'Making Things In Public': Muralist And Mosaic-Maker Mary Lacy
Mary Lacy is a Jericho native who thinks big. She paints outdoor murals: giant images, usually of nature, that adorn urban landscapes. Her paintings of fish, hummingbirds and bees splash across buildings and along byways in vibrant color.
Lacy, who has taken her art on the road with cross-country mural-making that brought her to 10 towns from Mississippi to New Mexico, is now shifting her focus to a smaller scale.
But first, she had to break some glass.
Lacy stood at an improvised work station — an old dresser — in her studio in Burlington’s South End. She sliced the clear panes with a quick zip of her small blade, then tapped them lightly with the round end of a metal wand. This formed the shapes she'd later paint to build mosaics.
A belt sander took the sharp edges off; the noise drowned out the music from the record-pressing plant next door.
Lacy explained that her method is an unconventional way to create mosaics.
“I mean I didn’t get this technique from anyone — I developed it,” she said. “I was really interested in mosaics, but I wanted to be able to cut the pieces I wanted and be able to paint them the colors I wanted. So I feel like I am cheating, I’m, like, mosaic-cheating, but inventing something new at the same time.”
It hardly looks like cheating. Lacy follows a painstaking process of design, fabrication and creation that will transform the seemingly uneven shapes into the image of a red clover. It’s part of a series on pollinators and the plants they rely on that Lacy is creating for the Jericho Town Library. She’s also making a Monarch butterfly, a bee, a bat, and wildflowers. The nature images follow a similar theme to her much larger murals.
“I love painting animals," Lacy said. "You know, I love painting animals as if they’re walking or flying right there in the urban landscape. You know, it’s not like a window in some other world. But my intention is that people think that bird is right there.”
Lacy, who is 28, said it’s great to be doing something so close to home. And as private person who has practiced public art – her work process as well as her work has been on display for years – she said it’s also good to be working by herself for now.
“After five years of being out making things in public, I’ve been craving to have a more isolated space to be able to explore a little more,” she said.
The mosaic work signals a shift in Lacy’s focus: from large murals to creations that are smaller and made for interior spaces. She just rented the South End studio – her first – and she’s selling her bucket truck.
The Ford E 350 van with a 32-foot lift was her on-road studio that took her on a cross-country trip in 2016 and 2017. The project was partially underwritten by the Benjamin Moore paint company, which also helped pay for a series of videos that document the adventure.
Lacy said that trip was both inspiring and exhausting. She worked in a variety of communities, including the deep South and uptown Manhattan. Each piece brought its own challenges, even disasters that required – and this is one of Lacy’s favorite phrases – "problem-solving."
“There was like, one spot I showed up and there was like, a bus station that was made right in front of the mural, so I couldn’t park there,” she said. “Another spot I showed up, and one building owner hadn’t told the other building owner, and he was like ‘No, this is not happening.’ So I had to find a new wall.”
Growing up in Jericho, Lacy says an art career wasn’t what she saw for herself. In school, her focus was on academics and athletics, until she was sidelined by an injury. She credits her high school art teacher, Dodi Gomez, with encouraging her to explore the visual arts.
Gomez said Lacy’s early work made a strong impression.
“I think one thing that was always really true for Mary and continues to be true, is that she was always so patient and thoughtful as an artist,” Gomez said.
Gomez said that even in high school, Lacy showed a focus and vision unusual for an artist of her age. Gomez now teaches at the Browns River Middle School, which features Lacy's art on its walls. Lacy worked with students on a mural of a red fox.
“So I get to walk by Mary’s mural every day when I go to the cafeteria," Gomez said. "It’s just such a joy."
Joy is a welcome reaction to any creative work. High on a brick wall on St. Paul Street in Burlington, a giant hummingbird, one of Lacy’s first murals, hovers above the town. Passerby Emily Portune described her reaction:
“Love it! I love a hummingbird, yeah very cool,” she said. “Love it all the time. It makes me very happy. I’m new to Vermont, like two years ago. It really like feels like the town to me.”
The story behind the hummingbird mural is a classic lesson in problem-solving. Lacy started the project on the first day of the Burlington Farmers Market, so she found herself on display for a huge, gawking crowd. She had never painted a mural that high off the ground before, so she had to figure out how to paint each piece on a grid that she had not quite figured out how to calculate.
“So the whole first day I was just up there, like, faking my measurements, just like had my ruler, made fake marks,” Lacy said. “And [I] went home, and was like ‘Oh my god, how do I paint a mural?’”
And that wasn’t the end of the hummingbird mural travails. Later on, the battery in Lacy's bucket truck died, leaving her stranded 30 feet in the air.
That problem was solved with a jump start from a passing stranger. In her new studio, Lacy has solved more problems with the help of her family. Her brother Tom helped design a straight edge for the cutting surface, the old dresser, that she uses to slice the glass. And supportive parents – Chuck Lacy and former house speaker Gaye Symington – encouraged her career in art.
“I mean, I told my dad I wanted to buy a bucket truck, and he was like, 'I think that’s the best idea ever,'" Lacy said. "I don’t think many parents would do that."
Lacy said she knows other young artists have not had people behind them who believe in them.
But asked what would help encourage other young people to find a career in art, Lacy, who has dealt with a series of physical challenges stemming in part from her high school injuries, has a more practical insight: health insurance.
Affordable health care coverage, she said, is what people need if they are to have artistic freedom.
This story is part of our series, Young At Art. Every Monday this summer we'll hear from artists under 40 about what inspires their work and how they view the future for artists in the state. Support for Young At Art comes from Quantum Leap Capital.