Mara Korkola sunset, west coast landscape, oil on aluminum

Our interview with Toronto-based painter Mara Korkola took place by telephone and email over the course of two months.

Mara Korkola’s captivating works compress worlds of information into small intimate oil paintings.  The sunset paintings featured here are based on photographs taken from hiking trips along the west coast of British Columbia. Late evening is Korkola’s signature time of day. This is when she prefers to paint as it allows for uninterrupted sessions working wet on wet, a technique that gives her paintings their lush and fluid surfaces.  The interplay between the landscape and the light is perhaps what excites Korkola most, prompting buttery brushstrokes in electric colour.

Was there a pivotal moment when you decided to follow your passion for art?

Art was always there. My mom, and her mother, were painters. My father taught high school art for awhile. Art, craft and design were valued in my home, it was something we did.

Where did you study?

I studied art at the Ontario College of Art and Design. Later, I went to Wichita State University in Kansas for a bachelor’s degree in Fine Art and the University of Texas at San Antonio for a master’s degree in Fine Art.

You make the comment “approaching painting is like getting ready for a big game.” Can you explain?

I was involved in sports when I was younger, so I am full of sports similes like being a high-jumper or a quarterback: all quiet focus, aloneness, and then all-in. You either have it or you don’t. You can get in the zone, or it eludes you. Also, like a game of chess. You win or lose.

I might do my underdrawing, and an underpainting, earlier, but painting happens in one sitting. It’s an all-or-nothing venture.

Mara Korkola, No Place #486, oil on panel, 8" x 6"

No Place #486, oil on panel, 8″ x 6″

What is your favourite museum or gallery that you’ve visited?

That’s hard to answer as I made art the focus of all my travels for decades. I was lucky enough to live in Italy for a year my last year of art school and visited so many wonderful museums in Europe. What comes quickly to mind is Santa Maria del Popolo (not a gallery, but a church), it was such a surprise to put a coin in a slot and turn the lights on to Carravaggios.

My best gallery experience was a Morandi exhibition I saw, and revisited, in New York in 2004. There were six oil paintings and two works on paper. I was the only visitor each time I was there. It was an intimate experience and a privilege.

The single work that keeps pushing to the forefront of my memory is a tiny multi-media piece by Richard Tuttle that consisted of a single wire, its shadow, and a graphite line.

A more recent surprise experience was a James Turrell skyspace at the Ringling Museum in Sarastota, Florida. So simple. It was a clear day, and my friend and I lay on the floor and looked up at a square of blue for a long time. It flattened, and played off the white ceiling edges as our perception got wonky. When a cloud suddenly, shockingly, came into the frame it was a jolt, a revelation.

Looking back on your career what is the most useful advice you have received?

Day one of grad school: Your career is entirely dependant on who you are and the time you are born into (and how those two mesh).

And what advice would you give a young person following in your footsteps?

The only thing you have to offer is that which is unique to you.

Mara Korkola, Landscape - No Place #484, oil on panel, 8" x 11.5"

No Place #484, oil on panel, 8″ x 11.5″

What materials do you like to use and why?

Oil paint because it’s a perfect medium. It’s organic and pure, natural, buttery and substantial, and smells so good. It’s a physical joy.  Sometimes watercolour, sometimes drawing and once a year I do block prints.

What are you working on at the moment? 

Sunsets. The first painting I ever sold was a sunset (to the high school English teacher), and the second (on a beach in Sicily). I started doing sunsets again when I returned home following grad school in Texas in 1997, where I had been doing houses on the roadside of my commute. The Victorian homes in my Toronto neighbourhood felt too grand for me to paint and I moved to nighttime to obscure those details, which I replaced with the light of windows and the sky. I’m doing them again. Art is cyclical, as they say: I come back to daytime nature, nighttime streetscapes, and sunsets over and over…

You title and number your paintings “No Place”. What is the significance of this title? 

The places I paint are specific places, yet ordinary enough to be many places. They are anywhere and everywhere, and so, no place.

My work is about discovering the unexpected in ordinary places that can, as Seamus Heaney wrote in his poem, Postscript, “catch the heart off guard and blow it open.”  It’s about the sublime, the beauty around us, not about a specific vantage point or famous view. So not about naming the place.

And No-place is the ancient Greek word “utopia.” That felt right.

Mara Korkola, No Place #485, oil on panel, 6" x 8"

No Place #485, oil on panel, 6″ x 8″

What single thought impacts the decisions you make as an artist?

Well, be true to your vision.

My work is a reflection of who I am, how I am in the world, what I do and think about.  When I found myself spending more time on hiking trails, or paths through parks, or the most treed city streets to walk and cycle through, my work shifted to include these places… I was thinking a lot about how we have changed the way we live more quickly than we can evolve… and I thought about how we can make conscious effort to change some of those things that have a negative impact… so I chose to be in nature more, to walk more.

Artists play a role in society by processing what life is like in the current moment and creating work from it. To quote Marshall McLuhan

I think of art, at its most significant, as a DEW line, a Distant Early Warning system that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it.

If you could pick a work of art to live with, what would it be?

Something by Frans Hals. A Sargent portrait. Guston’s Oasis. A Chamberlin sculpture. A tiny Alex Katz collage. A Diebenkorn ink drawing. But in the end, any Morandi still life. Hands-down.

What do you hope people will experience when they look at one of your paintings?

Something like a pause, a poem, an introspection, a connection to something bigger than themselves, a moment of beauty in ordinary life.

top image:  No Place #480, oil on panel, 7.5″ x 11″

Mara Korkola, interview photo

You can see more of Mara Korkola’s work on her Artist’s page and her website at