, happy little shrieks, will be rampaging through the forest, excited and laughing and screaming. Tourists will stand inside the cave-like hollow trunks of redwood trees and ask passersby to take a picture. But right now, as the park opens at 8am, there's a silence and stillness as serenity clings to the forest like morning dew. Even later, as the children laugh and tourists snap, there's always an underlying sense of calmness that never quite dissipates from the forest.

Mary jarvis - Inside old growth RedwoodsCalifornia’s old-growth forests once covered thousands of square miles, from the Oregon border down to the southern end of the Big Sur region. But the logging that has been taking place for the past 150 years has reduced the forests by more than 95 percent.  Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve is one of the few remaining stands of those redwood trees.

“I worship this place,” Mary Jarvis, tells me in hushed tones as we hike through the forest.

A few weeks before, I had attended a party at Jarvis' Fulton Crossing art studio, about 17 miles east of Armstrong. As you walk into the space, there is canvas after canvas of gorgeous, colorful paintings that look like smooth, polished planks of wood in vibrant colors. Each painting holds as many as nine layers of oily glaze consisting of natural resin mediums of varying recipes. Choosing the incorrect formula can spell disaster as the wrong mix can eat into the previous layers. These are some very work-intensive, time-consuming pieces. And there are a lot of them. Jarvis has been creating these wood grain designs—and only these wood grain designs—for the past 10 years.

Why would someone spend a decade painting wood grain designs? When I ask her, Jarvis just shrugs and responds, “I don't know.” All she can tell me is that she finds the paintings beautiful and she finds joy in creating them. I have to agree that those are two very good things to find.

Somewhere along the line, she mentions how the redwoods have been  inspirational, and we decide to meet up for a hike at Armstrong. Coast redwoods are the tallest living things on earth and, “Maybe that's why there's this unique feeling when you're in them,” Jarvis says. “There's that sense of being grounded, rooted in the earth, rooted in traditions. But, there's also this feeling of being up in the clouds and soaring and being free to think, imagine, and dream new things.

“The tourists think they're coming here because the trees are the biggest, the tallest, the oldest...whatever statistic they think is important. They come here to take a selfie and check the redwoods off their list. But, what they end up finding is something much different—much more important—than any of that...” Her words trail off as she tilts her head up toward the thin rays of sunlight and closes her eyes.

Woods have always been a big part of her life. Growing up in Wisconsin, Jarvis' family would spend their vacations in a cabin in the forest. These were long, carefree days of playing in the woods. Then, at night, before going to sleep, she would lie in bed staring up at the cabin ceiling. Perhaps the memories and daydreams of these days mingled with the wood grain designs she stared up at each night. If you look back at Jarvis's childhood notebooks and old school papers, you'll notice that the margins are full of the looping, thumbprint-like designs of wood grain. “It's a recurring motif in my life.”

During the summer of her ninth year, Jarvis and her family were once again vacationing in the woods. There were other cabins nearby in which her extended family lived. “I had a very sheltered life. I was always surrounded by family.” One day, Jarvis was near the community well and happened to see a man drawing water. He was a guest of one of her relatives and he was new and different and exciting.  “I stopped in my tracks,” she recalls. “I was 9 years old and I had fallen in love with this man.”

She didn't speak to him, but he remained in her memory. When she was in her 20s, Jarvis tracked the man down and sent a long letter. He was, of course, surprised and curious about his admirer. And the next time he flew into a nearby town, the two met for a date. It was his turn to fall in love at first sight. They soon married.

“It was very romantic and exciting,” Jarvis says. To add an extra spin to already strange circumstances, the young man by the well had grown into a successful inventor and was now very rich. They partied with jet setters, entertainers and bohemians as they traveled the world,  Sometimes, when a town like Paris or Prague caught their interest, they would move in for a while.

The couple eventually decided to put down roots in Sonoma County because they both thought it beautiful. They built a large house on a mountaintop with big windows and gorgeous views and lovely rooms. There were rare flowers in the garden and a swimming pool inside the master bedroom.

Prior to getting married, Jarvis had finished art school and was developing a following for her pointillism paintings. And as much as her new husband loved being married to an artist, he had no intention of allowing her to work in any way, shape or form. “He simply forbade me to work and used his power to make sure he was obeyed,” she recalls. “It took me a while to fully comprehend the situation. Intellectually, I knew that women didn't have the same rights and privileges as men, especially not back then. But, if you grow up as a free spirit accustomed to feeling like your own person, it still comes as a shock.

“It's not what I had signed up for. To me a marriage is about being in love and having a partner. But, that's not what this was. I did love him. He was incredibly interesting and smart and kind. But this wasn't a partnership. He told me that if I didn't like the way things were, I was free to leave, but I wouldn't see another dime. That's not love. That's control. So I left.”

Mary Jaris - hgh conrast

As expected, she suddenly became poor. “He had a lot of money to hire lawyers and I didn't,” she says by way of explanation. “Plus, I had my freedom again and I was happy and I didn't want to waste my new-found life on fighting and being angry.”

Jarvis worked as a real estate agent in Florida and saved enough money to eventually move back to her beloved Sonoma County and go back to being an artist. Every time she sketched out some ideas for a painting, she noticed that those wood grain designs were still popping up in the margins. Eventually, she decided to paint one of those designs.

“It was quite a revelation to actually paint it. Up until then, my memories of wood grain were from our cabin in the forest. It was in a natural, earthy context. And the doodles were in pen or pencil, so they were monochrome. But then, once I had those oil paints in my hands, the pictures I made were very intense and colorful. Part of it is rooted in a traditional Midwestern upbringing. Part of it is for this no-holds-barred, avant-garde lifestyle I led for many years. And part of it is simply about freedom. There's a respect for nature and tradition, and also for the wildness that breaks those rules. I think that has something to do with why I paint the way I do...I don't know exactly what it's just that...” And Jarvis once again gives me the same look and shrug she gave at her party when I asked why she paints wood grain designs. She remains silent for a few seconds and then turns her palms upward and quietly adds: “All I know is that I love making those paintings and I think they're beautiful. They are my offering.”

Mary Jarvis in her Fulton Crossings gallery