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Meet October's Featured Designer: Mary Elizabeth Marvin

Tell us a little about yourself and how you came to be a surface designer.

I came into my fine art career after a medical crisis. I was on a stretcher being wheeled in for major brain surgery when they asked me ‘under what circumstances should we not resuscitate?’ They save that question for last so there’s no time to over-think it. Instead, you must rely on your gut, intuition, or faith. My answer was “If I can’t paint, pull the plug.” It shocked me because up until then, I only painted on weekends, and considered it a hobby.

Once I was rehabilitated, I recognized that life’s too short to not be doing what you love. I left my corporate job and went to The Corcoran College of Art + Design in Washington, DC. It was one of two remaining museum-based fine art programs in the US. I left there with a solid fine arts foundation but not much of an idea about the business side of art.

At the beginning of my career, I couldn’t get into a gallery, and, by and large, the artists and curators in my community were not interested in mentoring or giving me advice. Artists are as competitive as anyone! I pretty much decided to go my own way and try something brand-new: the online gallery. At the time my artist friends thought I was crazy. Other people thought I was crazy and cheapening my work or selling out. No one I knew thought it was a good idea!

The online gallery exposure led to a number of sales and a wall art manufacturer found my art and I began licensing. Over a twelve-year span, I licensed 200+ images and helped them build quite an empire! I really sort of stumbled into surface design and I’m glad I did.

What influences your art the most?

My work is inspired by nature, and I am continually fascinated with seeds, seedpods, seed dispersal, rocks, natural rock formations, and primitive or foraged sculptures like dolmens and Stonehenge. And the beach. That’s my happy place! I’m also a dyed-in-the-wool colorist. I really love color and setting up color relationships.

What mediums do you use to create your art?

I have the “chops” to be a traditional oil painter and that helps me be able to use all sorts of materials to paint in a way that’s anything but traditional. I tend to use wet and dry media and draw and paint on canvas at the same time. It’s sort of a free-flowing soup of materials and techniques. I like experimenting and seeing how different things combine and respond to each other. I really am a painter at heart, but I bring in collage elements and use plastics and thread too.

You have worked for over a decade licensing your work focused primarily on abstract wall art. Tell us a little about your experiences with licensing your work for wall art.

The world of licensing is a mixed bag and being a part of the creative economy sure has its challenges! Licensing offers me more time in the studio to make art and that’s what I love the most. It really works for me. That being said, I probably do things a bit differently than other surface designers because I am not trained at this! For example, I generally create what I want, and I don’t try to deliver to trends or hit a bunch of checkboxes. I think that trends are tricky and when it's authentic people sense it. I think integrity is very impactful. Another counterintuitive thing that I do from a marketing standpoint is to let my art lead the way. Sure, I hustle, and I network, and I work very hard, but my art has a core attraction to a certain type of person. If the art “speaks” to them, it speaks to other people too. My career opportunities haven’t come from me selling myself or hustling. They’ve all come from people loving and championing my art. The trick is to be confident about your creative product and be ready when the opportunity comes up.

You have a large portfolio of companies you have worked with. Do you work with a licensing agent or do you approach companies on your own?

I learned some painful lessons from self-representing myself. I work with an agent, and I’ve never looked back!

What has been the most exciting collaboration you've had and are there any collaborations that did not produce the results you hoped for?

Years ago, I had a wall art collaboration with Kate Spade. It was such a perfect pairing for me with my New England preppy-leanings and my love of color and clean, crisp design. Her team really seemed to value the fact that my abstract work is more sophisticated and nuanced than a lot of the abstracts on the market. I use color in a bold way, but it’s never chaotic. It would have been amazing to see my art as a dress or purse in one of her iconic forms. It would be amazing to create a full wall art collection with another designer on my wavelength again.

I am always looking for people with an eye for design in any industry. I think you can learn so much from other people’s creativity. I follow a ton of artists and designers on social media. Amy Lau is an interior designer who hits me right where I live. Her work is extraordinary and her knowledge, nods to art, architecture, and design history give me goosebumps! I also have a long standing design crush on Lauren Santo Domingo who started the fashion curation outfit Moda Operandi. I mean! LSD never fails. She always seems to choose shapes, forms, and colors that are completely on point!

Would you like to share any advice you have for designers who are considering licensing their artwork?

Don’t be lulled into thinking that you can just sign anything, and it’ll be fine. You will regret it. Even if you are a sole proprietor, you must think like a CEO. Whatever the arrangement is, make sure it serves your needs. If you are not sure about something, investigate on your own and hire an agent who knows the niche or the corner of the industry you are operating within. Be confident about the art you create. If they want your design, if it’s a good fit, the arrangement will be fair to everyone, and everyone will make it work. Last but not least, make sure to have some fun. Life’s too short to not do what you love!

What's next for you in your artistic endeavors? Are there any other companies or designers you would like to collaborate with?

I am working on a series of paintings that will be a part of a major retailer’s wall art collection in 2024. I’m collaborating with their design and forecasting team. It’s been so interesting to get a glimpse into their process and how products and “looks” are conceptualized. In many respects, their creative inspirations and their methodologies are a lot like my own except, of course, they are designing all new products for e-commerce platforms and reinvigorating their brand “look” for another season and doing it a year ahead of time! I am learning a lot and for someone like me who usually works alone in a studio, it’s just so nice to be with a whole group of creatives. We laugh, go off on crazy tangents, and vibe off colors and textures together. It’s fun at work. I love it.

I still think one of the most amazing things that’s ever been done with my art is a wall mural. Designer Steve McKenzie who is an artist himself did this incredible lounge space using my art. It was a fully immersive and Zen experience. Through my manufacturing contracts I’m able to offer wall murals now but I would love to have my own exclusive wallpaper and mural line someday.



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