Born 1965, St. Paul, Minnesota
When Mary Esch’s great-grandfather and his brother emigrated from Luxembourg to Minnesota, they opened bars on St. Paul’s east side. They were the kinds of places that Esch might have liked hanging out, quietly sketching the clientele. She favors portraits and caricatures, “anything with a face,” she says.1 Her first show at St. Paul’s Speedboat Gallery, in 1989, featured heads influenced by the nineteenth-century German painter Paula Modersohn-Becker . Other sources of inspiration were Twin Cities–based Ann Wood, Dean Lucker, and Stu Mead, all of whom were making figure-based art at the time. Esch spent two years at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (1983–85), then left to study drawing at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland (now California College of the Arts), earning a BFA in 1987. Ten years out of school, she was in a two-person show (with Daniel Oates) at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. It included dozens of examples of automatic drawing , a technique popular with the Surrealists of the 1920s. The Surrealists let their hands range across the paper guided only by their unconscious; Esch is slightly more intentional, basing her drawings on a fairy tale, a passage of text, or images that she looks at or recalls from memory. Using her left hand (she is right-handed), she lets her pen “flow without editing.” Her drawing style is evident in her 2003 Highpoint Citation: An intaglio printing technique in which an acid-resistant ground of asphaltum, varnish, beeswax, or rosin is applied to the surface of a copper, zinc, or other type of metal plate. Using a steel etching needle, scribe, or other sharp tool, the artist scratches an image through the ground, exposing the underlying metal surface, Then the plate is immersed in a ferric chloride or Dutch mordant (solution of dilute hydrochloric acid with potassium chlorate), at which time the areas of exposed metal are bitten (etched) by the chemical action of the acid. The ground is removed, and the etched plate is inked, wiped, covered with a dampened sheet of paper, and run through a press. The press forces the paper into the etched lines, causing the transfer of ink to paper. portfolio “Three Questions,” inspired by a Leo Tolstoy short story . Instead of a man seeking answers, however, Esch’s protagonist is a woman.
Esch has a special interest in helping adults rediscover their creativity. She is known for her longtime classes at Como Park Zoo and Conservatory in St. Paul, Minnesota, where the live models were sometimes raptors or monkeys. The most consistent theme in her work is friendship, lately friendship among women. It is something that Esch, an only child, wants to make more room for in her own life. A couple of years ago, partly to keep it in the family, she took over her father’s company, which caters to the construction industry. “I’m wishing for more time to swim with friends and talk about life and make art together,” she says. In Minnesota, Esch has presented lectures at MCAD; University of Minnesota, Minneapolis; Carleton College, Northfield; College of Visual Arts, St. Paul; and St. Cloud State University. She has exhibited at, among other places, Katherine E. Nash Gallery, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis; MCAD; Bronwyn Keenan Gallery, New York; Bockley Gallery, Minneapolis; and Franklin Art Works, Minneapolis. She has received a Bush Foundation Fellowship (1998), Minnesota State Arts Board grants (1998, 1993), and a Jerome Foundation Fellowship for Emerging Artists (1993–94). Esch lives in St. Paul.
—Marla J. Kinney
Mary Esch, phone conversations with the author, April 2020. ↩︎