Artist Mary Warner’s tagline is, “I paint what I want to see.” And what the UNLV associate professor wants to see inevitably challenges viewers and pushes limits in unexpected ways. When “beauty” was a dirty word in the contemporary art world, for example, she chose to paint large-scale flowers on black velvet. At the time, it was an act of subversion.
The black velvet canvas—a surface best known in popular culture for paintings of Elvis and tigers—subverted the literal beauty of her highly rendered classical flowers. Warner’s choices compelled the viewer to question issues of scale, content and medium. Gradually, the art world caught up with her: Over the last 20 years, beauty and the use of figure became accepted vessels to discuss contemporary issues in the art world.
On March 2, Warner received the Governor’s Art Award for Excellence in the Arts. Since its inception in 1979, the Nevada Arts Council and the Office of the Governor have recognized 211 individuals, organizations and businesses for their outstanding and enduring contributions to Nevada’s artistic achievement and service to the arts. This year, Warner is the only artist to be honored from Southern Nevada.
Two colleagues and three of Warner’s former students nominated Warner for the award. Former student and now artist/curator Wendy Kveck stated in her letter of support, “Not only is she an exceptional painter, but she is an amazing mentor. She knows how to pull the best from her students and she is constantly pushing herself to do more, to do better.” Warner has mentored and touched the lives of thousands of art students to whom she has taught drawing and painting since she joined the UNLV faculty in 1992.
But her artistic support is not limited to the university. She was instrumental in establishing the Contemporary Arts Collective, the longest existing nonprofit independent art space in Las Vegas. Her contributions are marked by an unselfish giving of her time, which Warner credits to “her curiosity about contemporary art production.” She attends openings, performances and any other art-related endeavors affirming others’ efforts to bring artistic expression to a town that sometimes seems unwilling to honor the same.
Now as ever, Warner explores new materials and media. In Garden Party, her solo exhibition at the Donna Beam Gallery in 2009, she presented smaller works using watercolor, gouache and pastel grounds painted on plaster or paper. At her solo exhibition at the Sahara Library, Warner again presented bold images of flowers but now painted on traditional canvas in a newer muted color palette. This month, Warner is participating in a group exhibition, Kaleidoscope: Visual Inspiration, which opens on March 4 at the Springs Preserve.
Warner remains interested in nature and beauty. “I want my work to be contemplative and experiential. I see something in my head and have a desire to make it ‘real.’ … I have always been interested in subjects and materials marginalized by the art world. I am interested in reexamining ‘beauty.’ I see flowers as a potent image, one which has been trivialized.”
She has been exhibited in the important Whitney Biennial in New York as well as in exhibitions worldwide. Warner’s work is collected widely and she has received national awards such as an NEA individual Fellowship and a Mid American Alliance Fellowship. She has received two Nevada Fellowships in the past but never one as important. After years of artistic achievement, touching thousands of lives and supporting the arts in every way she knows how, at last Warner is recognized with the most prestigious art award her state has to offer.