Visual Artist Mary Mooney Breaks Away from the Rectangle

Mary Mooney, 30, is a visual artist born in Atlanta.

As a child, Mary said her father’s job would transfer him a lot, so she and her family moved around quite a bit. Her move to Nashville nearly five years ago marks the city as the longest place she’s ever lived.

“Even though I’m not from here and there is a whole new wave of people moving in, it does feel like this is home because this community has embraced me and all of my creative passions,” she said.

Mary was used to packing and getting ready to move every year or two but said it feels good to be in Nashville where her feet are in the sand, and she’s becoming more rooted.

After high school, Mary went to Dension University, a small liberal arts school in Ohio.

“I graduated in 2008… in the recession… with an art degree and a philosophy minor,” she said laughing. “I think you get slapped in the face with the real world when you graduate college, as you rightfully should, but that was an especially hard hit.”

She said Dension’s program was more focused on preparing students for graduate school, not making a life outside of academia.

“What I didn’t have was any business knowledge, and you need that as an artist,” she said. “I was grasping for anything remotely related to my field after I left.”


Moving around a lot as a child was difficult for Mary, but it also gave her space and the opportunity to find art.

“Art is a solo activity usually,” she said. “There were a lot of summers where we would be in a new city. With school starting, it was hard making friends, so it was a good way to be creative and entertain myself. It felt worthwhile.”

Because of her high school schedule, Mary didn’t take many art classes until college.

“In college, I took an abstract art class and that was it for me,” she said. “I fell in love with taking this idea of an emotion or a narrative and simplifying it down into something visceral then having that communicate and connect with people in that ambiguity.”

Mary said when something is simplified like that, the person looking at it can bring more of themselves into the work.

“I love when there’s a group of people who can feel the same emotion from an abstract piece that’s not literal,” she said. “It’s incredible.”

Mary said one of her biggest personality traits is a deep well of empathy. She loves to express something that connects with someone else’s experiences separate from hers.

Venturing out into sculpture and other mediums, she said she feels more confident with painting than anything else.

“With abstract art, I feel so well equipped, and I feel like I have all the answers. It’s empowering,” she said.

Lately, Mary has been experimenting with distilling an entire narrative in combination with color theory. She’s been reading Josef Albers, a German-born American artist and educator, who did studies on how colors look different in a different environment.

She said choosing different mediums that work best for her has been almost a decade of trial and error.

“Acrylic is a lot easier to dilute and fool around with,” she said. “For me working on acrylic glass – it hardens. I’ve been trying to create this depth in my paintings like this feeling of standing on the edge of still water. You know? And you just want to jump in.”

Mary started painting on acrylic glass in 2012. Now, she cuts and manipulates those pieces to make something new.

“I’ve broken out of the rectangle working in unconventional sizes,” she said. “I had to learn woodworking to do that. I wanted to do so I had to shoestring it and bootstrap it.”

Mary is also moving into the realm of public art installations. She collaborated with the owners of Poppy and Monroe in Germantown on a deconstructed painting for their front room and is keeping her eyes peeled for other opportunities.

“I just want to be making all the time. I have all these ideas for really big work, so I want to find the right spots for it,” she said. “It seems more sustainable to collaborate with a commercial space. It’s different and a good feeling to know that something is sold and going somewhere.”

Mary will have her first major solo exhibit in Nashville at the Red Arrow in East Nashville in February 2017. Her work for the exhibit is reminiscent of storms, battles, or explosions illustrated in a saccharine palette of dreamy pastels and electric neon pinks.

“I am fascinated with this first awareness of discomfort, that raw emotion that you feel so viscerally before you have an inkling of vocabulary to describe it, and the infuriating pain which that confusion causes as you’re working to process those feelings into language.”

“It’s thrilling to be doing what I love in the city I love.”


Mary’s grandmother lives in Sugar Valley, Georgia. She said her grandmother was a big reason she moved to Nashville.

“I treasure that relationship, and I wanted to be somewhere where I could travel back and see her. I’m only three hours from her here,” she said.

Along with being close to her grandmother, Mary also wanted to be a part of a liberal creative community, which is why she chose Nashville.

When she moved in 2012, she lived on the west side of town.

“I’ll drive over there sometimes and won’t recognize my old neighborhood from almost five years ago. At times, it’s a little jarring,” she said. “But it’s good and bad.”

She said the big things that a lot of artists talk about like affordable housing, studio space, and transportation are some things that negatively affect the city but then the new amenities and developments are what make Nashville more attractive.

Mary said she was shocked to find out that such a big city had such a small town feel.

“Even still, I’ll meet someone, and they’re connected to someone else I’ve met in some way. There’s only one to two degrees of separation from any one person in Nashville.”

When Mary starts to think about the community she thinks about the amount of support here.

“We live in a place where people want to see artists succeed, that wants public art everywhere, and that wants to do the weird experimental things. It’s amazing.”

Mary said when she first moved to Nashville she was in dispute with a gallery and the Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts got her out of a terrible situation pro bono. She said she’s grateful for the amount of support and resources the city shows its artists.

Just this last year, Mary has been able to find a creative community that fits her. When Neat Nashville asked her to define the word community she said she’s still actively doing so each day.

“I feel like whenever I have questions there are so many people I can reach out to help or make introductions for me. People want me to succeed, and I feel the same way about everyone I know here,” she said.

“All ships rise with the tide,” she said. “I want everyone to get better and be supported too.”

Mary is a fan of Mayor Megan Barry and said she’s glad the city is in her hands under this growth.

“People are moving here because they want to be involved here,” she said. “They want to be a part of the life here, and a part of the community so that’s got to be good.”

To keep up with Mary like her Facebook page here!

Thanks for reading Nashville!