Once a month, we feature local small business owners and artists who are using their creativity to make the homes and businesses of Roanoke beautiful.

This month, our spotlight is on artist, Mary Boxley Bullington. Mary’s mixed media collages feature bright colors and movement.

A U-Turn Toward Art: Mary’s Story

Mary grew up with two loves—writing and drawing. “I was always a fiddler in school and covered every page with drawings all the time,” she said.

Although she was passionate about art, she felt like she had to choose between her two talents, and initially she chose writing. A Roanoke native, Mary went to nearby Hollins University where she majored in Creative Writing. After teaching English for years, she returned to school to get her Masters in Creative Writing from UNC Greensboro and then her doctorate in Medieval Literature from Indiana University.

During her graduate and postgraduate studies, she began to feel called to her other love. She would go to the university libraries in search of books about art and art history. “I would check out as many books as I could carry and read them—that was my entertainment,” Mary said.

Finally, Mary began creating art in addition to reading about it. She started making a few collages each year during her time in grad school in the 1980s. Then, in 1986, as a reward to herself for finishing her oral exams, she decided to buy some paint. She had planned to buy oils, but realized she wouldn’t be able to afford them on her limited budget. So instead she bought gouache—a thick, opaque watercolor paint. That, along with some brushes and paper, became the foundation for her early artwork.

She finished her doctorate in 1993 and began looking for work. “At that time, all I wanted to do was paint, which is not a good way to be when interviewing for jobs as a professor of medieval literature,” Mary said with a laugh.

Shortly thereafter, Mary moved back to Roanoke to live with and care for her mother while continuing her job search. She began creating art from a rented studio space. In 1994, she began teaching in the English department at Virginia Tech and then shifted to the Humanities department there. She commuted from Roanoke, continuing to care for her mother, who had suffered a stroke.

During this time, Mary made a major decision—to pursue art. “I finally decided to make a major u-turn of my life,” she said. “I was 40 years old at the time, and I had reached the point where I wanted to be doing what I really wanted. It was a tentative decision at the time, and I didn’t know whether it would work; I did it on more of a hunch than on any kind of knowledge.”

Mary sent off some copies of her collages to a gallery in Charleston, WV. Based on those collages, they offered Mary a solo show. Seeing her collages framed and hung in this gallery was a significant moment for Mary. “After that I was hooked,” she said. “I kept teaching until my mother died, but after that I decided to take a stab at working as an artist full time.”

That was in 1998, and Mary has been a full time artist ever since.

Inspired by Her Other Love: Mary’s Style & Process

All of Mary’s work is mixed media, but she uses a variety of materials in her collages including acrylic, oil pastel, gouache, and different types of gesso. She also creates her collages on paper, wood, clay board, and more.

No matter the specific materials she is using, all of Mary’s artwork features bright colors and lots of movement. “My pieces are very aesthetic; they have a lot of movement as well as a lot of color,” she said. “Color is probably my greatest natural gift—being able to combine and mix colors. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but it certainly is mine.”

Some of Mary’s artwork is abstract while some is figurative. “Some of my collages are figurative, and by that I mean that they have recognizable things in them—it can cover landscapes, people, animals, still life,” she said. “You can recognize objects and what the painting’s about, but I do not do realism.”

Mary also describes her work as primitive, a feature that is inspired by her other love—literature.

Most of my work tends to be on the primitive side. It has a background from my reading and looking at the arts from the post impressionists on, that I did 30 to 35 years ago,” Mary said.

She acknowledges the influence her extensive studies of Medieval Literature have on her artwork. “The poems featured in my dissertation were about the medieval art of memory,” Mary said. “So I was looking at medieval art, and I still look at medieval art and modern art and African art. I started out looking at Japanese screening and print making when I was first doing my collages in the early 80s. I’m very eclectic in my tastes.”

Her two loves for art and writing are connected in this way. In fact, Mary sees a similarity in her process for writing and painting.

I go into the studio, and I don’t know what I’m doing, and I put down some marks. Then I look at it and see what I’ve done and I put down some more. This practice comes out of my creative writing directly,” Mary said. “I still write poems and when I do, I sit down and I write down some words on the computer, and then I write down some more words, and finally I look at it and I figure out where the poem is heading. That’s the same thing I do with pictures. I look at what is that I’ve laid down and keep putting down more until I’m satisfied with it.”

So for Mary, the process of completing a piece of artwork is gradual. “Most of my pieces develop more and more over time,” she said. “Sometimes I’m satisfied with it in a few hours and usually it’s a few days and sometimes it’s a few months. Every now and then, I even change a piece completely after a year or two.”

In addition to her collages, Mary also has an ornament series available around the holidays. This year her ornaments are shaped as birds featuring her signature brightly colored patterns on both sides of the ornament. She calls the ornaments in this series, “Mary’s Enchanted Aviary.”

Three of the ornaments from Mary’s Enchanted Aviary series.
Each ornament is made in 4 separate steps: 1. Mary paints the 300 lb. cotton watercolor paper on each side in abstract patterns with acrylics. 2. She cuts out the bird-shapes and details from the painted paper. 3. The details are glued on with PVA Jade 403 archival glue and/or contact cement, and more details are painted on. 4. Each piece is spray-varnished, pierced, and strung with fishing line and a swivel.

The art community in Roanoke is important to Mary, and she has actually played a vital role in helping to make it what it is today. Mary is a founding member of The Market Gallery, as well as a founding member of the annual Roanoke Open Studios Tour. She directed the Open Studios Tour from 2005-2015.

Community is very important to artists; you have to have other artists as friends and have an art scene, otherwise you’d think you’re crazy,” Mary said. “We owe a huge debt to those people who created the first art community in Roanoke, and the community we have now is one reason I’ve been able to stay in Roanoke.”

Mary is grateful to be in a place that she loves and for the opportunity she has had to do what she loves with her life. “I’m very happy that I made the u-turn,” Mary said. “I don’t regret becoming an artist and sticking with it. It’s the best thing in my life that I did.”

To see or purchase Mary’s artwork, check out her Facebook page and message her for details. Her one-of-a-kind ornaments would make a great last minute Christmas gift! You can also reach her by phone at 540-312-8872 or email.

Some More of Mary’s Artwork