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Thursday 10.04.07

« First Friday Picks October 2007 | Main | Last Weekend for Wes Mills »

An Afternoon with Mary Henry

Mary Henry- Discrete Drawing No. 14 (Detail), Colored Pencil on Paper 1992
Image Courtesy of "Eleganty Frugal, Deceptively Simple" At Southern Oregon University

I wasn't sure what I was expecting as I drove up to Seattle with my wife on an early on a Saturday morning in June. I knew that I was traveling to meet with one of the great painters of the Northwest, Mary Henry. I was familiar with her paintings with their beautiful colors and meticulous craft. The paintings have such a remarkable clarity that they ring with a distinctive tone, not unlike hitting a bell at a Japanese temple. Perfect, complete and clear.

I knew that Mary Henry studied for a time with Lazlo Maholy Nagy who was a famous Hungarian artist who came to the United States after teaching at the Bauhaus in Germany. But there was something under the surface of these paintings that was constantly drawing me forward little by little, trying to learn more about who Mary Henry really is. It wasn't until I learned more about her life that I finally learned what the paintings were trying to teach me.

Mary Henry- On/Off 8A-8B,Acrylic on canvas 1968.
Image courtesy of PDX Contemporary Art Portland, Oregon

If Robert Rauschenberg tries to work in the gap between art and life; in Mary Henry's painting, there isn't gap between life and art. In her work they become interchangeable, but never the same thing. I was surprised that such a beautiful calm painting could come from a person whose life, like many people's, had been filled with so many false starts and unexpected diversions. There is a nobility to painting clearly and crisply when everything surrounding your life is in constant flux. The tension between art and life had been part of Mary Henry's story from the very beginning.

"I lived in Palo Alto when I left high school," Mary Henry said, recalling her life's journey with us one recent afternoon. "I had a friend - a Japanese girl. I admired her very much because I thought she was perfect. When I found out she had spent a year at California College of Arts and Crafts (CCAC). I thought, 'Wow, that's wonderful.' She said, 'Why don't you do it?' I didn't have any money. She said, 'Work for a year and save your money.' So I did. I worked and saved my money. I had enough money then to go for half a year to school. So I went for half a year and had to quit. After I had gone to school for half a year, I decided I loved it."


Mary Henry- Nexus II, Acrylic on canvas 1965.
Image courtesy of PDX Contemporary Art Portland, Oregon

Mary Henry had found her calling, but as her early experiences proved, it still wasn't going to be easy. After criss-crossing the country several times with a baby, and occasionally her husband in tow, Mary finally ended up back in Palo Alto after World War II. In Palo Alto she had the opportunity to hear Maholy Nagy speak, an experience that changed her life.

"The reason why I knew of him [Maholy Nagy] was that I heard him lecture. I could hardly understand a word he said, but I knew it was good. So I went to Chicago and then my mother and child came to join me. At one point during that time, he asked me to teach at the school. I said no because I had to go with my husband. He said that's alright. He was very nice. I liked him a lot. But he was very strong too. His lectures were vital. I spent a couple of years, but at the end of that time Maholy Nagy died."

Set adrift once again, Mary Henry found refuge with her husband in Arkansas, but her heart was still set on being an artist. It had become a part of her and she could not give it up.

Mary Henry- Language Barrier with Orange, Acrylic on canvas 2003.
Image courtesy of PDX Contemporary Art Portland, Oregon

"When that was over, I went to the South where my husband was. That picture with the cabin and the flood underneath (Spring in Arkansas). That's the way it really was. I didn't do any art at that time except once in a while. But these years ... well, I just got by. After a while it was 1950. I said, 'This is enough. I don't want to stay anymore. I'm going to Palo Alto, if you want to come, you can, if not, this is it.' So I went to Palo Alto."

She went back to where she was raised to start her life over once more, but now with the confidence that she could live as an artist. There was never any easy moment. There was always tension between being an artist, a wife and a mother with their sometimes contradictory demands. She found a job in San Francisco where she made designs for over fifty murals in five years. Some of them, like those for Hewlett Packard were executed in Tesera glass, more or less mosaic made of small glass tiles.

Mary Henry- Along About Now, Acrylic on canvas 2000.
Image courtesy of PDX Contemporary Art Portland, Oregon

But it wasn't enough. The roles were to conflicting and she perhaps felt that she was losing sight of the artist that she knew was inside her. After five years, the pieces of her life still did not fit together properly and she was forced to move on. She explains: "At the end of that time, I got bored. What happened is that I quit my job and I quit my husband. ... I was very unhappy at that point. I told my husband that I had to leave. So I did, we went to Mendocino. I bought a huge, big house there for $8,000!"

It was in Mendocino that Mary Henry found the refuge that she had been seeking all of those years. In a big house, she had room to paint and time to do pursue it. It was in the early '60s when Op Art was very popular, and she called her first series of paintings "On/ Off."

"Anyway, I went to Mendocino and suddenly I felt free for the first time in my life. I felt I could do anything. So I started painting. I had canvas and paints, oil paints in those days. They were more abstract. In fact the were very geometric. I didn't know what to do with painting because I had never been by myself. I just fiddled around and did a few paintings in oil that disappeared. Someone said, 'Why don't you use acrylic?' I got a show out of it."

Mary Henry- Metaphor, Acrylic on canvas 1995.
Image courtesy of PDX Contemporary Art Portland, Oregon

Finally Henry the opportunity to travel internationally. She spent two months in Spain at where she traveled both to the Alhambra and the Mosque in Cordoba. Two places that would have a large impact on her work and the titles of her paintings in the '80s.

This is only the beginning of the story, but for me there is something of the struggle of her early years that comes through in the tranquility of her paintings. The last words of this article should be her own: "I just kept painting more and more. I never stopped. That's the story of my life. I didn't quit."

Mary Henry is currently participating in the Elegantly Frugal, Deceptively Simple show at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Oregon. Elegantly Frugal is a group show that includes work by Anne Appleby, Victoria Haven, Patsy Krebs, Peter Millet, Matt Sellars, Richard Wilson, Robert Yoder and Mary Henry. The show is up at SOU until December 8, 2007.

Posted by Arcy Douglass on October 04, 2007 at 12:10 | Comments (0)


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