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Photographer Mary Farmilant: Self-Reflection Can Help Pursue Your Goals

Updated: Feb 16, 2019

Mary is the kind of person that you are able to relate to on so many levels. Her interests, hobbies, life experience and guidance make her not only an awesome teacher, but a mentor too. I met her about a year ago while sifting through podcast equipment in the media room at Columbia College, now one year later I would consider her a dear friend. While sipping a fabulous Matcha tea latte at Collectivo in Andersonville, we quickly get caught up with what was happening in our lives, and suddenly the conversation went deep. I had mentioned to Mary that a horrible incident had just occurred in my life, and suddenly she was in tears. This wasn't the reaction I expected, however it made me feel so at ease and comfortable, that I divulged even more details about my life to her. It didn't take long for me to realize that I didn't want to just talk to Mary about teaching, but how she has helped so many people cope with life. When starting to discuss teaching, she says it was never the plan, rather something she just fell into. This nurse, turned photographer, and most recently designer can find the beauty in people and the everyday things we view as normal or boring. This driven soul has found her way as an entrepreneur and has the hustle and determination to do it. As Mary begins to reflect on what brought her to where she is today, I can tell that her work brings her so much joy. The photography and design projects she works on consists of mostly interior spaces and landscapes.

I present my work in multi sensory, not just visual which incorporates both sound and smell. To me, this is her way of connecting humans with a place that goes beyond the obvious.

"It all started after reading Harlequin romance novels." She laughs as she explains her silly dream. "I had this idea of wanting to be an English nurse working in the OR and wear a mask that showed only my eyes." That dream sort of came true, actually. Before becoming a photographer, she had this vision of moving to England and traveling the world. She tells me about her life living and working in England as a nurse, which eventually brought her back to the states where she got married and had three kids.

Before diving deep into details, tell me a brief summary of your background and experiences in life that have shaped you.

What I remember about growing up and what career I could do, it was only either get married, become a nun, a social worker, teacher or a nurse. I wasn't interested in any of that, and all I wanted to do was travel. I did a year long business program then started working for Quaker Oats in Chicago as an administrative assistant. I really wanted to move up with the company and live in Europe, but that took too long so I started applying to nursing schools in England. I was accepted, and started my training in a hospital that had their own farm, woodworking shop and gardens which were known for their roses. What was special about this hospital was that the patients would work on the grounds because that was their home, their life. After six months I did a volunteer nursing stint near Tel Aviv in Israel. I had broken up with a boyfriend and decided that England wasn't big enough for the both of us, so I came back to the states. Then 15 years later, I am photographing the abandoned Columbus Hospital in Chicago that I once worked for.

I don't think I would do most things over again, or make any different decision.

How did you get into photography?

Always loved photographs, and each time I skimmed the pages of National Geographic I started to fall in love with those photos of exotic places. I then started playing around with my mother's camera and there is evidence as I am the one missing in all the family photos because I was behind that camera. In high school I didn't know you could be a photographer, I was involved in drama, and loved that. After a career in nursing working at Northwestern with spinal cord injury patients and learning that they were the most difficult patients, and how hard of a job it was for me, I knew there had to be more to life then this. So I said I'm going back to school, started working in undergrad in photography. I realized that I am a photographer, but I have no idea what it means to be an artist. So that is when I decided to go to grad school at Columbia College.

What projects are you working on at the moment?

I have both a photography and design practice, and have recently started designing and printing my most recent project Natura Consonat on women's scarves. The prints were inspired from my time documenting the forests in Northern Wisconsin. My mother-in-law was an Ojibwe Indian, and grew up on the lac du flambeau reservation. It was important that my kids established a relationship with her, so I made it a point to visit a lot. She lived on her own deep in the woods, and I started to really notice how beautiful the foliage was and how lovely it felt just being there. Aside from watching out for bears, it was so peaceful. I wanted to convey the beauty of zen and calmness with my photos.

What do you remember most about your mother-in-law?

She was a tough woman for sure, but so creative and highly intelligent. She used to work on so many art projects, was great at finger weaving, knitting, crochet, Indian beading, and painting. Oh and she was a master at Scrabble.

How has teaching impacted you as a person?

The part of teaching that brings me most joy is the mentorship and advising I get to do, especially with those students who are really engaged with their practice. I also really enjoy teaching professional practice mainly because I can give students advice on what I know they don't teach them in school. I was never given that and there really is still a big need for it. Everything I have done is based on my own research, and I didn't really find out what I did best until I continued practicing. Helping them navigate and discover that principles in photography can be applied to other disciplines as well. You have to put in the work, and keep going. I remember sending out 75 applications in one year after grad school. I did that every year for 5 years.

What was your education experience like back in England?

What was so marvelous was that I was paid to go to nursing school. The students were the workforce in the hospitals, and I loved it. Training was only three months, and you were then always paired with a senior nurse and learned on the job. I'm a visual person, so the blend of people I cared fore, and the written instructions helped me get better prepared. The patients in England were so different. They wrote my mom letters about how great I was, which made me so happy.

I remember the little things too. Like being so broke while in school, and once only having a cold baked potato to eat while sitting on top of a bus thinking it was the most delicious thing ever. There was also this tobacconist across the street that would always float me money and cash my check when I got paid.

What are your views on higher education as it stands now vs years ago?

I think we expect less of students these days. Back then it was more demanding, and a lot of work. If a student can work full time and be a teaching assistant while also meeting high expectations then that person will rise above. Over time we have lowered the bar, and it seems that no one wants to work that hard anymore. A few do, and push to do more of course. As an artist you have to dig down to think deeply about what you are trying to convey with your work, what your goals are, and where is this work going to go? Gallerists and collectors want to purchase and show work of artists who are going keep working in their art practice and continue to produce work because the more you do the better it gets. When I first started the Hospitals project it was just about Columbus Hospital, but soon realized it was more about institutional spaces that provided a service to everyone. Then all of a sudden the space turned into something that was only for the select few, because after it closed it was turned into luxury condo highrise. It taught me that land is more for providing something to whomever had the money, skewing our priorities and shutting out people such as the middle class. It took me awhile to figure it out, but I then called the project Hospital because it became not so specific to one hospital anymore.

What would you tell a student if they decided to leave school and pursue life without an education? Well they have to self reflect, and that can be simply a response to a situation. Take my experience for example. I had this goal to travel, and the way I got to it was a bit different but I still got there with some educational background. So I wouldn't recommend not getting an education, so figure out and think about what it is that gets you excited, and what you are interested in. Maybe you need to do a few things to figure that out, nowadays nu

From her Natura Consonat project: Mother Earth, the Ojibwe teach, is the source of life. Forested land is becoming sparse, partly due to urban sprawl devouring the woodlands and partly due to irreparable damage done by mining, logging, and failure to replenish this renewable resource. The Ojibwe believe their very existence is intertwined with all living things, and that life itself depends on treating all things with respect. Land conservation and stewardship are integral components of the Ojibwe lifestyle.

One of the goals of this project is to teach children about sustainable living and protecting natural resources to keep all life in balance. Spending time in the forest is rejuvenating to people; to complete the circle of life we must also rejuvenate the forest.

From her Hospital project: Does any other institution witness as much human drama as a hospital? Churches and temples come closest, but even these sacred places don’t witness the wide, intense range of experiences that is routine in any hospital. Within hospitals, lives are saved and lives are lost. Painful discoveries are made, wondrous healing occurs. Prayers are whispered, curses shouted. Tears are wiped away. Promises are made and forgotten. Every day in hospitals our vulnerability is exposed.

Visit Mary's website to view all of her work.

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