This is the first profile in our new 'Spotlight' series where we sit down with inspiring members of the UO College of Design community to discuss their lives, work, and creative insights.
by Kate Liu
When Mary Vertulfo sits down across from me, wearing a bright smile and wide leg 60s trousers, the first thing we talk about is her childhood stint as a Eugene ~celebrity~. Barely into double digits, this girl played folk music, sold albums, and even opened for a young Michelle Zauner, now known by the dreamy Indiepop alias Japanese Breakfast. Mary laughs, describing how she eventually lost her small musical following when she tried to jump genres into indie, emo or punk. “I was, like, too angsty... and then they didn’t like it,” she says, with a wash of infectiously self-deprecating humor. Over the course of these first few minutes, I learn that 10-year-old Mary, like her current incarnation, was basically the shit.
Her musical career may (or may not) have peaked with puberty, but Mary Vertulfo, 23, has moved on to new mediums. An animator, an illustrator, and a fifth year BFA Art & Technology student at the University of Oregon, Mary has gone from opening for Michelle Zauner, to creating the animation for the artist’s 2018 Coachella set.
Like her, Mary’s art has a distinctive personality. It’s loose and playful. The word cute could be used to describe a good slice of it. There are soft cartoon figures, animals, bulbous trees, pastel colors, rosy cheeks. But there’s an arc in this work that builds towards further layers. It would be a crime to start and stop at ‘cute’.
In her comic diary, Mary distills intimate and relatable moments into hand drawn, perfectly imperfect three-part comics. In her ‘WOOF.’ illustrations, she builds a dog-woman hybrid that manages to feel sweet, scary, and a little painful, all at once. In ‘B’, musket wielding infantry women speak in deadpan Beyonce lyrics. Her ambitious Clark Honors College thesis animation film uses intimacy and uncertainty to upend conventional female depictions in animation, tackling questions of representation and subjectivity in memory. In all, a light-hearted visual language is used to confront a wide range of resonant, and often deeply personal, themes.
A cohesive style doesn’t emerge overnight, and Mary has spent her college years developing one. “For a lot of my undergraduate, the first couple years, I was trying to find my voice. I was desperately trying to cling to certain styles, or mediums, or color palettes, or ideas, to play with and be like oh this is my gimmick or this is my thing.” For a while, she limited herself by subject, depicting mostly forests or gardens or adorable things in forests and gardens. It wasn’t until she started to push against these limits that Mary began to find the organic visual voice so present in her work today.
The astonishing amount of creative content that Mary has managed to produce in just the last year and a half is as notable for its emerging themes, as for its bubbly style. Delving into personal narrative and her own experiences as a woman, an artist, a person of color, a lover of geese, Mary has begun to make work that is bright and uplifting, even when it tackles the artist’s thoughts at her most despondent.
Growing up, Mary was especially drawn to comics and animation, but she describes having a visually literal orientation that limited the characters she could see as role models. No matter how much a character might resemble her in personality, she couldn’t see herself in the place of an animation that didn’t physically look like her.
“I was willing to strip away my identity to be closer to characters like Princess Jasmine, who was extremely hollow,” Mary recalls. “But I was like-- at least I look like her, and I can kind of embrace these specific things I see in characters on the screen.”
Conforming to a limited set of cardboard characters will take its toll, and Mary spent her middle and high school years inhabiting any identity but her own. Eventually, she would have to confront this issue in her work.
“The second I was able to say I’ve never cared about myself because I was never encouraged to in a way that was productive and helpful, then I was like, okay, now I can use art to explore these things.” Mary has begun to grapple with her sense of self, and the role that her art can have in shaping how other people think about their own identities. “The idea of testimony is really powerful, because other people feel empowered to embrace their own personal narratives or stories when they see other people speaking theirs outwardly.”
Mary describes the importance of representation and personal narratives with an impassioned cadence, occasionally cutting one sentence short to follow the trail of another. She’s energetic and glowing with enthusiasm which, I’m beginning to think, is what gives all of her work that same excited quality. It’s relatable and sincerely introspective, without ever appearing to take itself too seriously. That’s the magic of this art, and perhaps also, of Mary Vertulfo.
Mary Vertulfo is a fifth year BFA student in the School of Art + Design at the University of Oregon. She is a member of HYPERPLUM, the BFA Art & Tech Class of 2018. More of her work can be found on this gorgeous website: maryvertulfo.com, and on her Instagram @maryvertulfo (you should follow ASAP).
Come back to read pt. 02 on Tuesday @ 5 pm.