Mary Susan Watson Campbell is a photographer and stick-poke tattoo artist based in Southern California.
Although her mediums are far apart in form, the intricacies of her processes and thoughtfulness as an artist bind the differing modes together.
In both tattoo and photography, she often works in grayscale, evokes movement with shadow, contour, and line work, and repeats themes of landscape and nature.
In all her work and the way she speaks about it, we appreciate Mary’s intentionality.
She says her work “evokes our interdependence with the natural world, drawing on our other-than-human kin and the vast landscapes that surround us for communication and inspiration,” — and you’ll see from her reflection below that she deeply considers the subtleties and interconnectedness of things.
We are the breathing earth and swelling seas, constantly transformed by the lands and waters who surround us. We are impermanent animals, and miraculously we find each other, and we make beautiful things together. In my personal impermanence, in my ridiculous existence, I am learning to love my life more fully through practices of interdisciplinary art making, primarily with tattooing and film photography.
I belong to many places, crafts, and people. My ancestors mostly originate from Northern Europe, I was raised in Christian mysticism and the Presbyterian church, and my pronouns and she/her and they/them.
As a white person living on colonized land, I recognize the privilege and violence innate in making art in this place, and I am learning how to decolonize my creative practices and have my work be accessible to folks within the confines of capitalism.
My queer identity invites work to shapeshift, to play, to look around the corner, to dig deeper and pull me further into what is real and honest, waiting to be revealed.
I make art as a response to ongoing revelation: of the Spirit at the heart of creation, of innate beauty in the Earth, of participation in this fleeting life, of Love calling us home.
I currently live and make art on occupied Kumeyaay land (San Diego, CA), and have spent nearly my whole life along the West Coast of North America. I have been formed by the sweat of California summers and the lush, vibrating greens of Seattle winters, the pounding shorelines of the Bay Area and the rainbow wildflowers of the Cascades. Landscapes who are alive, who make us alive.
Tattooing honors the body as a living landscape, a place to declare story and mark the passage of time. It is an art of embodiment, collaboration, and transformation. Through tattooing and being tattooed myself, I have been beckoned deeper into the mystery and richness of life and invited to fully inhabit my temporary, living body who will one day return to the living earth.
The space I hope to create in tattooing tends to the spiritual as well as the physical, acknowledging mortality and impermanence within an art that is usually spoken of in a language of “permanence.” James K. A. Smith writes that, “There is a training of the soul in the arts we live with,” and there are few pieces of art we live in closer intimacy with than our tattoos.
Most of the imagery I explore evokes our interdependence with the natural world, drawing on our other-than-human kin and the vast landscapes that surround us for communication and inspiration.
The way that I create is communal and intuitive, working with the unique rhythm of greater Southern California, a place that isn’t usually imagined as vibrant, undulating, open space. However, being in relationship with these hills, their slope to the sea, sandstone to shore, chaparral to salt, has brought me into heightened awareness of our animal nature, how we rely upon identity with land and waters to survive and thrive.
I play with the lines and movement that I encounter in this place, sometimes in more representative forms, sometimes abstracted. Recently, much of what I draw and tattoo has been informed by what I observe with photography.
I have been making film and digital photographs professionally for over a decade, beginning with black and white portraits of my friends in high school to a few seasons working as a full time wedding photographer in Seattle. My relationship with photography has been bountiful and bound, at times inviting me into wonder and awareness, at others, disembodying me from the present.
In the last six months, I have almost solely shot with film for my personal photography, only picking up my digital cameras for hired work, and it has revitalized my connection to image making.
Film requires intention and attention with all of your senses. How are the land, people, plants, and animals speaking at any moment, whispering that the Remarkable is here, how do you see it? How do you see it in a way you didn’t before, perhaps in the gradient of atmospheric distance, perhaps in the contrast of sun upon the water? How can this potential image testify to the Remarkable you witness?
Photography and tattooing have swirled together in my creative life for the last three years, fighting and playing and learning from one another. They have existed in tension, challenging each other to stay accountable to a central spiritual grounding, intuition, and honesty that I intend to create from.
I photograph most of my tattoos in film to slow my creative process as an act of resistance to our culture of instant gratification and constant digitalization. Working with film is one small practice of staying in touch with the elements and the physical, a meditation on the centrality of time and place in image making and tattooing.
What I photograph inspires how I draw, which expands how I tattoo, which hastens me into my life further, which helps me notice my surroundings with more curiosity, which brings me back to my camera.
It is my hope for everything I make to dance in wider and queerer circles, pulling me deeper into kinship with life, teaching me how to better serve my planet and communities through art.