With an eye for minutiae and an ultra-fine tip on her paintbrush, Northport artist Marianne Vick presents a vision that is hyper-real and transcendental in equal measure. Anita K. Henry interviews Vick about her life, work, and meticulous painting methods.
I have a new paperweight in my house. It’s a smooth, flat-bottomed beach stone that I plucked from Northport’s Peterson Park. But according to Marianne Vick, it’s a pig. Or at least it should be. And since she’s spent much of her “art” life painting animals on rocks, I’m inclined to believe her. Obsessively detailed, Vick can take a stone, add her masterful brush strokes and bring it to life. Her creations are so grounded in realism that you’d half expect the rock—masquerading as anything from a turtle to a tiger to a dog—to stand up and walk away.
Make no mistake … these rocks are not tchotchkes. They are fine art collectibles. Vick can spend up to 20 hours infusing the stones with color and texture. For her, it’s about adding all the details, no matter how long it takes. “I’ve had the brush taken away from me,” says Vick. “My kids have plucked it from my hand and said, ‘Mom, you’re done.’” Which begs the question: What happens when Vick has an even larger canvas to paint?
The first time Vick and I speak is in February. She’s tucked away for the winter on a corn and bean farm in Princeton, Illinois, a vastly different setting than her usual Northport digs. “It’s my husband’s fifth generation farm,” Vick says. “I went kicking and screaming the first time we came here, but now I love it.” On this day, she’s at work on one of her many paintings. She tells me this will be one of her most ambitious pieces to date. “I’m calling it ‘Delicious Diversity,’ ” she says.
The idea came to her when Obama was running for office in 2008. “I came up with the title before I knew exactly what was going into the painting,” Vick says. But now, she’s got it all planned out. The artist will paint 13 different species of birds fluttering around a hollowed out pineapple that’s filled with a fruit salad. I imagine the finished painting and the incredible color, detail and countless brush strokes needed to pull this off. Vick acknowledges it as a big undertaking but tells me that she needs to keep things challenging.
Vick is an “outsider artist” with no formal training beyond high school art. “It means I’m on the outside of the mainstream art world because I’m self taught,” she says. This sounds like a harsh distinction to me, but Vick says it matter-of-factly. “I always believed I could make money as an artist,” says Vick. And perhaps her mom believed it, too, buying Vick her first set of acrylic paints when she was just 13 years old.
Others were also quick to recognize her talents. “In grammar school, I could get out of classes and do art projects instead,” says Vick. “When I was 8, my brother started writing stories and asking me to add pictures.” And although the ‘Sam the Tramp’ series was never officially published, Vick’s pictures turned her brother’s words into illustrated books.
Vick has dabbled in oil and watercolor, but like many other artists, she has stayed with the medium that suits her best. “Acrylic is so versatile,” she says. “I just know how it will move around for me on a canvas or stone.” She also knows what her brushes can do for her. And considering the level of detail that goes into her work, it’s no surprise that her tool of choice comes to a very, very fine point. “It’s a No. 1 Kolinski Red Sable watercolor brush,” says Vick. “A lot of people would cringe at this because it’s not made for acrylic paint.” She explains that acrylic—a plastic-based paint—is tough and destroys her brushes quickly.
The artist goes through a lot of rocks, too. She mentions that she has crates and crates of the would-be masterpieces, so I ask her to take me back to the beginning of the rocks. “I must have been around 19, and I was camping with friends in upstate New York,” Vick says. “It was raining and I was bored so I painted three rocks—a turtle, a rabbit and a frog.” At the time, the artist’s mom was working for Sibley’s department store in Rochester, New York, and decided to show the finished stones to a buyer. “He fell in love with them and ordered a dozen,” says Vick. “We sold them to the store for $10 apiece; the store marked them up to $20.” And just like that a career was born.
In an effort to showcase more of her wares, Vick joined the “art-fair system” in the early ’70s, a move that would eventually bring her to Northern Michigan. She started showing at local fairs and then branched out to other states. “The art-fair culture was really sprouting then, and it was a great way to get my work seen,” says Vick. “I also started doing more paintings on flat surfaces, too.” With her rock art thriving, Vick set her sights on another goal—a duck-stamp competition. And although her art didn’t make it on an actual stamp, the contest did focus Vick’s efforts on representational wildlife paintings. Growing up in Rochester, New York, Vick spent much of her childhood outdoors, surrounded by the wildlife she would eventually paint. “My siblings and I would disappear into the woods all day long.” And then, of course, there were the rocks. “We would go to the beaches of Lake Ontario to collect stones,” she says. “I loved looking for those stones.”
