Mary Weatherford: Brushes with Greatness

One of eight women artists who are storming the boys’ club.

Mary Weatherford

Bakersfield, California, has long figured in Mary Weatherford’s imagination as the place where her family’s car would overheat during road trips to Yosemite National Park—the breakdowns were so frequent, they were memorialized in a 2011 short story in The Paris Review by the artist’s late sister, Margaret Weatherford, who wrote of “the station wagon that smelled perpetually of vomit.” Then, in 2012, Mary returned there for an artist residency and boned up on the history of the place, ultimately creating her breakthrough Bakersfield series—moody layers of paint lit by neon tubes affixed to the surface. “I’m about to start telling you about Bakersfield,” warns the Los Angeles–based painter, 51, before launching into a breakneck monologue that touches on the Dust Bowl, the oil rush, The Grapes of Wrath, Dorothea Lange, Merle Haggard, honky-tonks, the Tea Party, the Ku Klux Klan, and dinosaurs. Thrown in are an impression of Jackson Pollock and a rendition of a Beatles song. She does the extensive research, she says, to “get to my paintings.” Since 2012, she has shown two other series of pictures of places (she prefers not to call them landscapes or abstractions) that incorporate neon fixtures. As with Bakersfield, in her depictions of New York and Los Angeles, the paint represents the sky; the lights the people that live—and have lived—there. “Don’t get me started on the history of Coney Island,” Weatherford says