In days darkened by terrible loss, and so many calls to be kind to one another in the face of violent tragedy, to then to be reminded of this great Kentucky artist and teacher who so exemplified kindness and decency; seems to suggest that her departure needs be measured beyond the commonly experienced parameters of grief and sorrow. Mary Ann Currier originated in an age of a greater civility certainly than we can manage today, and brought compassion and humanity to her life that touched countless many.
When approached to give a lecture about her life and work for Louisville Visual Art a few years back, she responded with typical humility, “Oh, I’m no good at public speaking, and besides, I can’t imagine people would be that interested.” No amount of reassurance could convince her that her soft spoken manner would be a perfect fit for the intimate and relaxed luncheon format, or that people would be eager to share her company.
But I suppose, having been such a meaningful influence on so many Louisville artists over twenty years of teaching at the Louisville School of Art, and being recognized as one of the great American still life artists of the 20th century, she had earned her privacy and solitude.
In 1945, Mary Ann studied at the Chicago School of Fine Art alongside GI’s returning from World War II, often the only woman in the classroom, worked for W.K. Stewarts illustrating furniture ads, and eventually came to take classes at the Louisville School of Art, and became a member of their faculty in 1962. Among the names that came under her tutelage were Suzanne Adams, Gayle Cerlan, Denise Furnish, Lida Gordon, Rebecca Graves, Ed Hamilton, Jacque Parsley, Martin Rollins, Cathy Shepherd, and Neisja Yenawine.
News of her passing among the community of artists began with a message from one of her former students, Martin Rollins. Rollins, and several others had become friends with Mary Ann and visited with her often. Rollins observed: “Of her accomplishments, I know firsthand her tenure at the Louisville School of Art was one of her most treasured and one she felt most keenly. Mary Ann worked tirelessly on the development and implementation of the Foundations program at LSA as she knew it was both good for the students as well as the school, researching similar programs at other schools in the US.”
The claim of being one of the great American still life artists of the 20th century may seem quaint and old-fashioned in 2017, but to see one of Mary Ann’s exquisitely rendered oil pastels was intoxicating. The impressive command of the medium could leave one dumbstruck, and she became renowned for her vegetables, particularly onions, which she chose for their durability among organic subjects. She captures the shiny surface and translucent, peeling layers with an almost preternatural observational skill. For an artist, it was daunting to measure your own meager skills against hers, but also inspiring in the way of all great artists, to know that human hand could achieve such verisimilitude with a sophisticated crayon. Whatever the hard work behind the image, the grace contained in each one served as a reminder that art is always about touching the divine.
That notion is even more powerfully realized in the prosaic choice of subject matter. That she turned her attention so often to flowers is not unexpected, and they are masterpieces, but it is the fruits and vegetables: the pears, onions, peppers, and the like, where she achieves that transcendence that comes from sublime technique, technique in the service of communicating the organic forms of nature with great humility. Once artists celebrated the divine through depictions of stories from various mythologies. Vaulted ceilings and church alter pieces were testaments to the Judeo-Christian god, and statues abound for the Roman deities and various pagan religions. Mary Ann Currier’s drawings are testament to the gentle, humanist spirituality of modern society.
This Feature article was written by Keith Waits.
In addition to his work at the LVA, Keith is also the Managing Editor of a website, www.Arts-Louisville.com, which covers local visual arts, theatre, and music in Louisville.