The Anti-Engelbreit

Drawn to street art, graffiti, and inspired by an educational background in behavioral science that was prompted by her daughter’s struggles with autism, Marian Congdon had a stronger purpose when she resumed her painting career. Photo by Tim Robison

Drawn to street art, graffiti, and inspired by an educational background in behavioral science that was prompted by her daughter’s struggles with autism, Marian Congdon had a stronger purpose when she resumed her painting career. Photo by Tim Robison

When Marian Congdon arrived in Hendersonville more than 20 years ago, it wasn’t love at first sight. She and her husband had moved from Berkeley, California, and the Bay Area, a hotbed of exciting art where she’d been making experimentally complex, challenging work.

“It was culture shock,” Congdon says of her first exposure to mountain life. “I left a vibrant art scene to come to the land of Mary Engelbreit and Thomas Kinkade, or that’s what it seemed to me. I missed Berkeley every day, and forgot to look at the natural beauty around me.”

Two decades on, Congdon has found her mountain groove with a body of oils, works on paper, and mixed media that play around the boundaries of abstraction, Pop Art, and found art. “I find myself drawn to street art and graffiti,” says Congdon. Like those spontaneous forms, some of her work is inspired by current events. “Strip Mall Vigilante,” a swirl of browns, pinks, and whites in oil and pastel, began as her response to the lowering of the Confederate flag over the South Carolina State Capitol, and metamorphosed further after a widely reported shooting at a military base in Tennessee and the appearance of armed civilians at strip-mall military recruiting centers.

Random Repitition

Random Repitition

Other pieces have more personal origins, as in the “A Month of Laundry” series, mixed-media works that each incorporate a month’s worth of used dryer sheets. They were created during a low ebb in finances when most of the couple’s resources were going toward therapy for their autistic daughter. “I had to work with found materials and stuff we had a lot of,” Congdon notes. “I liked using everyday household materials. It was autobiographical.”

Her work reflects a congenial melding of the traditional, formalist training of her college years at Miami University in Ohio, and the bolder, boundary-pushing art she found in Berkeley, where she enrolled in a Masters degree program at the University of California. “The art program at Miami University focused heavily on fundamentals and foundations,” Congdon explains, although those years also brought her first exposure to the abstractions of Kandinsky and Richard Diebenkorn, the latter a founding member of the Bay Area Figurative Art movement of the mid 20th century. Her attraction to Diebenkorn was an early sign of where her artistic future lay, however distant it seemed. “My work [at Miami University] began to merge into abstraction, but never fully crossed into it,” she says. “I struggled to segue from traditional to abstract without the abstract looking gratuitous or facile.”

She found a way forward at UC Berkeley and the opportunity to study under Joan Brown, a major figure in the generation of Bay Area Figurative artists that followed after Diebenkorn, David Park, Wayne Thiebaud, and others. Brown was known for incorporating elements of beat culture and street art into her work, and for emphasizing personal vision over formal technique. “She stressed art as introspection above following preordained formal rules, no matter where it took you,” Congdon recalls. “She was an incredibly caring and hands-on mentor, and with her encouragement, I began doing self-portraits, raw and confrontational with feminist undertones.” (Brown was killed in an accident in India in 1990, when Congdon was in her second year of her Masters studies.)

Strip Mall Vigilante

Strip Mall Vigilante

But as she completed her Masters and as her passionate involvement in the Bay Area art scene grew, other parts of her life intervened. In the space of four months, Congdon married her husband, Eric, and found herself pregnant with their first child. “Within a year, we realized we couldn’t afford to raise a family in the Bay Area, so we moved to Hendersonville in 1995, where Eric’s grandfather ran a family business,” she recounts. Helping to run the company (the former Mills River Industries) and raise four children, two of them diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, left little time for art.

“It felt like a part of me had died,” Congdon says.

In the summer of 2005 came an opportunity to teach a summer art camp at Hendersonville’s Immaculata Catholic School, and eventually a position as a resource teacher there. After discovering an effective therapy for her daughter’s autism called Applied Behavior Analysis, which optimizes education through adjustments and additions to the learning environment, Congdon decided to become a certified ABA practitioner. “It was the first, and only, effective intervention for our daughter, but I couldn’t manage art and autism intervention and a full-time job.”
Something had to give. “With a heavy heart,” she says, “I chose to give up art.”

The training and resulting certification revived her childhood interest in science (“as a kid I thought about Van Gogh and astrophysics”) but made the absence of art in her life even more acute, until another full-time position at Immaculata, this time teaching art, presented itself. “I jumped on it, and [jumped] back into art,” says Congdon. The new school year marks her twelfth at Immaculata teaching second-to-eighth-grade students.

And so a life in art that seemed so disappointingly interrupted led to a new phase. “I find myself looking through the lens of behavior science,” she said. “When creating art, I consider the surface as the environment and myself as both artist and viewer.” She often rotates the canvas repeatedly to reveal new patterns and images, new viewpoints, new ways of seeing. “The end is completely different from the starting point,” she says. “I like to incorporate chance into my process. It brings the unexpected and keeps things fresh.”

Marian Congdon (mariancongdon.com) will participate in the Open Studio Tour of Henderson County Saturday, September 17, and Sunday, September 18, 10am-5pm both days (She works at 22 Iroquois Drive in North Hendersonville.) An exhibit of Marian Congdon’s work at The Gallery At Flat Rock, titled Wabi-Sabi, opens October 14: galleryflatrock.com.

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