Boston Home

This Arlington Artist Paints What She Gardens

Mara Callahan cultivates her garden and her creative side by savoring the symbiotic relationship between the two—to glorious results.

Peonies, oil on cotton rag paper, $950. / Courtesy photo

“Nothing lights a fire under you like a breast cancer diagnosis,” Mara Callahan says. “I realized I hadn’t painted enough and didn’t get to where I wanted to be.” That was 10 years ago. Today, the Arlington-based artist, who is part of the emerging artists program at Chase Young Gallery, paints all the time. She also gardens; the two are very much intertwined.

During recovery, neighborhood strolls helped rekindle Callahan’s relationship with creating. “I developed a heightened sensitivity to the beauty around me that came from not taking anything for granted,” she says. Not only did she revel in observing the beauty in nature, but she also wanted to re-create it. Thus, the gardening and the artwork that followed.

“Gardening is like painting with plants,” Callahan says. “Color relationships are part of what makes a garden—and artwork—strong,” she says. Composition matters, too. A Limelight hydrangea, for example, might call for dark purple blooms nestled beside it. Pink and red roses require (in her color-drenched mind’s eye) variegated lime-green Japanese forest grass to make them pop. “The process of digging up plants and moving them around the garden is similar to composing a painting,” she says.

Callahan paints what she plants. And, she plants what she paints, often plucking inspiring specimens off the shelves at Mahoney’s. She brings cuttings into her studio or ventures into the garden with her sketchpad. The results, she thinks, are stronger than her earlier pieces based on photographs. Painting flowers from life elicits an emotional response that seeps into her work. “There’s a vibrancy that I’m happy about,” she says. “I just want to keep going.”
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First published in the print edition of Boston Home’s Summer 2023 issue, with the headline, “Mutually Inclusive.”

Autumn Dahlias, 2020, woodcut monoprint