Light-ness of Being

By spending time in urban settings and in northern Michigan, artist Mary Rousseaux captures abstract luminosity


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Lots of mixed-media supplies fill Mary Rousseaux’s studio, along with some of her Leelanau-inspired paintings on the wall and floor (Series 43) and a multicolored work with various shapes (Series 59). The cutout is a mock-up for a future installation.

Photos by Michelle and Chris Gerard

Detroit-based abstract painter Mary Rousseaux is a woman of many contrasts; the feisty persona one encounters when they first meet the artist belies a deep tenderness that oozes from her work. Then there’s her love of both city and country.

Rousseaux says she experiences a personal transformation when she spends time away from the gritty city on the rolling, bucolic Leelanau Peninsula.

“I connect with nature, and then I come back to urban life and have a connection with humans and the natural rhythm of the city — Detroit has its own type of swagger,” she explains. The artist says she needs that clear city/country contrast in order to carry on; it’s the yin and yang that defines her work and her very being.

A mixed-media artist who lives in Detroit’s Indian Village neighborhood, Rousseaux numbers rather than titles her paintings. “I don’t want to define your experience,” she says. “It’s personal for everybody.”

Her Series 43, which consists of eight large-scale mixed-media paintings that cross the color spectrum from deep moody blues and greens to light pinks and yellows, focuses on the magical light that filters across Leelanau County. “The light is never the same,” she says, adding that the series is “colorful and contemplative.”

Like that light, Rousseaux knows from personal experience that you can’t count on life to always be the same. Upon returning from a recent camping trip with her daughter at Leelanau State Park that she describes as “mellow,” the artist’s life was turned upside-down. After 15 years of creating paintings and prints in a vast, light-filled studio with 20-foot ceilings adjacent to the old Ford Plant on Piquette Street, she learned that she had to clear out because the building’s new owners have other plans for the former auto factory.  

The scene isn’t uncommon these days for Detroit-area artists who’ve pioneered a space in the city, made it flourish because of the vibe they’ve created, and then are asked to vacate for a variety of reasons, including rising property values.

Rousseaux had to move large-scale paintings and a big printing press, several flat-file cabinets that weigh a ton, as well as all of her work surfaces, art supplies, and everything else that goes into her craft.

Luckily, she says, “I have some very amazing friends who said they would help me move.” In no time, she found a new studio (on Bellevue, in Detroit). At 475 square feet, it’s smaller than the 1,100 square feet she was used to, but she’s surrounded by other artists.

“It’s such a strong and diverse community,” says Rousseaux, who earned both her BFA and MFA at Wayne State University. She teaches Art 101 for non-art majors at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, and says she loves how her students start out thinking they know nothing and end up being able to cultivate their own visual language and use it as a form of expression. She has also shared her talents with her daughter, Elliott, 25, who recently received her BFA from the prestigious Cooper Union art school in Manhattan. “We support each other,” Rousseaux says.

In one way, she admits, the move is refreshing. “I’m super excited. It’s time to change and let go of a lot of things. It’ll be new energy.” On the other hand, she says, “I’m sad — I’ve worked alone forever.”


More information: maryrousseaux.com.

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