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Meet Mary Porterfield, Artist in Edgewater

Today we’d like to introduce you to Mary Porterfield.

So, before we jump into specific questions about the business, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
My interest in art began as a child when I would watch my mother paint. When I was young, we lived in Germany because of my father’s air force career. My mother took art classes to help her overcome her homesickness for the Midwest. I would go with her to her painting classes and fell in art at that time.
Although I always loved art, I never believed I could have a career with it. For that reason, I initially pursued a degree in occupational therapy, receiving my master’s degree from Washington University in St. Louis in 1993. After working in a trauma center in St. Louis for several years, I went on to receive my Master’s in Fine Art from Arizona State University in 2002. Now, I feel so fortunate to have the best of both worlds. I work part-time as an occupational therapist at a hospital on the Northwest Side of Chicago, while teaching painting part-time at Northeastern Illinois University. My part-time status at the hospital affords me the time to devote to my art, while teaching allows me to be a part of Chicago’s artistic community.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc. – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
I wish I could say it’s been a smooth road but, honestly, persisting through the many rejections has made the path difficult. In my 20’s, I thought that if I worked hard for a long time, success would automatically happen. Now, that I’m in my 40’s, I realize that are many more variables that affect success. A turning point happened about 10 years when I was recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery. I remember sitting at my easel, with my leg bandaged and elevated, and painting 60 hours that week to complete work for 3 upcoming deadlines.

Several weeks later, in the same batch of mail, I received my first bill for knee surgery and two rejection letters for the shows I had worked so hard to enter (the third came later). After hobbling up my steps, I remember holding the letters and staring at the work that had occupied every ounce of my energy for the last year. I remember thinking, “Maybe this is what lies ahead of me in my art career. Maybe, no matter my how hard I work, I’ll always face rejection and my work will never be seen.” Then, it occurred to me, if this is what my future holds, I want to do the best paintings I can to please myself. I vowed to myself, at that moment, to make work as if it would never be seen. Ironically, since developing that attitude, my art career shifted and I had the honor to exhibit at Chicago’s Packer-Schopf Gallery, along with many other art centers and museums, both locally and internationally.

We’d love to hear more about your business.
I paint at home and have converted my living room to my art studio. Having my studio so close allows me to devote more time to my artwork and become more emotionally invested in my painting. I’m also able to work no matter what the weather is outside. That’s a big benefit in a city like Chicago.

For the last 24 years, my artwork has been influenced by my work as an occupational therapist and my struggle to accept what I cannot change. When seen from a distance, my work references Western landscapes or acts of nature to symbolize those situations that are literally and figuratively beyond my control. Hundreds of multi-figured narratives are amassed with the scene to represent my own struggle whether to accept or deny futility when facing the uncontrollable. Some of the figures include saints and young women who risk their own safety to assist those in need. Other figures resign themselves to the risks at hand by turning away or denying aid. Using animals as metaphors for strength and danger, I attempt to ask and resolve: Does it take more courage to be selfless or self-seeking? If assistance is warranted but not wanted, should it be abandoned? Is it more heroic to accept the uncontrollable or attempt a change in the midst of futility or danger? In addressing these questions, my art has become a personal and emotional journey to find a balance between giving and receiving when caring for others.

Because these questions were often camouflaged within my scenes, I’ve recently shifted my focus to drawing to allow my narratives to be more easily seen and interpreted. I’ve become especially interested in working on the transparent paper as a means to depict the stories and struggles of my patients. Using my grandmother as my model, I find drawing in a layered fashion allows me to describe those moments in healthcare that are often hidden or forgotten while adding another level of interpretation. Portraying this imagery fairly and honestly has become especially important as my father was recently diagnosed with Parkinsonism. I heard once that the more personal you make something, the more universal it becomes. That single quote is what drives my artistic practice and motivates me to work in my studio every day.

What were you like growing up?
I remember that my first dream was to become a ballet dancer. Unfortunately, I wasn’t the right body type, had no desire to practice, was very uncoordinated, had no athleticism, had difficulty recalling the steps and had absolutely no talent for dance. Other than all that, I might have made it. All jokes aside, it was probably my failure at dance and anything remotely athletic that first sparked my interest in painting and drawing. Now, that interest has grown to be the most important thing in my life.


  • Pool of Life, 54″ x 46″, Oil on panel, 2009, $3500
  • Birds of Pray, 34″ x 48″, Oil on panel, 2012, $3000
  • The Foresters, 37″ x 51″, Oil on panel, 2014, $3000
  • Last Dance, 28″ x 24″, Oil on layered glassine, 2017, $500
  • In Silence, 28″ x 27″, Oil on layered glassine, 2017, $750
  • Cherish, 30″ x 40″, Oil on layered glassine, 2018, $750
  • The Protectors, 26″ x 28″, Oil on layered glassine, 2017, $500

Contact Info:

  • Address: The Bridgeport Art Center – 1200 West 35th St, Chicago, IL
  • Website:
  • Email:
  • Instagram: mary.porterfield

Image Credit:
Tom VanEynde, South Shore Arts

Getting in touch: VoyageChicago is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you know someone who deserves recognition please let us know here.


  1. Bobbi Meier

    May 23, 2018 at 11:15 am

    Wow, Mary. Great article! So inspiring to those of us who also pursue struggles of art making.

  2. Lisa Goesling

    May 23, 2018 at 9:59 pm

    This is absolutely fabulous! Mary’s art is truly something to behold.

  3. Set Gozo

    May 24, 2018 at 10:30 am

    Very inspiring, I am experiencing what you felt as I am also a health care working trying to merge into my artworld and it is not easy.

  4. Julia McShaw

    May 24, 2018 at 10:54 pm

    Mary Your paintings are breathtaking & full of meaning So very interesting & unique God bless you & your world You are certainly using the talents God gives you Julia McShaw (Elyse s ) moth

  5. Sarah Kaiser-Amaral

    June 1, 2018 at 2:39 pm

    Such intelligent statements—you are deeply philosophical. Congrats. I’m honored to know such a gifted person.

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