This text is by Ed Fraga in his capacity and does not, necessarily, reflect the views of different infinite mile contributors, infinite mile co-founders, the authors' employers and/or other affiliations.  

You don't win anybody the holy spirit does

Ed Fraga


"You don't win anybody the holy spirit does"

-Mary Ann Aitken
b.1960 - d. 2012


Two goldfish are swimming in a bluish-grey fish bowl painted on the inside page of the Detroit Free Press paper from October 16, 1983 (fig. 1). Thirty years later the image remains vibrant even as the paper has yellowed with age from exposure to light and the passage of time. Upon closer inspection you can read the headline, "King Day could replace Labor Day." The article is written by William F. Buckley but the words are upside down which makes reading nearly impossible. Was this intended or just coincidence?

figure 1
Mary Ann Aitken 01
Mary Ann Aitken
untitled, 1983
oil on newspaper
12 x 14 in.
figure 2
Mary Ann Aitken 02
Cary Building, built 1906 corner of Gratiot and Broadway
Detroit, MI.

The first time I met Mary Ann Aitken was outside her studio door in her ankle length paint-covered red robe, one she wore when she painted. It was in 1983 at the Cary Building. We both had studios on the fourth floor of a building for artists on the corner of Gratiot and Broadway in downtown Detroit. She worked in a tiny space. I was impressed with the seriousness by which she approached her work, spending hours to months working on just one painting, layering coat after coat of paint onto her canvasses or found wood panels. She spent three years working on one painting called, Cary at Twilight (fig. 3). Today it hangs by the bar at the Traffic Jam restaurant.

figure 3
Mary Ann Aitken 03
Mary Ann Aitken
Cary at Twilight, 1983-87
oil on wood
48 x 48 in.
Collection: Traffic Jam Restaurant, Detroit, MI
figure 4
Mary Ann Aitken 04
Mary Ann Aitken
untitled (possible Self-Portrait), 1983-87
oil on wood
40 x 20 in.

Dedication, perseverance, and a rigorous work ethic were hallmark traits of Mary Ann. She was shy, private, and reluctant to talk about her painting process. She wasn't interested in promoting herself. The work was the most important thing to her: doing it, not talking about it. It took her four years while at the Cary to finally show me her work. To this day I have this searing image of her standing in the doorway. Emanating from the room was the sweet smell of wet oil paint. As we spoke I would sneak a peak through the crack of the door and what I saw was so beautiful. Casually propped against the wall were paintings everywhere. Finally after a little persuading she let me in and I began to see thick paintings of everyday objects; a jewelry box, a cup and a saucer. I also saw paintings in progress. I just remember the thickness of the surfaces and the smell, the sweet smell of oil paint.

figure 5
Mary Ann Aitken 05
Mary Ann Aitken
untitled, 1983 
oil, glass on linoleum tile
12 x 24 in.

Another work on paper comes to mind, of a flower painted in bold black strokes on a page from an art history book (fig. 6). On the reverse side oil stains bleed through the paper causing a yellowish patina around iconic figures of women throughout art history. But this is the back of the painting. Her work often gives us these surprises. The motifs of flowers and the natural world were constant in her work. This continued especially in her late work in which the Botanical Gardens of Brooklyn played an important part in her exploration.

figure 6
Mary Ann Aitken 06

Mary Ann Aitken
untitled, 1985  
oil on paper 
9 x 12 in.

In 1989, Mary Ann moved to New York after graduating from Wayne State University with a Masters in Art Therapy. The first job she applied for she got as an art therapist at Woodhull Hospital in Brooklyn. Mary Ann Aitken worked at Woodhull Hospital from December 1989 to February 2011:

A beloved therapist, she was an outstanding clinician dedicated to creatively assisting her patients in their recovery process. Mary Ann worked with some of the most challenging patients. These are the men and women that society often condemns, and writes off as useless, hopeless and helpless. She worked with the alcoholics and drugs addicts. Many of these men and women came into treatment in their worst conditions. Some of them didn’t even want to be in treatment and were very angry because they were mandated to obtain service. Others no longer had the desire to live and drugs and alcohol seemed to be the solution. Mary Ann, in her own unique way, was able to look beyond their addictions and focus on the human being, she saw suffering and in pain. (Francis Fawundu, Director of The Creative Arts Therapy Department at Woodhull Hospital)

figure 7
Mary Ann Aitken 07
Mary Ann Aitken
untitled, 1985 
oil on paper 
9 x 12 in
.
figure 8
Mary Ann Aitken 08
Mary Ann Aitken
untitled, 1985 
oil on newspaper 
9 x 12 in.
figure 9
Mary Ann Aitken 09
Mary Ann Aitken
untitled, 1985
oil on paper
12 x 9 in.
figure 10
Mary Ann Aitken 10
Mary Ann Aitken
untitled, 1983
oil on newspaper
11.5 x 14 in.

