Painter Mary Hatch wears big red glasses and a slash of lipstick. She’s slim as a magic wand, with which she shares many powers: to create novel experiences for herself and viewers, transform the environment, alter perception and, above all, entertain.
If you haven’t seen Hatch herself at an Art Hop or other exhibit opening, you’ve most likely seen her paintings at the Epic Center, the Oshtemo Branch of the Kalamazoo Public Library, the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts or the Richmond Center for the Arts. Her work also can be seen on book covers (like Deborah Percy’s Invisible Traffic), in area homes and, most recently, in Triggerfish, an online literary journal.
As an artist, Hatch loves to paint the human figure and create intriguing optical narratives that invite viewers to fill in the backstory of the action (or inaction) occurring on the canvas. Her particular fascinations are ballet dancers, couples in reserved conflict, Alice in Wonderland, cats, brides, babies and birds.
Hatch’s Kalamazoo studio is high up in her house, snug and brown like a nest. It’s here she “converts energy to matter.”
“A painting is an enormous amount of energy,” she admits.
Since 1975, Hatch has been applying her considerable energy to paintings that have won awards, been displayed internationally and been sold to art lovers. She recently became adept at printmaking. Her printer, an Epson Stylus Pro 9600, is the size of a small church organ and lives in her basement.
“I love talking about my printer,” she says. “By the time Epson developed archival technology for inkjet printers I was already a painter — in love with color — which is simply gorgeous viewed on a computer screen. The monitor easily becomes a perfect ‘matrix’ for prints. Images can be created by all imaginable means and proofed and experimented with endlessly. Like paintings, they evolve over time, often years. Yet, comparing this to painting isn’t quite accurate, since it has its own distinct visual personality — totally unique — unlike any other medium.”
‘Art asks questions’
Hatch’s work is quietly subversive — it satisfies viewers with palette and form, but challenges them with content. For example, viewers first think her painting Gentle Days is a pleasant beach scene, but none of the adults are watching the children. Keep looking and a ghost chair appears. That can’t be good. And why is that man dressed so formally?
“As someone once said, ‘Art asks questions. It doesn’t answer them,’” says Hatch.
Her work is also subversive because at a time when many artists were throwing paint onto canvas or eschewing canvas altogether and when abstract expressionism and conceptual art were common, Hatch was perfecting her painting of human figures.
Many of her figures are redheads, as she is, and while her work is real-istic, it is not realism. Hatch instead describes it as “a study of a problem.”
“For years I wasn’t happy with a painting unless the people looked angry,” Hatch says. “There is some kind of problem when I start painting, and I’m trying to solve that problem. I don’t start out with a picture in my head.”
Hatch grew up in Battle Creek (as Mary Holmes) and began painting at 14 while attending Lakeview High School. However, after she discovered boys and quit doing her schoolwork, her parents sent her to Cranbrook Kingswood School in Bloomfield Hills, where she learned figure drawing with charcoal and never looked back.
“Kingswood was a very strict boarding school with many rules I didn’t choose to follow,” she says. Still, because “people love a rebel,” she was elected class president. Hatch then attended Skidmore College, in Saratoga Springs, New York, for two years and married Van Hatch, a third-generation lawyer from Marshall, whom she’d met in Battle Creek. They moved to Kalamazoo, where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Western Michigan University. She taught school in Parchment and Portage, but when she had the chance to be a full-time artist, she took it.
Van and their children, Mary and David, are very supportive of Hatch’s work. Even when Hatch was not home and the children went exploring, David would not let his friends into her studio. Van also provided critiques of her work, albeit reluctantly. When Hatch needed another view or had lost her vision, he would oblige.
“For a painter, it is a tough thing to lose your vision,” she says. “For example, I should have asked for support when I once put the thumbs on the wrong side of the hand in a painting.”
Cats on their heads
Many Kalamazoo area residents have been models for Hatch’s work. When people sit for a regular portrait, they can expect the result to resemble them. When they model, however, they cast their fates to the wind. Hatch has borrowed cats, babies and friends for models. Her painting Cat Walkers needed models to hold a cat on their heads, but a real cat wouldn’t cooperate, so friends posed instead with watering cans atop their heads.
Hatch says she has to paint or she’s unhappy, since “painting is trying to figure out what I want to say.” For example, she’s currently at work on a painting that features mannequins in store windows, “and one of them is so self-assured,” she says. “I just hate her! And I started this six months ago!”
She will not know what the painting says until it’s done, which is “when the painting looks like it has always been that way,” she says. “There is nothing else physically to add.”
Another rich aspect of Hatch’s work is the implication of certain objects: Taxis, for instance, are always a means of escape, however tiny. Planes are not for escaping but for being above the fray. In one of her most political paintings, War Games, babies sit on an American flag teething on the implements of war.
Sometimes the objects in Hatch’s paintings form a sort of Greek chorus to the work’s main subjects — the way other people can see our weaknesses, but we can’t. In several of her paintings that include rabbits, the rabbits seem to be all-knowing observers, exactly what we think we are.
Although Hatch has many paintings that share subject matter, “they are not series,” she says. “Each painting came separately unconnected by time. Each one helps develop the vocabulary of that area of my brain.”
Hatch’s work is also subversive in its strong image and implied action that pretends not to be there. Hatch undermines viewers’ senses in the most subtle ways. In Dance Class, five dancers wait to be selected for one solo. On the wall is a shadow that matches no one in the room. Of course, it’s the shadow of someone who has already been eliminated. How else to show that process? The paintings are very smart.
Hatch’s latest project, which she has been working on for the past two years, is just about to culminate in a book, Art Speaks, published by Celery City Books in Kalamazoo, an imprint of Friends of Poetry. A sample of the poetry and art in the book can be seen here (Full disclosure: the author of this article is president of Friends of Poetry, and her poems appear in the book.)
Mary Hatch is an artist of Kalamazoo and of the Midwest; her paintings are of us, the inhabitants of this place, our habits and barely visible terrors.
A huge woodpecker works at a tree outside her kitchen window. “I used to marvel at his size too, but then he started eating my roof.” She looks past him at the clouds striped by saplings.
“We are lucky to be artists,” she says. “I don’t know what (other) people do with their lives.”