Born and raised on a farm west of Galva, Iowa, with four sisters and a brother, Mary Ortner grew up in the outdoors and was a competitive barrel racer as a youngster. She moved to Washington, DC, in the 1960s and began painting in her late twenties, when a group of artists collectively known as the Washington Color School were reaching their zenith. A self-taught artist, Ortner was influenced by the experiments in technique, color, and paint application that grew out of the Washington Color School, which was itself an outgrowth of Abstract Expressionism, and while in Washington, she received encouragement from artists who were central to the movement.
Ornter later moved to New York City, but the emphasis that the Washington Color School placed on using color, not painting, as a way of creating form and on removing the artist from the viewer’s experience of a painting left a heavy impression on her artistic vision and can been seen in her use of mixed media, such as oil paint and wax, within single works of art. Nature also plays a pivotal role in Ortner’s artistic vision, its energy moving like a current within each piece. Ortner’s powerful works of art, use vibrant and dynamic colors to express a variety of landscapes, ranging from the sometimes ominous, vertical canyons of the great American metropolis of New York City to the green-and-yellow-filled cornfields of her native Iowa.
Speaking of nature’s role in her painting, Ortner once said: “What moves my hand across the canvas is not the face of nature, but that which lies behind it.”