BUSINESS Look who's talking Look Who’s Talking: Mary Wahr

Editor’s Note: It is important to note that Mary is one of the few artists in the world who produces fractal art by hand while most use computer programs.

Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills is using some of her work as the framework for part of this fall’s “Art and Science” presentation.

Her piece “Swim for the Surface” is currently on display at the Muskegon Museum of Art as part of their regional show.

Finally, as we went to press, Mary told us she will be entered in ArtPrize with her work being shown at MoDiv, a shopping and retail incubator at 40 Monroe Center NW in downtown Grand Rapids.


Fractal Definition: A geometric pattern that is repeated at ever smaller (or larger) scales to produce (self-similar) irregular shapes and surfaces that cannot be represented by classical (Euclidian) geometry. Fractals are used especially in modeling of irregular patterns and
structures found in nature.

Benoit Mandelbrot: The father of fractal geometry and the one who invented the term. Mary corresponded with him just before his death in 2010.

BRIDGES: An international, nonprofit organization begun in Kansas in 1998 that oversees an annual conference on connections between art and mathematics. For the past few years, the conference has brought over 250 participants from more than 25

Decalcomania: 1. Process of transferring designs from prepared paper onto glass or porcelain. 2. A technique used by some surrealist artists (e.g.Max Ernst) that involves pressing paint between sheets of paper.

Current Position:
Art educator for Manistee Area Public Schools and Manistee Catholic Central School. I earned my Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Michigan and began teaching in Manistee in 1977. In 2010, I received my Master’s in Art Education from Kendall College of Art and Design.

Were you always interested in art? What types of art did you experiment with?

I have always loved art but did not know it could be a career until I was in college. Since then I have worked in pen and ink, paper casting, scratchboard and mono-printing.

What is fractal art and how did you get involved with it?

I first heard about fractals on NPR while I was commuting to get my Master’s in Art Education. Once I heard about them I had to look them up and I was hooked. Fractals are objects that are created with shapes that are repeated at varying magnifications, possibly into infinity. Most of the fractals I was familiar with at that time were created by computer programs. It takes the power of a computer to repeat the algorithms that create a fractal design.

Fractal art is based on a relatively new math, fractal geometry. It has a long history of mathematicians experimenting with fractal concepts, but it was not until there was computer power that fractal geometry was born. Fractals are forms that are created by repeating the same shape at different dimensions, possibly into infinity.

How do you do fractal art by hand? What is involved in the process?

I began by drawing fractals from nature in pen and ink. There are many fractals in nature: clouds, ferns, trees and, my favorite, brocoflower. I then did a colored pencil study of fractals found in the human body.

Finally, I came upon a process developed by the Surrealists called decalcomania. It is the process of pressing pigment between two smooth surfaces. When those surfaces are separated the paint creates an intricate branching pattern that is a fractal. The texture and beauty of these patterns hooked me. I began to develop ways to create these patterns myself. I have pressed pigment between Plexiglas and my art surface. I have drilled holes in the Plexiglas to alter the way the paper is removed from the glass. I have used dowel rods and skewers, swim rings and beach balls. There is no end to the amount of experimenting that can be done to create a fractal pattern. Once the print is pulled, I spend a few or several hours enhancing the print with colored pencil.

Tell us what inspired “Blue Nautilus” and how you approached creating it.

I am always experimenting with new ways to separate the paper from the printing surface.

I love spirals. So…I created a giant spiral template. I began with a piece of foam core covered with smooth plastic. Then I cut slits in the foam core to create the pattern of a spiral. Rigid tub caulk was cut to fit each slit.

Once the surface of the paper was painted it was pressed against the template. Then the whole thing was flipped over so the tub caulk could push the paper up and away from the template surface.

In 2011, you attended and presented a workshop at the international conference of Bridges(see sidebar) in Coimbra, Portugal. How did that happen?

Sidebar_MaryAmazing things happen to you when you go back to school while in the middle of a career. You acquire more education, you discover new worlds and you make new connections. One such connection began my journey to Portugal. While asking permission to cite a reference in my thesis, the contacted person suggested I submit my art to the Joint Mathematics Meeting for display during their conference. I was accepted and my husband and I attended the conference in New Orleans. We knew as soon as we were on the shuttle that we were out of our league mathematically. It was a lot like being in a foreign country.

While attending the art reception, we learned about another conference called “Bridges.” The purpose of this international conference is to create a link between math and the fine arts. The sections include math, dance, film, visual art, poetry and music. I had nothing to lose so I applied. My work was accepted so I also submitted a portion of my thesis and a proposal for a workshop. To my delight my proposal was accepted and my presentation was given to a group of people from around the world.

Who inspires you?

Benoit Mandelbrot, the father of fractal geometry, inspired me. While I was working on my master’s thesis he took the time to respond to an email I had sent him. I was so honored.

The work of Max Ernst is based on beautiful decalcomania. I aspire to someday create work similar to his.

My family who believes in my art and supports my efforts in bringing fractals to the world.

What is the most important advice you give your students?

Find something you are passionate about. Don’t be afraid to break some rules. Believe in yourself. Creating art and exhibiting it to the public Is very difficult. Be brave.


Students, parents and fellow teachers told us that while always presenting the roots and core of a basic art education, Mary makes her classes come alive with the introduction of multi-cultural arts and examples from the world’s indigenous peoples.

Donna F. St. John, MA, Associate Professor at Kendall College of Art and Design has this to say about her former student: “The true lessons gained from the study of fractals are how Mary Wahr lives her life and how she runs her classroom. Mary presents herself as a vibrant, fun-loving, unassuming and charming character. But I challenge you to look deeper and find the intense brilliance and intellect that she carries beneath the exterior of this persona.

Her artwork and her teaching have the vision to look beneath the surface of objects of study and the students within her classroom. Mary uses this valuable quality of finding beauty within everything and everyone in her teaching practice.

Mary Wahr is a beautiful example of Kendall College of Art and Design’s model of a quality teacher in the 21st century. This model includes the understanding that everyone is an artist, the realization that there are intricate gifts inside each student and that being a quality art educator requires you to honor the artist that resides within yourself.

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