Capturing the wild

– A profile in art of painter Mary Leslie Hartman

– Written by Sarah Wibell

– Photographed by Jesse Walker –

The horses are beautiful and huge – much larger close up than you might expect from a distance. Their muscles are powerful and refined, and the life in their eyes makes you pause to discern the thoughts and emotions they reveal. You almost want to reach out and stroke these gentle giants but doing so is frowned upon in galleries.

For Madison artist Mary Leslie Hartman, arriving at this stage in her artistic life has taken years. It is hard to miss the fact that she loves horses and wildlife – harder still to guess that she never formally studied painting.

“I’ve always drawn,” Hartman shares, sitting on a stool surrounded by oil paintings in her home studio while her four dogs eagerly wait outside the door for the conversation to be over. Originally considering a career in graphic design illustration, she attended programs at the Savannah College of Art & Design as well as the Atlanta Art Institute. However, she quickly realized that neither program was the right one for her. “They didn’t really have what I thought I wanted. It was very confining, and I didn’t enjoy it at all.”

The first brush Hartman picked up was used to decorate her pregnant sister’s baby’s room. She painted a mural, and when her sister’s pregnant friends saw it, they wanted one too. For fifteen years, Hartman painted acrylic murals ranging from children’s rooms to vacation homes. A particularly challenging commission, she recalls, was a mural portraying every U.S. war from the American Revolution to Iraq.

For the first few years, she did not touch oil paints. “I was afraid to use them. Then I took a weekend portrait class in that medium,” she says. “As soon as I did, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m never going back to acrylic!’”

Horses appear in numerous paintings, frequently close up. “I paint what I’m passionate about,” Hartman says. “I have always loved horses since I was a kid. My best friend in first grade had horses, that was my introduction to them, and I was hooked.” In her 30s, she bought a horse of her own. Rather than continue to board her horse in Atlanta and drive 45 minutes a day to care for him, she decided to move to a location with land.

Her love of animals isn’t restricted to horses. In addition to her horse and dogs, she has four donkeys, three cats, and an assortment of chickens.

It is no surprise that her artwork features an array of creatures. A Yellowstone National Park series is in progress which, when completed, will consist of about 20 pieces. One painting, titled “Old Soul,” was begun in October and showcases a white wolf. It gazes at a painting of a buffalo across the room. “The eyes take a lot of doing,” Hartman explains. “I don’t feel I have captured him quite yet; I’m still working on it. He was at a wolf and grizzly bear sanctuary in Montana that my husband and I visited.” Photography helps her connect with her subjects. “It’s harder when I don’t take the photos myself.”

Recently, she worked on a commissioned piece of a seven-foot buffalo. “That was challenging because it was really woolly. I hadn’t done anything quite like that before,” Hartman says. “I like smooth. I think that’s why I like the horses, because of the muscles and I don’t have to do all of that hair. But now I’m learning to get the fuzz.”

Having worked with murals for years, her perspective on the size of her current paintings is different from that of many people who view them. “They’re big when I’m having to move them, but I don’t have a problem with big because I’ve done the murals,” she says. “To me, the size is a large part of the pieces. Compared to murals, they’re not that big. I’m just used to it already.”

While working primarily in oil, Hartman is experimenting with encaustic painting – a technique that uses hot wax with resin and pigments added to it. “I’ve worked with that a little, and I really love the paintings when I’ve done them,” Hartman says. “If you’ve ever seen encaustics used in big pictures, they just kind of glow. There’s something about them.”

Hartman also enjoys abstract as well as contemporary art. “Abstract is very hard. A lot of people think it’s junk or nothing or a cop-out, but it’s actually really difficult to do and it is something I’d love to try.” She admires the work of Jasper Johns and Mark Rothko.

Her oil paintings are now framed by her husband, Richard, who uses reclaimed wood. “These frames have definitely taken my art up a notch,” Hartman smiles as she points out her husband’s woodwork. “The wood is a by-product of a place we found in Atlanta. All the wood was just getting thrown in a dumpster and hauled off and burned. When we found out about it, we went out and loaded up a truckload and have done that a few times.”

Richard’s woodshop, set only a short distance away from their house, was built with some of the same wood scraps. The metal part was salvaged from an old structure on a neighboring dairy farm that blew down during a tornado. Never having done woodworking before, Richard now enjoys making other items like the table that adorns their back porch.

Some of her paintings have been purchased by Warner Brothers and are featured in The Vampire Diaries. “My most famous buyer was Neil Diamond,” says Hartman. “He purchased my flag horse ‘Let Freedom Run.’”

After a lifetime of following her passions, Hartman is now preparing to show some of her work to galleries in Arizona and New Mexico with the hope of exhibiting them. “My husband and I visited these states, and I was like, ‘Wow, this is where my stuff needs to be!’ There’s something about out there, and I just want to do those animals in that region next.” For now, she works at home with her horse, dogs, and other animals nearby, living her dream.

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