Mary Louise Porter

Images from Natchitoches and the Cane River
photos by Kenneth Purvis

“Some people are born to sing, play an instrument or write,” says Natchitoches artist Mary Louise Porter. “I was born to be a painter. I have always known what I wanted to do in life – create.” For many years, that urgency to paint and create has guided her imagination as she explores the landscape along the Cane River and in the meadows, glades and wooded hills of Northwest Louisiana.

“My work,” says Porter, “represents a journey of memories and images drawn from landscapes seen in my travels as well as experienced in the American South where I was born and raised. Each work of art captures the emotion and beauty of the location expressed in my unique, interpretive style.” Like the imagination itself, that style is rarely a literal depiction of what the artist sees when she sets up her easel. It is more about how she feels about what is before her, and how she filters that scene through the prism of her vibrant palette. Scenes and colors that might appear subtle in nature become radiant on canvas, while shapes and forms are often exaggerated to create dramatic effects.

Porter’s interpretive style has emerged over the years since receiving her bachelor’s and master of fine art degrees from Louisiana State University. Yet, the artists who contributed most to the shaping her palette and approach to painting were the late 19th century French Impressionists Claude Monet and Edgar Degas, the Post-Impressionists Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Cézanne, and the Fauvist painters André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck. “Each has influenced me through their use of color and composition,” she explains. “I studied the Post-Impressionists and began to explore color and texture in my paintings. I have expanded my palette to create a unique style of my own.”  

She learned her lessons well. For instance, Van Gogh’s perceptions of light, color and form are clearly evident in many of Porter’s landscapes. One can see that influence in vibrant paintings such as “Louisiana Cottonfields.” Here her dramatic cloudscapes call to mind Van Gogh’s animated treatment of skies and clouds in his 1889 painting “Wheatfield with Cypresses.” Fortunately, she hasn’t had to remove an ear to achieve similar effects.

Porter’s search for the “beauty and emotion” in the local landscape calls to mind what Monet once said about his own work: “My only desire is an intimate fusion with nature.” Porter also searches for that “intimate fusion” with the landscape. “Louisiana has been my home and inspiration throughout my life,” she says. “As I step outside my studio door, I am surrounded by beauty. It is just down the road or around the corner. The spreading limbs of the live oak trees, the Cane River with its twist and turns, or the cotton field’s rhythmically creating patterns in the land. I am drawn to the breathtaking landscape of Louisiana. I want to capture on canvas the very heart and soul of what I see before me.”

Like Monet and Van Gogh, Porter often paints outdoors on location to let her senses respond to the land, light and air. “Landscapes have always fascinated me with the constant changing of color, movement and light,” she explains. “I enjoy painting outside in nature because it connects me to that time and space at the moment.” It is that personal journey into the natural landscape that heightens her imagination. “Nature is secretive and forever changing to me as it captures my artistic soul. I enjoy waking up in the early morning and gathering my easel and paints for the day. I load the car with supplies and take off down the road until I see what it is that I want to paint. It may be the turbulent clouds bellowing up when a storm begins to brew, or the rustling wind sweeping across the grasslands, or the way the sun is hitting upon a group of trees out in the fields, or reflections that have formed in the lakes and river, revealing yet another painting emerging just as complex with shapes and colorful patterns. The movement and colors ignite my imagination. It is my job as an artist to capture it on canvas. So, I create. It is just something I must do.”

With the basic composition, color and mood on canvas, Porter often completes a painting in the controlled environment of the studio. “When I enter my studio, I enter another world,” she says. “It is there that I am free to create, experiment and enjoy the creative process. I am able to continue the mood and energy of the landscape through color and texture. My canvases are sometimes layered with torn paper, plaster and cut canvas to create texture and pattern throughout the landscape. The colors used in my paintings are intense, bold, and sometimes complex to demonstrate the energy visualized in the final outcome. Colors are altered as blue skies change to yellow and brown dirt roads to vibrant reds.” That creative process has earned Porter numerous honors over the years. Most recently, the Natchitoches Arts Commission has featured her painting Christmas in Natchitoches 2014 as this year’s poster for the city’s famed Christmas Festival of Lights.  

Aside from painting, Porter has had a long career teaching art in public and private schools in Natchitoches and Shreveport. She also has taught art at Northwestern State University of Louisiana in Natchitoches and at Louisiana State University Shreveport. “I want my students to enjoy what they are doing and have passion about what it is they want to create,” she says. “When they understand these elements and how to use each in a work of art, it gives them the tools for creative expression.” In 2005, Porter was one of twelve artists from across the nation selected for an Art Teachers Fellowship at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. Since 2006, she has done stints as “artist-in-residence” at prestigious art schools in Costa Rica, California and Chicago.

Though Porter has taught art for almost three decades, painting and the rhythms of the landscape clearly have been driving passions in her life.

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