Artists on Coping: Mary Mattingly

During the coronavirus pandemic, Art Spiel is reaching out to artists to learn how they are coping.

Swale, Concrete Plant Park 2018, Photo: Subhram Reddy

Mary Mattingly works with photography and sculpture. She is currently artist in residence at the Brooklyn Public Library. In 2016, she founded Swale, an edible landscape on a barge to circumvent New York City’s public land laws, and in 2018 dismantled a military vehicle and deconstructed its mineral supply chain with BRIC Arts.  Her work has been exhibited at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de la Habana, the Bronx Museum of the Arts, Storm King, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Palais de Tokyo. It has been featured in Artforum, The New York Times, Le Monde, New Yorker, NPR, Art21, and included in books such as MIT Press Documents of Contemporary Art, and Henry Sayre’s A World of Art.

AS: How are you coping?

MM: Thinking about Adrienne Rich’s “Tonight No Poetry Will Serve”. Wishing I had a better story about my studio days as of late, but living with an autoimmune condition, I began obsessively social distancing after returning from a trip early March, and these last few weeks have been filled with health issues and concern. For someone who tends to focus on materializing the imaginary, moments over the past few weeks have ranged from the overly hypnagogic to the paranoid. Days before people started entering hospitals in the US with Covid-19 I was scheduled for an emergency surgery (scar tissue adhesions from a previous operation had made it impossible to eat without getting sick).

A week of doctor visits and laparoscopic session behind me, I arrived to Mt. Sinai for the final surgery and while in the lobby received a call from the surgeon urging me to postpone for safety reasons, which would mean I would continue a liquid diet until I could be safely operated on. Mt. Sinai’s lobby was predictably chaotic but the large mezzanine was quiet with a long line of people standing apart, their heads covered in bags. In hindsight, this was before doctors had as much of an understanding of the virus as they do now. However, already panicked, I left the hospital to witness the national guard stands that seemed to have sprung up during the minutes I was inside, and at that moment feeling helplessly sick I involuntarily entered fight or flight mode and retreated from NYC, heading early and circuitously towards a job site on Shelter Island, dragging my partner (who is between jobs) with me. I spent another week just getting acclimated to living off liquids.

Strange Morning (Proposal for a more-paranoid still life), 2020

AS: Has your routine changed?

MM: Drastically, and surreally. I uprooted without much of a plan because I felt like that was my only option for healing. Here, I’m able to develop a commission, a land-based “color field” with tonal gradations in plants and flower buds, while living on the property for two more weeks. I focus on how specific plantings play off the sun to produce sensorial tricks between sunrise and sunset.

Here, I wake up and photograph the strange still lives I worked on the night before (no matter how much I like them or not the next day) cultivate the land all day, and then compile the still lives in the bathroom in the late evening. I fall asleep early. Focused on wild worlds of plants, insects, and land, I crave more social interaction and miss the studio.

Self Portrait Upon Arrival (Temporary Studio in the Background) Next to Portrait of Jason Reading Today (Eager for Home), 2020

AS: Can you describe some of your feelings about all this?

MM: I’m very concerned about the lack of a safety net in this country, and for people who have lost their jobs. Personally, I feel vulnerable and grateful. I feel grateful to be here, with this time to focus on this project. And fortunate to be on a health insurance plan that I don’t have to be concerned about losing, as jobs I had are put on hold or speaking engagements rescheduled for the future. I also feel appreciation: for the art communities in NYC and around the world, resource sharing networks, the caring strangers have shown, and on another level I’m appreciating watching the seeds sprout, leaves unfurl, and the first flowers bloom. Partaking in this brief exchange with the plants, weather, soil, and insects. I’m continually thinking about health and co-existence.

Core (during Night of Philosophy and Ideas at the Brooklyn Public Library), 2020 Photo: Kat Kiefert

AS: What matters most right now?

MM: Being able to work and bring ideas to fruition with healthy mind and body, and being with our loved ones in whichever ways we can. Helping relieve people who need assistance: people with necessary jobs, people who are too fragile to get their own groceries. Re-focusing on enlarging the safety nets, however possible.

Between Bears Ears and Daneros Mine, 2018

AS: Any thoughts about the road ahead?

MM: I tend to think abstractly and big-picture about futures, but not in my own life. There is still so much that is unknown. “Swale” should be up and running again, and an “Ecotopian Library” should expand and travel from Boulder to Anchorage and Hudson. I’ll be sculpting the land here for the next two weeks, and then will go back home for the surgery, rescheduled for April. After, I’ll be healthy enough to help my neighbors in Gowanus, many who are older and aren’t going out to get groceries on their own.

Soil Stories (from the Ecotopian Library), 2020 Photo: Jeff Wells

Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email:

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