the writings of SLMM founder, Mary Carroll Nelson

New Thoughts For New Times

By Mary Carroll Nelson


As of May, 2021, the Society of Layerists in  Multi-Media has been in its 40th year since it was recognized as a non-profit educational organization by the State of  New Mexico and the Internal Revenue Service.  In March, 1985, I submitted an article to  LEONARDO, The International Journal of Arts and Science.  Written in academic style this is a key sentence from the Abstract at the head of the text:  “Although layering techniques are an outgrowth of well-developed twentieth-century methods and do not represent a new style, layering is a perceivable development in contemporary art characterized by a synthesis of technique and holistic thinking.”   The piece was published in March, 1986.


At the time I was focused on the similar sources Layerists cited as important to their inspiration:  Einstein’s space/time, Jung’s collective unconscious and the famous photograph of Earth from Space..a single beautiful blue planet with no visible borders were all symbols of connectedness.

Today America is in a fractured state of awareness.  We seem to be coerced into a primitive form of regressive tribalism  This is not usual for us.  Most of us think of our country as the UNITED States.  But divisiveness is affecting families, friendships, reputations, businesses and careers.  .  A difference of opinion can lead to a riot, or a form of shunning.  Our country needs healing.

These months of lockdown have given me a deeper sense of how Layerists might be the agents of healing.  Even in isolation our members have created examples of Layered art by bringing a diverse assemblage of elements into harmony.  Though most shows have been virtual, our SLMM web exhibits attract more viewers than the majority of our wall-hung regional and national shows.

I began reviewing our SLMM history of exhibitions, national conferences, and published books.  Accomplishments such as these are the result of cooperation by tens of members.

One might say everything SLMM does is holistic.  We are constituted as a holistic society.  Our efforts are not made to compete with one another, but to join in a group enterprise.  We formulate intentions together and carry them out in our regions and nationally.  The first all member show was held in the Zanesville Art Center of Zanesville, Ohio in 1987.  It was conceived and  led by Mary Todd Beam and Marilyn Hughey Phillis with an enthusiastic committee.  I was privileged to attend the show.  It was standing in that spacious, light-filled gallery that I first “heard” with my inner ear the humming current of energy that has identified so many of our later shows.  I think of it as the spiritual component of holism.

  Holism refers to the concept of Oneness.  I have faith in the power of a holistic intention.  By making our SLMM website, books and virtual or gallery shows known on a larger scale, we can offer leavening and a possible blessing to others who might pick up on the true meaning of holistic thinking.  My new thought is to promote vigorous activity throughout SLMM.  Get our work and our premise into public conciousness.

Activate the power we hold in common.  I believe SLMM can make a difference.

With Love,

Mary Carroll Nelson

The Search for Holism
The Society of Layerists in Multi-Media

Published in LEONARDO, Vol. 19, No. 3, pp. 223-229, 1986

By Mary Carroll Nelson


View a scan of the original article here.

The Search for Holism
The Society of Layerists in Multi-Media

Published in the April 1984 Southwest Art magazine

By Mary Carroll Nelson


The history of art reflects man’s mental technical and spiritual evolution Post-modern art, like our society itself, presents a proliferation of trends:  neo-expressionist, photorealism, and various revivalisms are only a few of the possibilities.


Among the welter of choices is an art form I term “layering”.  Twenty-odd years ago, as a painter, I began searching for artists who combine levels of experience in a single work of art.  Today my concentration has shifted to the “whys” that prompt layering.  The word layer appears frequently in recent art description; however, by my definition, “Layerists” are a specific group of artist-seekers who have a heightened awareness of holism—the belief that reality is made up of organic or united wholes that are greater than the simple sum of their parts.


Two major components of Layerists’ thinking stem from Einstein’s general and specific theories of relativity and Jung’s theories of synchronicity and the collective unconscious.  Both of these conceptions of the natural order confirm the universe as a connected entity whose basic characteristic is dynamic energy.  They imply that the individual is connected.  In material structure, with the entire universe, and is also linked with others, within the mind, by memory of a shared human history.  Einstein’s and Jung’s seminal theories are no longer the preserve of scholars rather, they have been absorbed into the neosphere (the accessible environment of thought encircling the geosphere of Earth, as posited by Teilhard de Chardin in The Phenomenon of Man).