In the early ’80s, an art fair in Suttons Bay brought Vick to Michigan, and this was the trip that changed everything. “The response to my artwork in this area was overwhelming,” says Vick. “People loved the rocks.” But that wasn’t the only thing that prompted the move. “When I saw Lake Michigan, I knew this was home. I didn’t realize water could be that blue. It just sparkled,” she says. So the artist—a single mother to a young son at the time—relocated to Northport. Shortly after that, she remarried, gave birth to her second son and opened her own studio. 4
I ask Vick about her process for turning a plain stone into a work of art. “When I’m painting the rocks, I’m not thinking about what I’m doing,” reveals Vick. “I can just let my mind go and through that process, I can create something. If I’m thinking about what I’m doing, I start to second guess my process,” says Vick. “There’s just something working in my brain. It’s a gift that I’m grateful for.”
Whatever’s happening in Vick’s brain, it’s clearly working … and evolving. She talks about how her earlier work now seems very primitive compared to what she does today. “It’s very satisfying to look at some of my first rocks and the ones I paint now,” says Vick. And the same goes for her flat-surface work, as her compositions have become more complex. But what has remained a constant over the years is her work with birds. “I love watching them and, of course, painting them.” She prefers to paint her birds life-size or even bigger, not surprisingly, so she can put in tremendous detail. Throughout the 90s, Vick spent much of her time painting birds in their beautiful surroundings. The works were representational, realistic and incredibly detailed.
Things began to change at the turn of the century. Vick’s life—and subsequently her art—shifted. She was getting divorced and had a lot on her mind. “I couldn’t express things verbally, and it had to come out somehow,” says Vick. “Also, it wasn’t challenging anymore to just paint a bird in its natural environment.” She wanted her work to tell stories.
Vick’s first foray into the allegorical world featured a sparrow perched on a windowsill, hovering between two worlds. She tells me that the colors she used in the painting remind her of her childhood home; and that the sparrow represents change. “I called it ‘Exit Door,’ ” says Vick. The image and title were both expressions of Vick’s transition. The next painting was more an expression of attitude. It featured a blue jay standing on two pears. “It stands for the male ego,” Vick says. “I called it ‘Passive Aggressive Pair.’ ” It was a bold concept and a beautiful picture—and the response was positive. Vick knew she was on to something and officially welcomed fruit into her world of birds.
“I began to see produce in a whole new light,” she says. “There’s so much color and symbolism to work with.” Likewise with birds: “There are so many different personalities in the bird world and symbolism for representing different cultures.”
Our conversation circles back to “Delicious Diversity,” her latest in the world of allegorical pictorials. She reveals more details. The fruit salad will sit on a blue and white platter, on top of a red tablecloth. “It will be a very patriotic painting,” Vick says. “The birds will be indulging in the many different kinds of fruit.” The additional details point to yet another shift in her work. After a decade of making personal statements through paintings, her work now dabbles in social and political commentary. “I pay attention to what’s going on in the world and then head to the produce department,” she says.
I joke that people in the store must think she eats a lot of fruit … and then some. The artist likes to paint from real life, not pictures. “I’m working with raspberries now, and they keep deteriorating before I can get them painted.” Which translates into even more trips to the store.
Although the artist will always be a ‘rock’ star, she talks about what a thrill it is to sell one of her paintings. “I feel like that person is really getting what I’m trying to say,” says Vick. And people are starting to collect her work, good news for an artist who can spend weeks, months and even years on a painting. “I’ve started wearing reader magnifiers because my eyes are getting bad,” Vick says. Which means she now adds even more detail. “I can get sucked into a couple square inches of a painting for hours.” But eventually, she steps back and looks at the piece as a viewer would. “Otherwise, I’d never know when I’m done.”
