Woodstock Painter Mariella Bisson Awarded NYFA Fellowship

by Editorial Staff


Mariella Bisson of Woodstock is awarded the prestigious 2012 NYFA Fellowship in Painting.

The New York Foundation for the Arts highly sought after fellowship in painting brings a great deal of prestige along with a sizable monetary grant to the recipient.

Some of you may remember the article we published about Mariella several years ago. Here are excerpts from our interview with Mariella in December 2007:

Chasing Waterfalls — a chat with Mariella Bisson by Ross Rice

Sometimes we take this place for granted. The beauty that we are exposed to on a daily basis, from the Gunks and the Catskills, to the majesty of the Hudson at Garrison/​West Point, to the rolling hills and ridges of Northeastern Dutchess, inspire many a local Sunday driver to remark “that looks just like a painting.” But most of the time, we smile, blink, and keep our eyes on the road.

Mariella Bisson is one of those who pulls over and paints it. As a longtime resident of the Hudson Valley, she has embraced the influence of the Hudson River School and has developed her own language and technique to express herself, utilizing an inventive approach combining watercolor painting, drawing, and collage. The results are remarkably powerful and modernist, yet maintaining a strong connection to earth and sky.

We are invited to visit her Kingston loft studio to get to know Mariella Bisson a little better. [note: Mariella has since moved her studio to Woodstock,NY]

Falls Tree 2012

Falls, Tree, 2012 Mixed Media on Linen, 60 X 96″

Her connection to the Hudson River School started at a very young age, in her hometown of St. Johnsbury, Vermont, where the Fairbanks Brothers invented and manufactured the platform scale, an important (and lucrative) development in the Industrial Revolution. As a result, the town had a large Romanesque factory, a museum of natural history, and a library, St. Johnsbury Athanuem, with an art gallery fully stocked with Bierstadt, Gifford, and Durand. Despite top grades and available scholarships, she wanted nothing more than to draw and paint, and was encouraged to do so by her father, John Aime Bisson who, though he made his living mostly in the restaurant and ski lodge business, was a dedicated painter and sculptor. She points out some of his work: a trio of what she fondly calls “Post-​​Modernist duck decoys.”

After graduating High School and spending a year in Europe, she was off to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn for a BFA, Mariella recounts, “well, basically, I [thought I] knew everything. I was clueless! But I loved Pratt, and they taught me what I wanted to know; they taught me drawing, and they taught me how to make a living, as an art teacher, or working in art programs, and gave me professional skills. I was an intern, an employee of The Brooklyn Museum, which launched me through grad school, so it was a certain trajectory of support there.”

From there, she landed a plum gig: “I was the curator for Prospect Park. That was a 10-​​year gig for the New York City Dept. of Parks and Recreation … I was in the Union, I drove a pick-​​up truck, it was great! Put up exhibitions of contemporary art, opened up spaces to the public for the first time, one of which was the Memorial Arch in Grand Army Plaza. Those were fun years in the City [’83 — ’93]; there was money for things like that back then.”

After that tenure ended, she started to feel less centered in the City. Possession of a rent-​​stabilized loft caused tension and outright harassment. Mariella took a friend up on an offer to come up to Palenville, where she was “taken up to Kaaterskill Falls. BAM! My life was changed in a day. After that, I began to find any way I could to get back to the Catskills.”

Woodstock School of Art and Byrdcliffe offered artist-​​in-​​residencies, as did many others, from California and Canada, to Tuscany and Germany, but eventually, she made the move to the Hudson Valley permanent, setting up her studio and later marrying attorney David Gubits in 2005.

Mariella in Colorado, photo by David Gubits

Mariella in Colorado, photo by David Gubits

Where many artists use photographs as a visual reference, Mariella begins with a field watercolor, capturing not only nuances of shapes and colors, but also a general aesthetic of the scene that took hold of her eye. On one wall of her studio, an early black and white piece hangs with its accompanying watercolor, offering an insight to the process. Shapes, shadows and colors are subtly shifted, bringing more depth and spirit into the final work, which also employs paint density and texture, “moving into a geometry, a mood. What is a metaphor for something greater depicted than what I saw there? I see this constant flow of water, a beautiful rock. The water will eventually wear the rock down, but it’s a thing of beauty during that entire process of half a million years of dissolution, a sudden shelf, a sudden shift, it’s a fall. There are all kinds of things you can read into them.”

