Born Ypsilanti, MI, 1989. / BA, Columbia College Chicago, IL / Lives in Detroit
Multicolored waves of flame, giant eyes crying in the sky, and ominous portals are all common motifs in the artwork of Mary Tearz. Recognizable by its idiosyncratic style and eclectic array of subjects, Tearz’s work encompasses illustration, painting, and animation. Heavily influenced by cartoons, science fiction, and surrealism, her drawings illuminate a bizarre inner world of characters, places, and creatures, unplaceable to a specific space or time, existing in an obscure, far out dimension.
Tearz grew up in Michigan and taught herself to draw early in life. After living in Portland, Oregon for a few years and taking art classes at a local community college, she moved to Chicago, where she earned her Bachelor’s degree in traditional animation before eventually settling in Detroit in 2018. From a young age, the artist loved the popular cartoon Looney Tunes, but it wasn’t until attending an independent film festival in Ann Arbor, Michigan, featuring short animated films, that she felt compelled to pursue art and animation as a profession. Inspired by artists such as Ralph Bakshi (especially for his innovative use of color and character designs) she forged a path of her own accord, uninterested in pursuing high-budget commercial gigs, but rather opting to focus on smaller experimental projects, where she can freely exercise her artistic agency. A notable part of her process includes collecting found photos of strangers, which she likes to use as inspiration for some of the scenes in her work.
The oneiric mood, vagueness of time, and mysterious characters are all identifying characteristics in Tearz’s artworks—there’s an eeriness lurking throughout, amongst the haunting, warped figures and distorted faces framed by cold atmospheric dreamscapes. The theme of death is prevalent in frequent depictions of the grim reaper and decaying skulls. In her digital illustration The Weight of Many Tears, the artist has delicately rendered bones in the foreground on the vivid desert floor. At the focal point, a towering Amazonian goddess holds a red vessel over her head, looking down over a small, childlike figure below, while holding their hand in a maternal gesture of protection.
A powerful female figure in the midst of a physical or psychological struggle often dominates the frame of her drawings. For example, in the black and white pen drawing Pathways of the Psyche, a woman is pictured gazing into the ether, surrounded by a circle of doors containing Death, other-worldly creatures, and what appears to be a UFO. Wavy trails flow through the space like smoke as an encroaching death’s-head seems to stare her down. Similarly, a lone female figure balanced on her knees on a rugged pedestal in No Guts No Glory tilts her head back, tearing her chest wide open to release a writhing web of wild vine-like entrails, perhaps indicative of the vulnerability that courage often requires.
In her more collage-style illustrations, such as Facial Recognition, there’s an underlying essence of the cityscape—the multiple overlapping faces resembling hand-painted murals like those found on the sides of liquor stores and neighborhood shops around Detroit. Dozens of faces are depicted, showing a variety of moods, as well as a hooded reaper and, at the center, a bird. As the title alludes to the controversial software used to identify faces in social media, law enforcement, and other forms of mass surveillance, the cool-toned drawing provokes reflection on this evolving technology. A portrait resembling the artist herself appears just below the upper right corner, hidden in the bustling crowd of layered faces.
While some of her artworks are shaded with ballpoint pens or colored pencils, Tearz’s process typically involves a blend of traditional and digital techniques. First she will make a drawing in pen, then scan it and fill in all the colors digitally. Her process is not particularly research-based, but rather intuitive and experimental; she draws what she imagines, allowing the art to materialize organically. Without an accompanying narrative or lengthy text weighing it down, the images in her portfolio function like pages of a deconstructed graphic novel, while exploring themes of psychology, fantasy, and death. In addition, her selective use of color, with a prominence of soft blues and vivid reds, enhances the stylized aesthetic of her drawings and heightens their contrast. With the dramatic sense of movement present throughout her illustrations, her natural inclination to mobilize these ideas in animated form is evident—in a sense, the image acts like a freeze frame, offering a glimpse into a future tale yet to be unveiled.
Marissa Jezak, November 2022
Copyright Essay’d, 2022