Each year, Vick returns to Northport at the end of spring, and we meet up in mid-July. The drive up to her studio is breathtaking. It’s a sunny day and Lake Michigan is working its magic, showing me how it lured Vick to its shores many years ago. When I pull into the driveway, Vick comes out to greet me. She’s a slender woman in her early 60s with short gray hair. Her studio, separate from the main house, is a small building that was a garage in its former life. But with 10 windows, the space is now overflowing with natural light.
One of the first things I notice is the paint. Tubes and tubes of paint piled on every surface, next to various projects she’s working on now, including a couple of rocks. And then I notice all of the rocks. Milk crates, wooden boxes and wire baskets brimming with smooth beach stones. “I’ve had some of these rocks for over 10 years,” admits Vick. The studio walls showcase her paintings, a mix of older and newer creations. “I like to see the evolution of my work,” Vick says.
I study the displays, finally able to see her brush strokes up close. She brings out a painting entitled “Indulge,” which features cedar waxwing birds eating raspberries. The detail is spectacular, down to each berry, drupelet and prickle. It’s also mouthwatering. I make a mental note to hit a farm stand on the way home.
Today, Vick’s concentrating on a series of paintings she’ll call “Huggers and Greeters.” “The ‘Greeters’ are the trees around Northport that I see everyday,” says Vick. And the ‘Huggers’ will be birds. She is just starting the project, and the trees are beginning to take shape. Vick tells me that she’s been layering texture into the trees by adding—and removing—paint. I envision a giant eraser, which isn’t even close to the actual technique. Vick sprinkles the painting with water and then blots it with a paper towel, actually pulling off some of the paint she’d recently added. “Removing color is very freeing,” says Vick. “You never know what you’re going to get. It helps me loosen up a bit.”
I wonder if Vick, who thinks and paints in such fantastic detail, finds it hard to clear her head. She tells me about her favorite points on the Leelanau peninsula, places that help to relax and inspire. “Pyramid Point is gorgeous,” Vick says. “When you get to the top of this dune, you feel like you’re at the top of the earth.” And everything is blue, the sky and the water joining together at the horizon. Another special spot for her is Peterson Park. And since it’s just a few miles from her studio, I ask her if she wouldn’t mind taking me there.
“Peterson Park is very nostalgic to me,” reveals Vick, as we walk down stairs along a steep bluff to the beach. The beach is covered in stones … large, smooth beach stones … perfect for painting. “I have so many pictures of my two sons as kids hauling these rocks up the stairs,” she says. And then our conversation ceases as the artist begins to pick up and examine new stones. I feel like I’m watching that mysterious process in her brain starting to work. Not wanting to interrupt, I start hunting for rocks, too. Eventually, I find one with an interesting shape and take it to Vick. She examines it and deems it worthy. “I’ve had friends pick up rock after rock that just won’t work and get a little frustrated with me,” says Vick. “One friend even threw hers back into the water and told Lake Michigan to work on it for another 1,000 years.” Hearing this, I’m even prouder that I nailed it on the first try.
We return to her studio and say our goodbyes. I’m just about to drive away when I realize I’m missing a key piece of information. I knock on her door again, point to my rock and ask, “What is it?” Vick motions me back inside and says she’ll show me. After a quick pencil sketch, the animal starts to take shape. I can now see what Vick sees—a pig.
On my way home, I pop into Tamarack Gallery, in Omena. Vick, who works at the gallery part-time during summer, has a wall devoted to her creations. I’m excited to spot “Delicious Diversity” in the center of the display. Masterpiece is the first thought that comes to mind. “Must remember to stop at a fruit stand” is the second. The colors are so vibrant and the birds are so real, they’re practically flying off the wall. In a small display case, near the register, I spot two painted rocks, a panda and a cheetah. I ask to touch them, half expecting the smooth surfaces to feel like fur. I know they’re Vick’s.
A few weeks later, I get an email from the artist, letting me know that she just completed work on a mural inside the new Bijou by the Bay theater in downtown Traverse City, just in time for the August film festival. Not surprisingly, she’d been called in for the birds. I imagine the theater owner saying, “If you want detail, call Marianne Vick.” So perhaps I should do the same. I pick up my Peterson Park rock a lot. I like the weight of it and how the smooth stone feels in my hand. Inevitably, I find myself staring at the outline of the pig—its unrealized potential staring back at me. Maybe I’ll take it back to Vick one day and ask her to finish the job. After all, it seems a shame not to let the artist add all the details.