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Mary Tapogna

Portland Mosaic Artist

Like most artists, Mary Tapogna has made her living in various ways. But her tenacity has paid off. Since moving to Portland in 1989, she managed to shift into fulltime artistic employment. Nowadays her mosaic work –made from 99 percent found and recycled materials --is all over the city. Mary’s permanent installations include Kennedy School, Fire on the Mountain, Prana and the Maryville Nursing Home. Many Portlanders also know Mary’s work from the popular store Hail Mary on Killingsworth, which she owned and operated for 12 years.

Since jacked up rent forced her out of her shop last year, Mary has stayed busy. UAN caught up with her to ask her about her holiday pop-up store, her upcoming show at Guardino Gallery and how the heck an artist can make it in Portland.

Pop-up shop

Mary and a core group of artists – Juanita, Carye Bye, Janet Julian, and Lara Rouse – banded together to organize a holiday pop-up shop called “Souvenir.” The shop opened on November 29, aka Small Business Saturday, in a storefront on 42nd Avenue next to Rocket Pizza. It will stay open from 11-7 every day until Christmas Eve.

“We’re including a lot of local Cully artisans that are common fixtures at the Cully farmers market and neighborhood fairs,” Mary said. Customers can browse velvet paintings, prints, cards, calendars and knitted items. They’re trying to keep wares at a neighborhood price, Mary said, starting around $5 and going up to a few hundred dollars. “We’re trying to accommodate everyone.”

Rosary show at Guardino Gallery

Mary’s also been working nonstop on a show of giant rosaries opening at Guardino next month. “It’s a series that I’ve been wanting to do,” Mary said. She started at least five years ago, but the show has fueled her motivation.

“Being raised Catholic, I’ve always had them around,” she said. “My mom used to collect beautiful rosaries, different colors and types of beads. I pray a lot and I feel like the rosary is just a very symbolic and beautiful way to guide prayer.”

Some of her rosaries, which range up to six feet long, will follow the traditional rosary template. Others are more secular and freeform.  Most of her beads are built around golf balls. One rosary is Ohio-themed, for Mary’s home state. It’s scarlet and gray, the Ohio State colors, and Mary is trying to incorporate buckeyes.

“Some are topical or just meaningful to me,” she said. “I’m doing an MCA rosary because I’m still in mourning,” she said, referring to Adam Yauch, the Beastie Boy who died in 2012. “I wanted to do some kind of a tribute.”

Advice to Artists

So what are the keys to success as a self-employed artist? “I think it just takes stamina and tenacity. And believing in my own work,” Mary said. “Some of my work that hasn’t sold, I know might be disturbing to look at, challenging or edgy or whatever. But having that vision and then following it through is really important. And not catering to what will sell.”

She also believes in taking chances and opportunities, and constantly producing and putting work out. “I feel like I was always having little shows here and there,” she said. One thing led to another, and eventually she got sizable commissions.

For Mary, running a retail shop made sense. Her studio was in the back room, so she could work whenever she didn’t have customers. “It was a good space where clients could come in if they wanted me to do a specific mosaic project or to see what I had available. It kept my name out there in a prominent way.” She’s been working out of her home for the last year and misses the separate space of a shop.  “I think I need a space. Because currently I have rosaries all over my house. It’s ridiculous,” she said.

Taking a break from storekeeping let her try a new opportunity this year. She did a month-long artist residency at the Catamount Film and Art Center in Saint Johnsbury, Vermont. “I was their guinea pig, the first resident artist they ever had,” she said. “We formed the residency together.”

It was a very busy residency. Mary exhibited her work in a gallery and taught middle school kids how to make mosaics. She incorporated their pieces into a bigger public art installation which now permanently stands in from of the art center.

“I fell in love with the state of Vermont,” she said. “I met great people.” She enjoyed challenging herself by figuring out how to produce her work in a totally different environment. “It shook up my routine quite a bit. It was a big production to get myself there, to take care of everything back at home. But once I got there it was really great.” She recommends that other artists try a residency. And she hopes to do more of them herself.

See Mary’s projects:

—by Teresa Bergen