East Quogue artist bridges media with botanical art

Marissa Bridge: Nothing But Flowers

Bridge’s painstaking art of paper rolling produces fields of flowers.

East Quogue artist Marissa Bridge is known for her botanical paintings, but lately she has been working in a new, painstakingly precise medium that doesn’t really have a name. It can be lumped under the grouping of “paper mixed media,” but that hardly describes the rolling of each individual piece of paper, the putting it in place, the time-consuming art that Bridge excels in.

The pieces — all white and some of them quite large — have been wowing local art-goers since she began creating them. Now, Bridge will be part of a show at Jamie Forbes Gallery in Center Moriches that opens August 18.

You have several distinct styles — painting, encaustic wax, and paper mixed media — but the subject is consistently botanical. Have you always been drawn to flowers and plants? Were you raised in a place where blooms were plentiful? 

I’ve had a long, complicated relationship with flower imagery. As a young child, my mother taught me how to draw a rose one evening after dinner. She was amusing me with a simple trick of drawing small, concentric curved lines, and if you did a bunch of them, it started to look like a rose. Drawing it was fun, and I decided then and there to become an artist. Coloring, drawing, painting, sewing, knitting, all of that activity got me through my childhood and teenage years.

But I definitely did not plan on being a botanical artist. I studied painting in art school, and fell in love with abstraction. After art school, I lived in the Flower District with the conceptual artist Allan Bridge, creator of the Apology Line, and vowed never to paint flowers. I was making all black paintings with thick paint and no imagery, just pulsing texture. But those paintings became a dead-end for me, and I needed to get out of it.

Allan was a big scuba diver, and he talked me into doing it as well. The first time I dove in the icy cold waters of Rhode Island and saw all the incredible beauty in the dark, dense greens and browns of the New England Atlantic coast, I knew I had found what I was looking for. I made a commitment to that subject, and for the next 13 years I painted and exhibited “Underseascapes,” as I called them.

It all came to a halt when Allan died in a scuba diving accident in the Shinnecock Inlet in 1995. I could not bear to think about the undersea world that we loved and shared.

So, I floundered for a few years, until one day I received a small flowering houseplant as a gift. My second husband, writer and poet Joe Lamport, had rented a house in East Quogue that had a barren backyard, and I was itching to paint something. So, I reluctantly began to draw the cyclamen. It was as if I were four years old again, and something just clicked. Painting it made me feel better.

I realized that flowers are given at funerals, for birthdays, weddings, almost every occasion, happy or sad, for a reason. They are beautiful, consoling, and hopeful even though short-lived. I try to convey those feelings in my work.

Were you influenced by artists like Georgia O’Keeffe?

They are several O’Keeffes in the Art Institute of Chicago collection, which I visited often since it is near where I grew up. They have an enormous O’Keeffe, it’s called Sky Above Clouds IV, about eight by 24 feet, and I still think of it often. Hard to believe she painted it at 77 years old.

I have to give a shout-out to Emily Carr, Lawren Harris, and Frida Kahlo, artists who managed to paint nature with an emphasis on the spiritual feelings it evokes in us. And to Agnes Martin, who cuts to the chase and gives us the simple yet profound geometry of life to meditate on.

Tell me about the mixed media paper pieces you create. How did you get into it?

I’ve only been making the mixed-media paper pieces for two years, but it seems like a lot longer. One of the ways I’ve made money is by doing restoration, and I’ve been lucky enough to work on some amazing pieces such as Line Vautrin mirrors and wall sconces, and John Dickinson plaster tables. I got a lot of satisfaction in repairing these weird and wonderful, quirky 3-D pieces that most restorers wouldn’t touch. They are definitely one of my influences.

I had been painting flowers for many years, did a series of 36 paintings of one phalaenopsis orchid from first bud to final withering, and then a series of daylily paintings with a feminist bent called Liliths. After all that, I knew the center of a flower was the area that I wanted to concentrate on. So, I just started playing around.

Immediately it seemed like the center needed to be more than just paint, and I began to build it up with paper, modeling paste, wire, beads, and other materials I had lying around the studio. Those pieces from 2016 have a 3-D center, and the adjoining petals are painted in a traditional 2-D manner.

It was thrilling to step out of my comfort zone. So to challenge myself further, I tried to make the entire thing 3-D, not just the center. I figured out the only way I could do that was by using paper. It’s similar in texture to a petal, and I had plenty of good quality paper left over from my printmaking days. I began rolling the paper to be able to build it up, to get more of an architectural feel, to construct it from a kind of cellular level.

When an artist moves from painting to sculpture, they have to deal with structure, not just surface. And it was a just a natural progression in my study of nature, to learn more about growth on a physical level.

How long does it take to do a large piece in that style? Do you find it meditative?

It takes quite a while to make each piece, small or large, because I make all the parts by hand. I cut all the different sizes of paper, then position them where I want them. I also make all the papier-mâché petals and seed balls, and the modeling paste/wire buds. I don’t plan what it’s going to look like. I make the parts as I go along, it’s an intuitive process.

Every piece, even the all-white ones, starts on a dark indigo background. To me, that color represents the earth, the sky, water, the beginning, the unknown we all come from. Sometimes that color remains, other times it is painted over, but I know it’s there. Since I use the dark indigo as a base for some pieces, I recently began to see them as celestial. There are similarities between flowers and stars, they share a round center that has elements radiating out from it.

It is meditative to create this work. Since there is a lot of repetition involved, a lot of time spent making parts, it frees my mind to concentrate on the purpose of what I’m doing.

Where are you currently showing your work?

I’m really excited to be showing at the Jamie Forbes Gallery in Center Moriches this month from August 18 through September 12. The opening is Saturday, August 18, from 4 to 6 PM. I also show at the William Ris Gallery in Jamesport. The owner, Mary Cantone, always has some of my pieces available. These two women are brave pioneers who are building an artistic community west of the canal. It is sorely needed. I am opening my studio for the Westhampton Free Library Artists’ Studio Tour on Saturday, September 29, from 10 AM to 4 PM. Fourteen wonderful artists from Remsenburg to East Quogue are participating.

This spring I showed work at the White Room Gallery in Bridgehampton. Over the past two years, curator Kathy Zeiger has shown my work at Sara Nightingale in Sag Harbor and Kathryn Markel in Bridgehampton. The East End has been very supportive of my work from the beginning, and I am very grateful for that. It’s an incredibly inspiring place to live and work.