WORDS John Pitcher
“Paris is all about red,” insists Mary Cash Joska. “All of my Parisian friends wear red, and that is so different from the United States. We seem to be afraid of color in America. Here in New York City, people seem to prefer neutral shades of gray and black.”
Joska, a Nashville resident, was on the phone from the Big Apple, holding forth on a series of topics near to her heart. A former international model, Joska certainly knows a thing or two about fashion, and as a world traveler she likewise knows her way around the City of Lights. She describes Paris and New York as her two favorite places, noting that “the gentleness [of Paris] feeds the heart as the aggressiveness [of New York] feeds the brain.” Above all, as a gifted abstract artist, Joska knows her way around the color wheel.
Color figures prominently in Joska’s most recent series of abstract paintings, which will be on exhibit in Paris later this year. Joska’s beloved red is the focus of one these works, titled Flame. Color is not static in this painting. Rather, darker tints of red seem to rise from the bottom of the painting, consuming the canvas as they streak upward. And like a real flickering flame, Joska’s Flame contains hints of blue, suggesting the fire’s hot inner core burning to the surface of the canvas.
Other paintings in this vein include expressive studies in purple and turquoise, harmonious groupings of line and color that capture not just the tint and hue but the feelings and emotions that these colors elicit. Joska says her paintings were created with techniques that are altogether new, a description that reminds one of the composer Joseph Haydn’s assertion about the novel quality of his early string quartets.
“These new paintings are totally original in thought and idea,” she says. “I like it best when I’m working alone on my own ideas rather than responding to outside forces and pressures. That’s what I’m doing with these new paintings.”
Joska’s current approach to painting has been a long time coming. Born in 1971, she grew up in Ashburnham, Massachusetts, a quaint New England town near the New Hampshire border. Her stepfather, William Olson, was a successful businessman who ran a plastics company called Spectra Polymer. As a child, she would play with sample polymer kits filled with colorful chips. She ascribes her lifelong fascination with color to these vibrant plastics.
When she was older, she began taking a train into Boston with friends. Her interest in art led her to the Boston Museum of Fine Art where, as a high school student, she had been selected from a pool of top statewide art students to take studio art classes. She was eventually accepted into the museum’s school full time, but an unexpected romance changed her plans.
Joska’s parents owned a vacation home in Port Richey, Florida, located on the Gulf Coast near Tampa. The house was a peaceful place, save for one noisy neighbor who liked to ride his three-wheel all-terrain vehicle around the neighborhood. “I wondered who the heck that guy was,” Joska recalls.
A true-blue New England Yankee who listened to punk rock, Joska didn’t realize her neighbor was one of the world’s best-known country musicians. Turns out the house next door had once belonged to Grand Ole Opry star Maybelle Carter. She left the place to daughter June and her husband, Johnny Cash. Cash liked to unwind from his busy schedule by riding his ATV along Port Richey’s Pithlachascotee River.
The famed singer and his wife proved to be an easily approachable, neighborly Southern couple. Their son, John Carter Cash, made an especially strong impression on Joska. “I was literally the girl next door, and John and I clicked right away,” she says.
John Carter Cash and Mary Joska married in 1995 and had one son. During the four years they were together, she worked as a model in Europe while pursuing her artistic endeavors. She created several paintings for the Cash family, winning high praise from the singer. “Mary creates masterpieces,” Johnny Cash said.
Naturally, after marrying into the House of Cash, Joska moved to Nashville. The city remains her home and artistic headquarters, with G&G Interiors of Nashville and Knoxville and Stanford Fine Art both representing her work. She’s also represented by Mark Murray Fine Paintings in New York City.
Joska started out creating representational art—the last painting she did for Johnny Cash was an oil titled Still Life in Fall. But as she strived for greater artistic freedom, her artwork became increasingly abstract.
An admirer of the Post-Impressionist Les Nabis artists, Joska began her own deeply personal and abstract explorations of color. Some of her paintings included fields of color reminiscent of Rothko. Expressive tints of blue and turquoise in other works called to mind O’Keeffe’s Blue series.
“I like it best when I’m working alone on my own ideas rather than responding to outside forces and pressures.”
Texture has always been an important feature of her art. She has devised a process of putting down a layer of acrylic on canvas before adding a layer of oil. The glossy surface seemingly makes the colors pop off the canvas.
When she’s not painting, you can often find Joska on one of her daily excursions through Warner Park. The shapes and colors she sees on her walks through parks and cities tend to spark her muse. “Just looking at a pigeon, you see cobalt and green paired in a way that is translucent and beautiful,” she says. “Those natural colors are very inspiring.”
Given her penchant for color, Joska’s next project should prove challenging. Her intention is to work with the most achromatic of colors. “I’m now going to start working in black,” she says. Johnny Cash would have been pleased.