The Road to Artist: Mary Jane Cole on what the word “Artist” Really means

What makes a great artist? Is it their skill with the brush? Their mastery of colors? Or perhaps the emotions that their art conveys? 

No doubt all these are important, but for Mary Jane Cole, you need only one thing to be a great artist.

Authenticity. 

It was her fierce desire for authenticity that inspired her rebellion against an educational system that tried to box her art in with “rules.”

And it was in pursuit of authenticity, she left her hometown of Utah and traveled over 700 miles to California to begin her career as an artist.

Today she is an award-winning artist running her own photography business and, more recently, a tattoo artist.

I asked her for the key to being authentic,c and she told me it all boils down to:

Passion

“My mom was a painter,” Cole tells me, “I come from generations of artists.”

It would seem that art is in her blood. It is the only reasonable explanation for why she is so passionate about it. 

Her passion blossomed from an early age. A story makes the rounds during family functions in the Cole household when Cole, as a toddler, was sick with RSV and had to be hospitalized, yet all she wanted to do was watercolor for hours on end.

Discovering her passion for photography was something of an accident. She was rummaging through a closet for lack of anything better to do and stumbled upon a 3 megapixel Nikon Coolpix. Of course, she immediately began taking pictures with it and soon became enraptured with the art of photography. She took pictures of rain-splattered flowers, butterflies, and whatever else caught her fancy.

It wasn’t long before she was recognized, and she had her first picture published with the Audubon Society and soon after, won her first competition.

Over the years, her passion for the arts did not wane, but only grew stronger, even bordering on obsessive. “It’s no secret to my close friends and family that I am extremely ADHD,” she tells me. “It is a little bit of a blessing and a curse.”

It is not uncommon for Cole to stay up all night editing or bolt out of bed at 2 a.m to jot down an idea or sketch out a drawing.

Getting Rid of the Box

When Cole was in high school, she took a photography class. She was excited to learn more about photography, and she even had hoped that it would be her favorite class.

She hated it.

She hated it so much that she proceeded not to turn in any assignments for the next three years and consecutively failed the course.

I asked her why she went to such lengths, and she said,

“I didn’t want to be told how to create. It always felt so personal to me like the composition of my photos or the brush strokes or color choices were a voice for me to tell who I was and how I saw the world.”

Her art was her voice, her person rendered in 2D, and any attempt to contort it to keep it within the box of “rules” of photography felt like a violation. 

So she got rid of the box itself.

When she graduated, she received numerous scholarships to study in prestigious colleges. She turned them all down to travel to California to pursue her photography career. 

In Vermont, California, Cole got her education, not in a lecture room, but In a studio, the sidewalk, or wherever else they were shooting that day, a camera to her eye, and on her terms.

Taking Pride and Responsibility in your Work

I asked Cole why she felt such a fierce sense of pride and responsibility for every work she created. She said, “every project means something to me, and I put my heart into every piece of art I create.” 

She struggles to delegate or even outsource work because she feels it compromises the project’s integrity.

“I want to always be honest about my work being solely my own,” she says. “From a business standpoint, that limits my income ability and productivity a lot, to do every part of the process from communication to editing alone. But I know my clients appreciate that I do what I do with integrity and a lot of passion.”

Finale

Being an artist has taught Cole so much, not just about lighting and angles but about life. 

She says that “photography teaches me almost daily what matters in life and to cherish those moments. You never know how much time you’ll have with the people you love.”

It’s why she makes a point to cherish the people around her and not get so absorbed in her work.

“photography teaches me almost daily what matters in life and to cherish those moments. You never know how much time you’ll have with the people you love.” It’s why she makes a point to cherish the people around her and not get so absorbed in her work. 

For Cole, a true artist learns from her art, and every day is a challenge to live up to that title.

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