Mary Chang’s timeless art and theater career
With all the different mediums of art in the world, many of them are connected in some way.
That’s exactly what Mary Chang, a painter and actress, has learned when it comes to finding the connection between her passion of theater and art, which she turned into a career at a young age.
Although Chang no longer focuses on theater performance now, she became fascinated with it while growing up in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn during the 1950s. She said plenty of what her mother watched is what fueled her love for visual arts and film. The both of them often watched movies from the ‘40s that starred actresses such as Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Dorothy Dandridge. However, it is the 1983 film Carmen directed and choreographed in a flamenco style by Carlos Suara that always stuck with her.
“It was like in moments of the dancing, you could hear the percussion of the women’s footwork and see the movement as they moved together in a precession,” Chang said. “It was like a Goya painting. When I’m looking at it, it’s just going through my head rather rapidly and it’s mesmerizing.”
In middle school, Chang’s love for visual arts continued to flourish even more after a teacher inspired her by pushing the boundaries when it came to painting. After that, she took courses at the School of Visual Arts, Cooper Union, Art Student League of New York and Pratt Institute.
However, from the 1970s to the early ‘90s, there was a pause in Chang’s career as a visual artist and during that time frame, she raised her family with her life partner, John Faulk, and decided to focus on theater where she studied at HB Studios and The Barrow Group. After studying theater, she worked with the La Mama Experimental Theater where she had the opportunity to tour in Italy as part of the technical crew for “Fragments of a Greek Trilogy” directed by Andrei Serban. Chang toured New York City and Switzerland with an ensemble group through a play she co-wrote titled “In-Ter-View” and also co-wrote the play “Immigration Office” at the Immigrant’s Theater Project, starring as a Chinese teacher who immigrated to America.
In 1999, Chang eventually returned to visual art and painting as a part of an exhibit titled “The Tree” at the Skylight Gallery. She describes her art as being abstract with a focus on light and energy even when the pieces are dark.
“The line of theater and visual art is the same, but the tools interchange,” Chang said. “In painting, when I went back, I decided I wasn’t going to do the same thing I did in theater. I used to not understand abstract art. I remember in 1968, I didn’t understand abstract art. I saw some pieces by famous artists and didn’t understand it, but I realized the more you work, you go through different layers and you work with different colors and things and try new things.”
Since then, her work has been exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts, the Robert Lehman Gallery at Urban Glass as well as various galleries, museums, and cultural centers throughout the New York tri-state area, Massachusetts, California, and Brazil.
When asked about how the arts scene has changed from the 1970s to now, Chang said she initially wasn’t aware of what was happening around her until later.
“I’m being honest here, but when I was 18, I was oblivious at first of what was going on with the art scene, but I was painting and I think as we got into the ’70s, for me, I started working more and met more artists and I felt like my scope was still growing,” Chang said. “When you read about it, the art scene was blossoming a lot back then with many artists pushing the boundaries and thinking outside the box. Though I think it was male-dominated, but that’s starting to changing now, which is very nice.”
As a woman who comes from a multicultural background, with her father being from Chinese descent and her mother of African heritage, Chang always wished there was more cultural representation in more of the bigger museums; something she has felt has always been a problem then and now.
“When you go into the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum or the Guggenheim Museum, the representation of artists and variation of different colors from other cultures is very small,” Chang said. “I know darn well that there are a lot of artists out there who are making strong art. Same goes for film. We have to come together.”
Nowadays, you can find Chang still working on her painting in her cozy Spaceworks studio in Gowanus located in Brooklyn continuing to explore new things with her art.
“I think my work has always and will be about seeing how the medium of painting can be stretched and agitated, and the juxtaposition of colors with each other and the energy it creates,” Chang said. “It’s important to take a risk with your art and you can’t be apologetic when you are doing your work. You don’t have time to think about who is going to like it. Your job is to do it and find the meaning in it yourself, and that takes time to understand that.”
In honor of Women’s History Month, Chang’s will be featured in an art exhibit alongside other female artists titled “HER STORY: Voice, Vision & Memory” in Harlem this Friday at the LeRoy Neiman Art Center in Harlem which will be on display until April 19th. The opening reception is from 6 PM to 8 PM and admission is free. She is also featured in The Vanderbilt Republic’s postcard edition where you can have a piece of her art sent to you.
You can view more of Chang’s art work by visiting her official website.