During the Renaissance age of exploration by land and sea, artists perfected linear perspective as an appropriate device to express distance.  We are participating in a new age of exploration, leading to inner and outer frontiers that necessitate, for artists, a new perspective.  Layering is a versatile and adaptable system to express multiple “events” simultaneously occupying a portion of space, which is the artwork itself.  I think of Layering as a form of perspective related to the concept of Tao, the all-in-one.  Layering can be described as the perspective of Tao, or, vice versa, the Tao of perspective.  It is the expression of Einstein’s spacetime and of Jung’s collective unconscious.


Geology, archaeology, mythology, cosmology, and eschatology are routes taken by Layerists in their personal search for meaning.  As a result, many processes energize the Layerist’s work:  a diversity of allusions to the basic elements of fire, earth, air and water; natural processes such as sedimentation and erosion; prehistoric cultures; comparative religion; and speculations upon the cycle of life, death and rebirth.  A Layerist may be a collagist, stitcher, weaver, glassmaker, ceramist, sculptor, printmaker, filmmaker or painter in watercolor, oil, acrylic, or pastel.  The artist might use transparency in the work, but not necessarily.  Layering could be figurative or abstract.


Bonny Lhotka (Boulder, Colorado) (SWA Mar 81) expresses the elemental energy of water in layered acrylic paint.  Her Jackson (Davidson, North Carolina) explores inner space in layers of pastel.  Alexander Nepote (Millbrae, California) portrays the beauty of decaying cliff faces in layers of paint and papers on canvas.  Elena Karina (Washington, D.C.) builds shell0kke porcelain “Tide Pools” that allude to the secrets of caves, the feminine body, and the basic spiral in nature.  Martha Slaymaker (Albuquerque, New Mexico) makes, breaks and combines bisque “artifacts” with earth, plaster and pigment in relief paintings that refer to a shared archaeology of human experience.  Edgar Buonagurio (Bronx, New York) paints imaginary symmetrical facades of sacred buildings in multiple layers of acrylics and then, by sandblasting the surface, he becomes an agent in entropy, a Vishnu-like destroyer, who vatly accelerates nature’s tendency toward dissolution and random beauty.


Although Layering is not a single system, all Layerists suggest hermetic meanings beneath the visual surface of reality.  They express layers of experience occurring simultaneously and suggest a holistic universe in which the microcosm (the individual, the work of art, a process in nature, a symbol, etc.) is an analog for the macrocosm.  Layerists search the ordinary in order to describe the supraordinary.  They are rediscovering traces of the sacred in a profaned world.  I believe Layerists serve as perceptive scouts pointing toward an emerging synthesis of Eastern and Western thought, of science and philosophy, of art and the communal life.


We are at a juncture between ages or historic periods which Alvin Toffler describes as waves.  We are, he theorizes, at the end of the industrial, compartmentalized, nationalistic era.  At the same time, we are building Toffler’s Third Wave—the post-industrialized world, the informational society.  Rapid communication has created Marshall McLuhan’s predicted global village.  We are increasingly aware that our fate is planetary.  Nonetheless, among us there is a growing schism between those who see only Armaggedon ahead and those who have started building a holistic culture.  Layerists are planetarian—holistic in outlook.


In early 1982, I built a network among Layerists and founded The Society Of Layerists in Multi-Media.  Its initial effort is to sponsor “Layering, An Art of Time and Space,” an invitational exhibition scheduled to open June 2 through September 1, 1985, at the Albuquerque Museum in New Mexico, followed by a two year tour. Another dimension of the project is a book of the same title to be published in late 1985.


We circulate information via a newsletter to members of the society.  In the future, both membership and juried shows will be organized.  The society is open to qualified Layerists whose application is approved by the board of directors.  SWA