Mary Zeran’s career path has been as colorful and abstract as the artwork she has been creating full-time over the past decade.
She initially embarked on a prelaw, political science path at the University of Iowa.
“And then I realized that just wasn’t going to be my thing,” she said. “So I thought, well, I’ll go into journalism, because I like magazines.”
So she switched majors. The UI Journalism School required her to have two minors. She chose art and something else she can’t even remember. Doesn’t matter. She took her first art class — and was hooked.
“I knew that’s where I should be,” she said.
Afraid to tell her parents that she was switching her major to art, she was surprised when they were delighted. Turns out, she was following in her matriarchs’ footsteps.
“I didn’t realize that what we did growing up was making art,” said Zeran, now 56, of Cedar Rapids. “My mom and my grandma always were making things. My mom always made my clothes, but she also did wood carving, and she painted on the wood carving. And my grandma had gone to Iowa State and designed textiles and things like that. So I came from this very use-your-hands, making kind of family.”
After getting her MFA at Iowa in 1991, followed by a year of professional development at the University of Wisconsin — Madison, she had hoped to teach at the university level, but the market didn’t work in her favor in the early ’90s. So she worked other jobs, including department store displays, before concentrating on her own artistic expression.
And now a decade of her evolution is on display through Jan. 3 in her first solo exhibition at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. That’s an especially poignant site for her, since that’s where she found her “community of people” when she and her husband, Jeff Schipper, moved from Seattle to his hometown of Cedar Rapids 16 years ago.
Her work has been shown as part of several group exhibitions at the museum, most recently during “Up All Night” and “Into the Blue” in 2019, and “Beyond the Prairie: Midwestern Art from the Collection” in 2018.
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Her solo show, “Mary Zeran: 10 Years,” features a few pieces on paper, but the majority is her collage work. She paints and assembles the elements on Dura-Lar, a clear polyester film, then mounts the finished product on a cradle panel, a flat piece of wood, made out of a birch and pine combination. In essence, it’s a shallow box that will hold up to the weight of all of the different pieces that go into her collages, which are covered with “a lot of glaze,” she said.
“It’s an engineering thing,” she added, “but I also started my art career as a sculptor. And so for me, I loved that 3D quality that you get from a box. It just feels good to me. I think making art is very tactile, especially for me.”
“She’s the only artist that I know who works in this particular media in the way that she does,” said Kate Kunau, the museum’s associate curator. “I love it because it really emphasizes the color and the brush stroke and the texture, which are the underlying tenants of all painting. ... In a way, she’s really taking painting down its basic tenet and then cutting them out and collaging them in this really interesting way.”
“I usually paint just without any plan, just like one of those free association things without judgment,” Zeran said. “And then when I start putting things together, that’s when I really start thinking about how things relate to each other and whether they work with each other, when the pieces talk to each other.
“I believe that whatever you feel, whatever the artist is feeling, comes out of their heart through their arms, through their hands, through the brush onto what they’re painting,” she said. “And so for me, the act of painting is a lot about transformation.
“I guess the closest example we could come up with is this idea (that) we’ve just had this hurricane, which was really intense and really devastating, and a lot of us are still reeling from it. And how do you get through something like that and not let it traumatize you for the rest of your life? How do you come out on the other side? Just having worked through it and having learned something.
“For me, I’m free-associating and I’m painting and I’m listening to music (classical to Led Zeppelin) and usually I’m painting the feeling I’m hearing from the music. And then when I start putting things together, that’s when things get a little dicey. I don’t know what’s going on — it can start to go badly. I can mess it up, but I never throw it away when I mess it up. I just keep working it till it feels done.
“And so that’s what the act of making art for me is. It’s almost like a lesson for living your life — how you can go through tragedy and survive it. You won’t be that person before the tragedy happened, but it’s about resiliency — being resilient and getting through things and even trying to be positive and have a positive outcome.”
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She took that positivity to Kunau and executive director Sean Ulmer three years ago, suggesting a solo exhibition tracing the trajectory of her 10-year career. Kunau and Ulmer were intrigued, and slated the exhibition for April 25 to Aug. 30, but with COVID-19 pandemic initially shutting the museum’s doors, the show was pushed back, opening this past Saturday.
“Supporting local artists has always been such a big part of our mission,” Kunau said, “tracing back to Grant Wood and Marvin Cone. It’s something we still really want to focus on — to have exhibitions of their work.”
She added that reaching a decade milestone is “a really big deal” for artists. And to make the show even more exciting, Kunau and Ulmer asked Zeran to create an installation directly on a gallery wall. It’s huge — about 192 inches wide by 7 or 8 feet tall — and the various pieces that make up the collage took about two months to paint. Her home studio wasn’t large enough, so she rented space at the Iowa Ceramics Center in the Cherry Building. Another 20 pieces round out the exhibition.
“We initially intended it to be a summer show,” Kunau said, “because it’s really bright and colorful and fun and summery. And now it’s going to be a bright, colorful fun show in the autumn.”
Viewers “will be able to really see her progression,” Kunau said. “She started out working kind of small and figuring out what colors she likes, what kind of marks she wanted to make and how those marks could work together, play off each other and create a narrative. And then you’ll see her work get really large, and then small again. People will see it become maybe slightly less organic and more geometric, so the shapes change. And you can tell when she goes through a period where she’s really interested in this particular color combination or this particular mark. You can really see the trends in her art.”
“This is the biggest moment of my career,” Zeran said of the museum show. “It’s amazing, especially because it’s something that I never thought would happen. I can’t believe that they said yes.”
If You Go
• What: “Mary Zeran: 10 Years” solo exhibition
• Where: Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, 410 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids
• When: Through Jan. 3, second-floor gallery
• Hours: Noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Sunday; noon to 8 p.m. Thursday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday
• Admission: $8 adult, $7 college students and ages 62 and over, $4 ages 6 to 18, free ages 5 and under
• Safety: Face masks/coverings required
• Details: Crma.org/
• Artist’s website: Maryzeran.com
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