BY INDIANA NASH
SCHENECTADY — The well-tended garden, the arbor with plants wending throughout its nooks and crannies and the large tent covering a corner of the backyard are the first clues to where artist Mary Ellen Riell most often works.
“I really admire plein air artists … they carry all their materials on their backs and just work outside all day. But I don’t do that,” laughed Riell. Instead, she sets up her easel, paints and brushes in her backyard and paints the ever-changing environment of the gardens she tends.
Growing up in Brooklyn, Riell said that she first became interested in art by watching her grandfather draw.
“He was a civil engineer and I was fascinated by the things he drew,” Riell said. She loved the intricate nature of the drawings and found them beautiful.
After graduating high school, she attended the Fashion Institute of Technology for fashion illustration. But Riell quickly found that she wanted to expand on her artistic skills beyond illustration.
Wanting to get into painting and printmaking, Riell transferred to Brooklyn College and finished her bachelor’s degree in fine arts.
For the next seven years, Riell worked as a fashion illustrator at McCall’s Pattern Company in Manhattan.
“I don’t miss it because there was a certain amount that you had to produce every day,” Riell said. Currently, fashion illustration has mostly been taken over by photographers and the fashion illustration program that Riell studied is no longer applicable to the field.
But Riell did not let her experiences as an illustrator distract her from pursuing her other creative passions.
In the early 1980s, Riell moved to the Capital region with her husband, Dana, and shortly afterwards they had a son named Kellen.
“For a while, I stayed home to take care of Kellen. Everything had to be perfectly scheduled, but I was able to work on my painting a great deal,” Riell said. As soon as Kellen fell asleep, Riell would grab her set of paints and begin working.
A few years after Kellen was born, Riell wanted to further her creative pursuits, so she attended The College of Saint Rose and received her master’s degree in art education. Riell stayed on at the college as adjunct professor for six years.
“I liked teaching. I worked with art majors and taught them how to teach elementary school kids,” Riell said.
But after six years of teaching, she wanted to focus more on her own art work.
During the summer months, Riell now paints mainly in her garden.
“I will go to a few other spots to get inspiration, like Landis Arboretum in Esperance. I go there every summer and I’ll sketch and take a few photos to bring back with me,” Riell said.
If she is intrigued by the way one flower looks within the photos, she’ll plant the same type in her own garden so that she doesn’t have very far to go to paint it.
In the colder months everything but a few stubborn flowers in her garden dies off, so Riell works out of The Ragged Edge, a printmaking studio in Cohoes.
“This is really nice because then I’ll be able to take one drawing or concept and remake it in as many different ways as I’d like,” Riell said, pointing to a series of prints she had made using one of her figure drawings.
During the early 1990s, Riell began to exhibit some of her work. Since then, she has been featured in the Laffer Gallery of Schuylerville, in the Cooperstown Art Association, and the Shirt Factory Gallery in Glens Falls.
“When you enter shows, it’s good to get confirmation of your work,” Riell said, recalling when she won best in show at an exhibit in Cooperstown.
“I try to suspend any criticism while I’m working on a piece, even self-criticism because then you just end up doubting everything you do,” Riell said.
She encourages others to also work without their own conscious narratives of criticism running through their minds.
Riell is hoping this philosophy will help to carry her onto her next artistic goal: painting architecture.
“In a neighborhood like this, you have lots of visually interesting things, especially the cape style houses,” said Riell.
So far, she has featured the houses surrounding her garden only as the distant backgrounds of her works.
This summer, she will also be heading out to the Old Niskayuna Train Station to sharpen her sense of working with architecture.
“Working outdoors, every hour is different. Something that I worked on in the morning will look completely different in the afternoon. It’s almost endless, as far as the variations go,” Riell said.
And that is how she intends to carry on her artistic career: honing in on the slightest variations and pushing herself to see the every day in innovative ways.