MANCHESTER -- Fine artist Mary Iselin rides her mare home one spring evening through the woods near Marlborough, N.H. As the sun sets behind the hills, the landscape falls into shadow. She comes upon a small tree sapling on the side of the road and stops, astonished to see its tiny leaves and a slender trunk glowing vibrant green, even as the forest lies gray under the dim light of dusk.
How is this possible? Mary wonders. She contemplates what she saw as she rides the rest of her way home, feeling exhilarated by having witnessed yet another mystical sensation of light.
Occurrences like this give her endless inspiration for her art.
"I feel that everyone and everything is made up of vibrating light," she said. "To me, it is an expression of magic."
Iselin is most well-known for her luminous paintings of lambs, sheep, and other farm animals. Her work appears at Southern Vermont Arts Center in Manchester, Vt.; Creative Encounters in Keene, N.H., and 3 Pears Gallery in Dorset, Vt., as well as several other galleries around New England.
"I paint animals the way some artists would paint a bowl of fruit," she said, "as a vehicle to explore light, color, atmosphere, and most of all, spirit."
"Mary Iselin is a classic example of an artist who channels the joy she gets from her environment into compelling artwork, spreading that cheer to the viewer. We are lucky to have her as a member," said Seline Skoug, executive director at Southern Vermont Arts Center, where Iselin has been a member for more than 10 years.
Iselin feels blessed every day to live and work on a farm, she said, especially because daily chores pull her outside at dawn and dusk, when the daylight is most enchanting. She and her husband raise draft horses and Romney sheep, whose fleece reflects the sun beautifully.
Interacting with these animals constantly informs her work.
"I can practice and practice drawing anatomy," she said, "but when I am painting, it is the memory of the horse's leg under my curry comb that guides me."
She also has a category of work she calls her "fantasy" paintings. These show wild creatures, mysterious riders in cloaks, and horses with elaborate costuming. Her most recent pieces have included reindeer and Russian troikas (three-horse hitches).
"These pieces are like illustrations for a book I haven't yet written," she said. "I never know what will appear next."
Iselin paints landscapes as well, which she does en plein air, working outside until the light changes. Sometimes she returns to one site several days in a row to catch the light. At other times, her memory of the session is so intense she can finish the piece in her studio, where she likes to listen to books on tape. She plays the same ones over and over, such as stories by J.R.R. Tolkien, P.G. Wodehouse and James Herriot. They help quiet her mind, silencing the voice that tells her to go do the wash, make supper or catch up on phone calls.
Iselin grew up drawing and painting from the age of 2, receiving support and encouragement from her family. She attended McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, receiving a bachekor of arts in creative writing. A year after graduating, she met her husband and moved to his farm, where she has lived for the last 35 years.
She paints full time, but had to take a break when her children were young.
"I remember trying to paint one day and realizing it had been three hours since I had been aware of [my children]. They weren't in the house anymore!" she said.
She went back to painting full time when they grew older.
For the last nine years, Iselin has taught classes on plein air and series paintings at Sharon Arts and New Hampshire Institute of Art. She has sold internationally to places like Australia, Iceland, the UK, continental Europe, as well as across the U.S. Collectors are drawn to her paintings for their radiance, tone and whimsy.
Iselin's "little lamb" paintings have become a trademark for her. People have come to visit the farm after collecting her work for years, and are astonished to find that the lambs have as much spirit in the flesh.
"Her work makes people happy," said SVAC's gallery assistant, Helen Young. "It is detailed, realistic and fun at the same time."
"The point is just to paint," has become Iselin's motto. "We can learn techniques, but they will evolve into our own individual voice as we go. What we need to do is stay open and paint enough that what is inside can come out. [Panting is] sort of like having a baby: it grows within us but we don't make conscious decisions about say, what color hair the child will have. This is not our business. Our business is to just try and do it."