Mary Ann continued to experiment with new media. She took classes in photography and her sister Maureen writes how she would carry a camera with her on family sojourns to Canada, taking pictures of nature and family, common subjects in the lexicon of most artists work. Photography seemed the perfect medium to distill the transitory moments she cherished. These late works are never sentimental. In fact most of them are paint covered and stained which deny their preciousness. They show us the world as unfiltered and messy. In many ways I continue to ask questions of these digital works done at the end of her life. There is so much I want to know. By manipulating the color settings in Photoshop or dissolving parts of an image she washes away memory. At times this mirrors how sunlight fades images after too much exposure. She speeds up time and leaves these elegies as evidence of her own fleeting existence. She made close to a hundred of these works almost entirely of nature and her family. 

figure 11
Mary Ann Aitken 11
Mary Ann Aitken
untitled, 2007 - 2010
mixed media on paper
11 x 8.5 in.
figure 12
Mary Ann Aitken 12
Mary Ann Aitken,
untitled, 2007 - 2010 
mixed media on paper
11 x 8.5 in.
figure 13
Mary Ann Aitken 13
Mary Ann Aitken
untitled, 2007 - 2010
mixed media on paper
11 x 8.5 in.
figure 14
Mary Ann Aitken 14
Mary Ann Aitken
Untitled, 2007 - 2010 
mixed media on paper
11 x 8.5 in.
figure 15
Mary Ann Aitken 15
Mary Ann Aitken
untitled, 2007 - 2010 
mixed media on paper
11 x 8.5 in.
figure 16
Mary Ann Aitken 16
Mary Ann Aitken
untitled (artist's mother), 2007 - 2010
mixed media on paper
11 x 8.5 in.
figure 17
Mary Ann Aitken 17
Mary Ann Aitken,
untitled (artist's sister), 2007 - 2010,
mixed media on paper,
11 x 8.5 in.
figure 18
Mary Ann Aitken 18
Mary Ann Aitken
untitled (artist's sister), 2007 - 2010,
mixed media on paper,
11 x 8.5 in.


Not enough attention has been given to the women who painted without praise in Detroit during the Cass Corridor movement. I consider the work Mary Ann produced in the early 1980's pertinent to this movement. She was aware of the art being made here during this time but chose not to be a part of it. Mary Ann's work speaks to us but never shouts, and quietly exists as an offering.

figure 19
Mary Ann Aitken 19
Mary Ann Aitken
untitled assemblage, 1984
pencil, pastel on paper mounted to wood
10 x 5.5 in. 
collection: Gayle and Andrew Camden
figure 20
Mary Ann Aitken 20
Mary Ann Aitken,
Black Abstract, 1989, 
oil, string, cheesecloth on canvas mounted to tile
11.5 x 12.5 in.
collection: Burt Aaron


Mary Ann was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007. She spent 5 years struggling with the disease. In those 5 years she produced some of her best work. She leaves behind a legacy of a grace, tenacity, and an indomitable spirit. I have never seen such strength and willingness to fight to live as Mary Ann showed all of us who knew her. She never complained. It was her desire after her death to exhibit her work in Detroit and to produce a catalog of her paintings and drawings. She was very specific in her request. She understood the importance of her work, even though during her life she never sought the attention her work deserves. 

The above text has been revised from the original "Foreward" in Mary Ann Aitken, Black Abstract 1983 - 2011.  exh. cat., Detroit: What Pipeline, 2013.  The exhibition catalogue was printed in conjunction with the multi-venue exhibition, Mary Ann Aitken, Black Abstract 1983 - 2011, held at Trinosophes (Detroit) and What Pipeline (Detroit) in 2013.   In March, 2013, the first solo of Mary Ann's paintings premiered at Cleaopatra's in Brooklyn, New York curated by Erin Somerville. 

Mary Ann Aitken: A Retrospective is on view at UICA in Grand Rapids, MI until Feb. 16. On January 24, 7 pm at UICA join Ed Fraga and Burt Aaron for a public talk where they will give an "Insight into the Exhibition: Mary Ann Aitken: A Retrospective 1983 - 2011" For more information visit: http://uica.org/event/mary-ann-aitken/

All photos courtesy Tim Thayer.

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a journal of art + culture(s)  
issue 02: January 2014