Artists on Coping: Mary Waltham

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


Refuge I of V

With degrees in biology and fine art, Mary Waltham’s work reflects the fragility of our environment as seen through the eyes of a scientist and artist. She was Managing Director and Publisher of The Lancet, and President and Publisher of Nature, before returning to her early passion for art. She works in a variety of media, including drawing, painting, video and installation works, incorporating natural materials collected locally, with the intention of merging the landscape with environmental issues to spark new conversations.

AS: How are you coping?

MW: Reasonably. All of our lives are disrupted, but continued access to local open spaces provides me with solace and inspiration.


Devonian Fishes

AS: Have you had a show or other creative opportunities canceled?

MW: On March 1st, fellow eco-artist Susan Hoenig and I installed Wetland to Woodland, an exhibition of our paintings, drawings and photographs at the Princeton Public Library. Various events were scheduled–artists’ talks, an Earth Day walk and art session at a woodland/wetland area. Though the library is closed and events cancelled, I’m pleased we got the work up, even for two weeks, because it tells an important story of these two different but interrelated ecosystems which both combat climate change that affects all of our lives. It’s a lot of work to organize an exhibition, so I’m sorry this isn’t getting more exposure. But the work is there, and perhaps when some degree of normality returns, our audience will too.


Yellow Perch

AS: Has your routine changed?

MW: Definitely. As a biologist, learning about this virus was important, and understanding the need to self-isolate came fast. But it took time to organize life so we are less exposed to the virus, to keep in touch with and support family and friends here and in the UK. The need to connect is powerful if we listen to it.

My studio is outdoors, plus a small space at home, fortunately a distance from others. I’ve found it hard to settle and focus on new work, and am reminded that just doing something, starting anywhere and experimenting can take you forward. The lack of deadlines for anything has been surprisingly disruptive. We are getting back to more of a schedule now. At first it was all so shocking and is set to continue, but we quietly adapt. Amazing that.


Golden Skimmer

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

MW: Because we’ve had community-acquired pneumonia, my husband and I are high-risk if we get Covid 19. I feel doubly responsible for not getting sick and that is mentally exhausting. I flit from one project to the next without settling. Life has slowed with no outside commitments and it’s easy to obsess about small things. I’ve always avoided that in my work and life, but now it’s blinking at me. Technology is a huge help, but I worry about those who don’t have access to it. The Princeton Public Library has over 200 computers for visitors that are always in use. What happens now?


Skunk Cabbage Flowers

AS: What matters most right now?

MW: Keeping active and well is a key priority and I exercise a lot. Also supporting family and friends–we’re all in this together. I want to use this time wisely and feel I’ve been productive and remained sane.


Profile of the Delaware River immersed in the River

AS: Any thoughts about the road ahead?

MW: Perversely, the environment will be much improved from even a few weeks of humans laying low. I’m optimistic this is a defining moment, that new patterns of life will emerge that counter the over-consumption that is such a major contributor to environmental degradation. We need sturdier environmental policies to emerge globally, but that is not front of mind in our world just now. Perhaps it will follow soon.

We usually go to the UK in the summer where we have a small cottage, a visit that looks impossible this year. Time with family and friends is precious and always short. I will miss it, but will raise more plants in the garden here, trying to turn a loss into a gain. Observing growth is restorative.

I’m thrilled to have been selected as an artist-in-residence at Crater Lake National Park, Oregon in October, and hope I can fulfill this special commitment. We will get through this and be wiser, grateful for small things like community and connectedness.


Mud Drawing
Catherine Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer based in New York. She wrote the introductions to Meryl Meisler’s two books, and is currently working on an oral history about recent changes in photography.