By Katie Nartonis

“We have such a diversity of artists here, all dedicated to supporting one another and the work we can do together. I am often looking for ways and modes to introduce a sense of possibility through play and interaction.” – Artist, Mary Jeys

Mary Jeys’ art practice is constantly changing. Her most recent works have involved watercolor, ceramics, and live video. She notes that the kind of work she does, “is very much invested in modes and meaning
of exchange, value, play and interaction. I have many media I approach using this thinking strategy.” She relates to the Voice that, “Over decades really, the material exploration has never remained fixed. I am not an orthodox craft practitioner, but instead a hybrid form creator.

The artist has had many terms to describe what it is she does: performative installation art, social engagement
practice, and most recently interdisciplinary arts. It’s one of the things that makes answering a question like “what kind of art do you make?” so hard. It changes regularly. She can even become jealous of other artists who find whole worlds in one medium and who can invest in the tools and technology to support their focused explorations.

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Since Jeys has moved to the Hi Desert, her “watercolors have jumped off the flat wall to become 3-dimensional physical puzzle pieces, my ceramics have become play tools.” She has also become a co-steward of the cabin shop at the Sky Village Swap Meet now called Sun Spot. “I’m proud of the work I have created in the space of community, exchange and platforming including coordinating this year’s NEA Big Read.”

Born in Houston, the artist grew up outside of Boston – one of three daughters of a physicist and a lawyer. She describes her parents as smart and driven contributors to their given fields. Jeys notes, “There really wasn’t a time before I was an artist. Even when I thought I would become a professional figure skater, or a marine biologist, or a veterinarian (from when I was 12)
everyone else could see that I was an artist.”

By the time she was an undergrad in Austin, TX at the University of Texas she had made a conscious choice to move towards art as a life pursuit. “I could see that it would be hard, but much more rewarding in becoming a full realization of myself.” When she Dublin and then eventually relocated to New York after 9/11. In New York, she resumed what she describes as “a kind of expanded sense of public engagement.” In 2008, she created a fictional election campaign for the hero of Die Hard – running attack ads against the villains. Later, she held the actual election with real ballots at Mana Gallery in Jersey City, NJ. Jeys notes, “I’m happy to tell you that John McClane (not McCain) won in a landslide!” Next, she embarked on a largescale work which was developed as a response to the 2008 financial crisis. She printed paper money and held events at her shared studio/gallery in Brooklyn – inviting people to trade goods and services using an alternate, local currency called The Brooklyn Torch.

When she moved to the Bay Area of California she did so with a lot of hope and confidence in her art practice and her effectiveness in eliciting audience engagement. Unfortunately, for the seven years she lived in the Bay Area, she felt that she had “run aground” – and was never able to fully gain the momentum and excitement and connection to her work that she had enjoyed when she was in New York. The High Desert has helped her rediscover that sense of community and pursue her essential creative journey.

Jeys had visited the Desert a couple times before she really felt the call for a change in 2021. During one visit (in the middle of the pandemic and her MFA studies) she met a group of artists (including Elena Yu) at the Swap Meet. It was in the cabin shop formerly known as High Desert Test Sites HQ where “there was simply an emotional connection to Elena and other artists in this community that I felt profoundly. I sensed in a few minutes that my heart and my work needed this change. So, towards the tail-end of the housing frenzyin 2021, we got a house here.“

She describes her studio space as holding a sacred archive of past work – documenting the many media and tools she has used in past projects. “I have knitting needles, a sewing machine, paper pulp, boxes of clay and glazes, video screens (and so many wires!), paints in various media: water, oil, acrylic, a box of adhesives, tapes, wood boards, cameras, and of course pens and paper.”

Jeys has a strong sense of cultural context through which she views her work. She feels that she has lived thru enough contexts to see that there are recurring cultural cycles and waves that are worth remembering. “Many people in my generation mark their days from crisis to crisis. Much like our parents’ generation saw the political assassinations as a turning point, we have seen many turns: 9/11, Katrina, and now Covid-19. These have been extraordinary events that everyone in our culture has been affected by.

It has been my position that we must find resiliency and hope for another future, and that artists have special skills in adaptation and creation that are desperately needed but aren’t yet being supported in the way that would truly give everyone a sense of possibility. We need to do more than put band-aids on bleeding organs. Artists of any generation have the practice and resilience in following their own callings in spite of any challenge.” Her vision for our desert community is generous. She hopes that artists “can continue to experiment wildly and with bravery – in the ever-shifting contexts of a culture that persists in denying artists their sacred role as teachers of potential futures. I hope that we can continue to support each other’s real potential in creation.”

Katie Nartonis is a writer, curator, film maker, and specialist in art and design. Her current exhibition (and documentary film) opened during 2024 Palm Springs Modernism Week: “Jack Rogers Hopkins: California Design Maverick” and is open through September 28th at the historic Sam Maloof Foundation. Look for her upcoming book, “Glimpses of the Joshua Tree Dream.”

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