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Slipping into still waters

A Q&A with Mary Wong, the painter behind Cake’s cover

By Date: July 04, 2019 Tags: Behind the Scenes

Part of the publishing process readers don’t always get to see is what goes into the making of a book’s cover, and learning more about the artist behind the work. We plan on bringing more behind-the-scenes looks here on the blog!

Playwright Donna-Michelle St. Bernard and painter Mary Wong first collaborated for the cover of Donna-Michelle’s Governor General’s Literary Award-nominated play, A Man A Fish, in 2015. So when it came time to decide on a cover for her next play, Cake, it was unanimous across the team and with the author that another painting by Mary would be the perfect fit. (Another painting, “Along the River’s Edge,” was used for Lisa Codrington’s Up the Garden Path & The Adventure of the Black Girl in Her Search for God in 2017.)

Check out our interview with Mary about her work, her partnership with Donna-Michelle, and the making of the Cake cover.

Cover for Cake

Please tell us a little bit about yourself and/or work as an artist.
I’m a Toronto-based contemporary artist whose work is inspired by the natural landscape and the human condition. Using nature as metaphor, my work explores how human nature weathers and processes traumatic experiences. Such experiences can often leave an imperceptible mark on our inner, most vulnerable self. Like the storms that rage and mark our seasons, such memories become imprinted upon our subconscious mind, manifesting into deeply rooted challenges that can become barriers rather than pathways.

Could you tell us about the painting used for the cover of Cake?
The painting is called “Slip Into Still Waters.” It’s an interior cavern that is painted still and silent like thoughts and memories that are held suspended in another time and place. Caves and cave-like motifs in my work are like rooms or spaces we allow in our minds to contain memories that are too difficult to face. Yet, the path to reclamation is simply to traverse the landscape ahead guided by the horizon line stretching just beyond what our eyes can see.

A Man A Fish cover

Have you worked with Donna-Michelle St. Bernard in the past? Tell us about your collaboration connection.
I have had the pleasure of working with Donna-Michelle twice now, once on her cover for A Man A Fish and most recently on her new release, Cake. The idea of collaborating came about a few years ago when she came by my studio for an impromptu visit. From the start, there was an easy exchange of ideas with a mutual respect and admiration for each other’s work. Working with Donna-Michelle is like getting caught up in a fast and fierce whirlwind where everything is possible, and nothing is forbidden. The delight in her eyes when she is inspired is so incredibly contagious, and along with her unbridled enthusiasm, my collaborative experiences with her have been an absolute pleasure.

Mary Wong with A Man A Fish

Where do you draw inspiration from for your paintings?
I draw a great deal of inspiration from the natural landscape. Nature to me has always been a place of nurture and reflection; ever-evolving, persevering, and growing in the best and worst of conditions. It’s a place where silence is deafening, and solitude is a peace of mind. Growing up in the country allowed me direct and constant access to untampered wilderness that provided beauty, inspiration, and a sense of awe.

This painting is part of a collection, could you tell us more about that?
“Breathe” is my ongoing body of work that explores and wrestles with the ebb and flow of inner conflict and struggle; finding reprieve as well as reclamation in the act and in the significance of taking a breath.

I see nature as all at once turbulent, violent, peaceful, and nurturing, like the storms that rage in the minds and emotions of human nature. The human connection to the cycles and seasons of nature weave a resounding impression upon our memories, our subliminal self and the essence we take from our experiences. Drawing from these impressions, I construct a lineage of flowing emotions and thoughts in capturing a moment in time, spaces of familiarity and contemplation. Emotive paint handling, colour, and spatial relationships play important roles in emulating this free-flowing exchange between the forces of nature and the human psyche.

The creation of these visual narratives stem from a personal and intimate connection to a life led through a sequence of tumultuous events. I translate these experiences using caverns, turbulent skies, encroaching storms, and the convergence of nature’s elementals to show an evolving atmospheric transformation. Capturing a thread from this woven landscape opens the premise to my new work for my upcoming exhibition at Blue Crow Gallery (November 2019).

My interest in creating these paintings is to encourage a visual dialogue about a narrative not easily conveyed out loud; so that others may look upon my work and give voice to their own truths, find their own crevice of peace and solace to weather their inner storm.

Up the Garden Path and The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God cover

How has the experience of adapting your paintings for book covers been?
It has been a wonderful experience to see my work come to life on a book cover. To see the painting embody a different purpose, accentuating the story within its pages rather than just my own has been an exciting endeavour to see unfold. I also think that both Donna-Michelle’s and my work touch upon similar aspects of the human condition, which is why, in part, our collaboration works so well together. It is also worth saying that, Playwrights Canada Press has played a pivotal role in ensuring a smooth transition in adapting my paintings into the literary world. I recognize that my work is a small part of the publishing process, but I always felt heard and involved which left me feeling confident that my work was being adapted with the upmost respect and integrity.

Do you have an advice for artists interested in designing covers?
Stay open and say yes to opportunities that haven’t manifested yet. Reach out to other creatives that you admire, especially those that are in other disciplines. Collaboration is a wonderful way to pursue new opportunities, to push your creativity beyond a singular scope and focus.


To add a piece of Mary’s artwork to your bookshelf, grab your copies of Cake and A Man A Fish, as well as Up the Garden Path & The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God now!