Mary Jo Major

Mary Jo Major was born in Edmonton, Alberta and since then she has traveled widely. In Australia she taught and studied painting at the Melbourne Institute of Technology. In Indonesia she learned the art of batik, then studied at the Ècole des Beaux Arts, Aix-en-Provence, subsequently earning her BFA at Concordia University, Montreal, Quèbec. In 1992 she received her MFA from the University of Calgary.

Mary Jo Major has achieved distinction as a painter and printmaker. Her work has been widely collected in such places as The New York Public Library, the Glenbow Museum (Calgary, Canada), the Whitechapel Library (London, England), the Canada Council Art Bank, and the University of Calgary Special Collections.

Artist Statement

Mary Jo Major in the Studio

I am motivated to create art by the desire to record and share my deepest experiences. Inspiration often comes from the beauty of landscape or the incomparable power of colour itself. Paint is my medium of choice being overwhelmingly sensual, plus it offers to transform shape and colour into the substance of our wildest dreams.

I also like paint's unpredictability. When approaching my work, I usually have an intention in mind, but often, what I have in mind is different than what actually happens. Painting is a world of freedom, and like the real world, it evolves. Different elements interact; new expressions appear and disappear.

Yet when approaching a particular composition of trees or mountains, I feel connected to the historical tradition of Canadian landscape painting. I have often begun a series featuring nature and local landscape, but expressed in colours particular to my personal discoveries. These landscape dominant canvases are less focused on resemblance and more inclined to explore the continuum between imagination and visual apprehension.

At times, colourful shapes happen to suggest horizons or clouds, but at the same time they fulfill some of the roles abstract painting intends: an open space, an emotion or a memory. The possibilities are varied and multiple. In this way many works have progressed from specific place references to abstract compositions.

Those canvases that evolve beyond resemblance will carry elements of air, outer space, and time travel. There are no limits. They seem weightless. In the process, colour is freed from boundaries. Colour is itself the subject of the painting, revealing how we "see" both inwardly and outwardly. The works open a gradual progression of visual intensities, individual discoveries, and opportunities for reflection.

Though some paintings are lightly rendered, many are created through numerous layers and erasures of paint. As I work on each piece over several months or leave and come back after a longer break, change becomes part of the experience, it reflects the natural process.

Narrative Biography

Mary Jo Major posing with "Cosmic Egg"

When I was little and saw the circus for the first time I immediately became horse-crazy and wanted to join. I watched the magnificent white horses galloping around the arena, graceful and strong. I longed to be the ballerina who could dance on their backs, who could share their beauty and their power.

Over the years, this desire to create beauty has remained, although the form it takes has changed. I became a visual artist, curious about medium and material, making pictures with paint, paper, metal plates in acid baths.

I began to learn about art in Alberta during the late sixties, which meant looking at pictures in art books and reading about the lives of the impressionists and other European painters. I thought if I went to the south of France and looked at Cezanne's view of Mont St. Victoire I could learn his technique. Needless to say, I was disappointed at the sight of that little hill after living with the majestic Rocky Mountain views in Calgary. I am still painting mountains, as well as abstract compositions.

At Sir George Williams University (now Concordia University, Montreal) printmaking opened my eyes to the world of limited editions. Since prints sold for less than paintings, nearly everyone could afford an original print. I was intrigued by the possibility of paid work in the world of high end publishing, where famous artists were commissioned by galleries and museums to create limited edition prints at price points accessible to the general public.

Once I moved to London, England, I worked for Christie's Fine Art and The Tate Gallery printing etchings, which were popular and I was paid by the piece. I was learning the craft and delivering artwork by bicycle through the busy streets of the metropolis, manoeuvring as expertly as a rider on horseback.

The American poet Faith Gillespie and I were planning to produce a limited edition hand-made book of her poetry and my etchings. We went to auctions of used printing equipment; the Fleet Street presses were going digital so their machinery was for sale. We bought a small Vandercook Press, various typefaces, took evening classes, and printed our book, Poemprints.

"The Thames 1" watercolour, 1990

At this time the London Docklands were relocated to Canary Wharf, leaving vast Victorian tea and goods warehouses empty. The great sailing ships brought cargo directly to the balconies and unloaded into solid stone buildings that functioned as refrigeration and storage. These spaces were divided into artist's studios, hosting the public on annual Wapping Open Studio days throughout the early eighties. The loading balconies were large enough to sit with materials spread out around me and paint the changing weather on the River Thames. Working on the balcony of New Crane Wharf H4 using watercolours was a dream-come-true for me; no road traffic or people, just the sounds of barges and river traffic on the tidal river.

Eventually the studios were sold to developers and I returned to Canada to complete my MFA degree at the University of Calgary. I set up my printing press in a converted garage, and many artists turned up to have limited editions of their artwork translated into the medium of etching. A renowned artist from the Inuit community, Germaine Arnaktauyok, worked on her copper plates commissioned by Arts Induvik. Germaine illustrated ancient legends of animals and the creation of the world which have been transmitted orally throughout Inuit history.

I also worked with Woodland Cree artist Fred MacDonald. Fred depicted tribal stories and customs in his drawings and painting. We interpreted his imagery into etchings commissioned by Virginia Christopher Galleries, in commemoration of Wolf Creek in northern Alberta. Two of my botanical etchings were also editioned for Virginia Christopher. A respect for authenticity led to Virginia and I trekking up to Wolf Creek to pick the gigantic weeds that grow in remote Canadian forests.

I continue to grow and explore new mediums. Giving birth and raising two daughters in the foothills of Calgary led to many outdoor excursions to the mountains. The autumn colours blaze every fall, inspiring infinite varieties of yellow and gold. Lately I have partnered with constant pain in my studio practice. Physical constraints have sharpened my focus and intensified my relationship with colour, for art is the antidote. To be in the studio working is not only a pleasure but a necessity. Like bare-back riding the goal is to keep in graceful balance, direct the power and strength of the creative dance, and ultimately to share the vision with art lovers.


External: Facebook - Mary Jo Major
External: Website - Mary Jo Major
External: Email - Mary Jo Major (


Photography by Christian Grandjean
All designs, images and text are copyright to Mary Jo Major