Made in Minnesota

Photo by Erin Francois

An emotional expression

Whether it adorns products at Target or is displayed on a canvas, Ashley Mary’s abstract art makes an impact

Designer by day, Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) student by night – local artist Ashley Mary painted on the side as she pursued a career in the design industry. Just a few years later, the local artist, illustrator, stylist and designer struck out on her own to freelance full-time. Now, with a style all her own and several key collaborations under her belt, Mary has done what most artists aspire to – transform her passion for painting and creative talents into a full-fledged business.

Over the last 9 years Mary’s designed for local agency Knock Inc. and her work has been featured and sold in local galleries, boutiques and curated shows. But her big break came when Target chose to incorporate her distinctly colorful and energetic mix of abstract shapes and playful palettes in a new line of cosmetic bags and phone cases. The bags and cases, launched in 2015 and 2016 respectively, allowed Mary to sell her branded designs in stores nationwide and online.

For Mary, the chance to adapt her creations to new mediums and markets was an unexpected opportunity.  “I was thrilled someone saw the potential for my art to take on a new form,” says Mary. “I wasn’t prepared for the project, but way they envisioned my work was so encouraging. I said yes and figured the rest out later.”

With the success of her work through Target, Mary’s set her sights on new opportunities to work with surface design and collaborate with other brands. “After going through the process, it’s felt like ‘yes, I know I want to do this.’ I’ve gotten a taste for this, I know the steps and this is a direction that I think fits for what I love to do and for what I’m good at.” Mary’s since partnered with Laura Waldman, founder of local, curated, gift-box shop Minny & Paul, to create custom-design, zip, coin purses to be sold in several of the shop’s uniquely crafted boxes. Mary also hopes to bring her work to new audiences through home décor and paper goods, possibly seeking partnerships with interior designers and possibly children’s brands. “I want to focus on partnerships that will really complement my style and see how my work can translate through these new elements,” says Mary.

No matter where her work might end up next, Mary knows where it will start. Last fall, Mary took the next step for her business, moving into a studio in the Northrup King Building to focus the future of her work through her painting. “When I’m designing, I want that process to start in my studio because I want to make sure my art is grounded in my painting. The design and painting shouldn’t be separate things." 

Although Mary’s style is distinct, the artist hopes her work will continue to evolve. “My art thrives when it has room to evolve and isn’t pigeon-holed. I have a flavor and elements and a character that feel consistent to me, but the way that takes shape is endless,” says Mary.

As her style evolves, Mary also aims to keep her body of work feeling fresh and regularly paints over older pieces to reflect her latest work.  “As soon as the piece doesn’t start to feel like me or once I’ve refined a new technique I’ll take it down, paint over it and bring it back.” This element of her process has been difficult for Mary to grapple with in her in her painting and especially through her product design collaborations. Once the product’s launched, it’s too late to make changes. But it’s also reminded Mary of the reason she paints. “My work comes from an expressive place, so there’s a kind of emotional exchange that’s created there. I feel lucky I get to be a part of that. It doesn’t need to resonate with me anymore. The person taking my work home can create their own story around it.”

Mary’s work can be found at boutiques such as The Golden Rule, in local galleries such as Gallery 360, and online at