A need for more immediate texture took Mariella into a new direction: collage, in particular the use of paper surfaces. “When collage got invented, the whole idea was that collage breaks the picture plane. I tried to make it so collage could describe Renaissance space … a somewhat radical return to a painting space using a modernist media that was designed to break the picture. Believe me, it’s an artist in-​​joke,” she chuckles.

It is with this shift she has created a very personal and unique style, instantly recognizable.

Plattekill Falls, 2006

Plattekill Falls, 2006

Surrounded by bins of a wide variety of paper textures and earth colors, she shows us two recent favorites, both with iconic “Catskill shapes. Those hillsides tumbling down, cliff-​​face going up. To me, I look at it, it’s in constant motion. Now some of this motion is very slow. This tree is falling down very slowly, just as surely as the rocks are in motion.” The paper gives a 3-​​D quality to the work, which, mounted on wood panels, now employs more variety of colors, especially with oranges and greens, while maintaining the kinetic verticals and light/​shade contrasts.

A specially formulated polyurethane (exclusively made for her) is applied to the surface, bringing the piece “out from behind the glass,” as Mariella puts it. The effect is immediate and tactile. But what is very interesting about the new pieces is that the shapes are starting to gravitate away from realism toward the abstract, while maintaining an earthy realness. This is not your Grandma’s landscape painting. You find yourself having to move further back to see the “original” image, which is intentional. This is where Mariella’s drawing skill, underpinning the work, serves her well. Still, Mariella admits, “When you stand up close, they fracture apart, as if you were looking at a kaleidoscope. I just hope that there’s more to see every time you look at it, just catch something a little different. I don’t rush through them, I take my time, I mean, it’s serious.

To some people’s eyes it’s perhaps too academic, but I had academic training. I studied drawing with a guy that studied with a guy, who studied with a guy, who studied with Raphael. You know, there’s a straight line right down there [through history,] so I really believe in drawing, and taking your time, and making the thing a quality object.”

When asked about what she thinks the future holds, she answers like a true ex-​​Vermonter: directly and pragmatically. “The next big experiment is to see if I can make these collage schemes work on stretched canvas, and if I can, that will really be a breakthrough because you can stretch a canvas really big, and it’s not heavy, and it’s more like a painting. In the ensuing five years since this article was written, Mariella has indeed succeeded in creating her work on stretched canvases. Her newest works at 60 by 96 inches are the pieces which convinced the jury to award her this prestigious NYFA Fellowship.

My work is based in drawing. I create paintings and mixed media works on linen. I use landscape elements of rock, forest and water to explore themes of time, light, gravity, change and constancy. —Mariella Bisson


Falls with Yellow Birch 2011

Falls with Yellow Birch, 2011 Mixed Media on Linen, 96 X 60″


Mariella’s works are in corporate and museum collections in the U.S. and Europe. She has been the recipient of many grants and residencies, including the Pollock Krasner Foundation Fellowship, and now, the 2012 New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Painting.

The NYFA is a $7000 grant that is given every two years. Painting is the most competitive category. I am thrilled to be included in the ever-​​expanding circle of NYFA winners. —Mariella Bisson

Hidden Valley Falls, Wind in the Water, 2012

Hidden Valley Falls, Wind in the Water, 2012 Mixed Media on Linen, 60 X 40″ (courtesy of Butters Gallery, Portland, OR)


To see more of Mariella’s work go to mariellabisson​.com/

The New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA), the nation’s largest provider of funding, information and services to individual artists, this year awarded 95 NYFA Fellows and 16 Finalists – all of whom were chosen from among over 4,317 applicants in five categories — including Fiction; Folk/​Traditional Arts; Interdisciplinary Work; Painting; and Video/​Film. The Fellows were selected by peer panels, which were assembled with representatives from each artistic discipline.

NYFA’s 2012 Artists’ Fellowships are administered by NYFA with leadership support from the New York State Council on the Arts, a State agency. Additional support is provided by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, Deutsche Bank Americas Foundation, The Lily Auchincloss Foundation, the Milton & Sally Avery Arts Foundation, and one anonymous donor.

Featured painting, Waterfall in Three Parts, 2012. Mixed Media on Linen, 60 X 96

All images courtesy of the artist, unless otherwise noted.

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