The story behind the piece Portrait of Mary. (Gallery 1)
I first met Mary W in 1986 when I bought a three-family property in South Boston. She had been living in the small one bedroom apartment on the third floor for about 25 years.
I had very little contact with her as she seldom went outside, primarily to church and to buy food, and seemed to wear the same clothes for long periods of time.
This is pretty much all that I knew about her until she passed away in 1996. Mary was in her late 80’s when she died. I knew that she had a niece and when I spoke with her after Mary’s death she said that she couldn’t afford to travel out from AZ to help clear Mary’s belongings and besides "Aunty May didn’t have two nickels to rub together.”
On the first day of the epic task of clearing out the apartment I found:
- 900 dollars in cash...two hundred tucked into the lining of her pocketbook and many pay envelopes from the 1950’s with new cash.
- A bank book with a balance of 140,000.
- A deed to a piece of property in Randolph
- A key to a safe deposit box at South Boston Savings.
The niece was shocked, to say the least and I put her in contact with a reputable estate attorney.
In the days that followed I did not find those kinds of surprises but what I did find was fascinating. Mary was of Lithuanian descent and was very religious. There were many multiples of objects: over 20 staplers, scissors, and pairs of eyeglasses and seemingly endless balls of knotted up fabric. She was a novice photographer primarily during her early thirties and in 1952 Mary graduated Bentley evening school in accounting. I also found quite a few small notebooks.
Sitting amongst the remnants of her life I knew that I needed to do a portrait of her. I filled her old chest with many things not knowing when or what shape that portrait would take. For 25 years I stored this until one day at the beginning of March '21 it struck me that I need to do the Mary portrait. I was already working on several pieces, so I put those aside and concentrated solely on this.
One evening I had all the printed materials spread out on the floor sorting what to include in the bowl collage...a poem she had typed, letters written in Lithuanian, pieces of masking tape upon which she had written dates (they had been attached to foodstuffs in the cupboard) or warnings of broken window sash cords, and pages from her notebooks of purchases. Also in this pile was a small notebook with written notes that included two references to troubling psychiatric treatments. I also found a love letter to a man who worked at Massport that was filled with anguish and frustration. While I had read these latter entries before, I was suddenly overcome with sadness and empathy. I took a moment, centered myself and meditated. I made it clear that I was creating out of love, kindness and respect, for while her life may have been difficult and painful it was one that was worthy of acknowledgement.
The whole experience underscores why all people should be treated with respect. You never know what another person's life is really like.
An interdisciplinary artist writing on art and art making.