MARY, Oil on Linen, 24 x 36, Prints available see below
Chapter 3: Mary
My studio was a pre-civil war log cabin that I had found and restored; it set well back in the woods of what was then rural Cobb County. Toward evening, about the time I wash my brushes, my friends and neighbors would begin to drift by. Six or eight of us would visit for a little while before heading off towards home and supper. It was a daily ritual we all enjoyed. It was the late summer of 1971 and I was working on a painting called Mary.
My wife and I had delivered a group of paintings to a gallery in Columbia, South Carolina. A gentleman who worked at the gallery told me that he had just bought a piece of land near Clinton, South Carolina, and he was interested in a painting of the old house that was on the property. We found the house on country road and turned into the rutted red clay driveway. The big brown house stood in the middle of a classic Southern sand yard. It was tall and square, and the rusty tin roof rose in equal triangles to a point at the top. It had a porch across the front under a lean-to roof. It had never been painted. It stood on tall supports of stacked rocks, and you could see right under the house. The whole house was weathered to a uniform deep tobacco brown. The house reeked of rural poverty. It was possibly the ugliest house I have ever seen.
I got out of the car and stretched. While my wife read and dozed I took my sketch book and walked slowly around the house to see if I could salvage anything from the excursion. The front door gaped open a few inches. There was an elaborate dentil molding above the dirty half pane, and children’s finger prints streaked the lower half of the glass. The doorknob drooped at an angle from its hasp, and there was an arc of gouges made in the porch floor by the sagging screen door that stood open against the wall. Dried leaves were blown into the corner of the porch. I quickly sketched and moved on. I drew the drunken mailbox beside the rutted drive and the storm cellar dug deep into the side of the red clay embankment. I made drawings of a tattered pink curtain blown outside the open kitchen window. Finally I drew the back door that opened from the kitchen down three treacherous board steps to the yard. The screen door was extraordinary. The screen bulged in and it bulged out and it was pulled loose from the frame. There were cuts, slashes, and holes, and there were patches and holes in the patches. The screen was dirty, stained, and rusty. The hinges that supported the door were two squares of tread cut from an old tire and nailed to the door frame. Under the door behind the steps, drooping chicken wire echoed the sags and tears of the screen door. Through the tattered screen I could see the back door with its filthy cracked glass and yellowed tape to protect little fingers. A painting began to form in my mind.
As the light began to fade I ripped eight weathered boards from the north side of the old house and inserted them through the passenger window into the floor board of our VW Bug. My long suffering wife climbed across the gear shift and floor hump for the uncomfortable and winding one hundred and fifty mile trip home.
The next morning I tacked the salvaged planks in order to the wall of my log cabin studio. I took concrete blocks and boards and made steps in front of the boards. Finally, using my sketches and setup, over the next couple of weeks I painted the picture I had envisioned in my mind. However, something bothered me. Now, a painting is a complete thought; like a poem, you can’t just add something or take something out; you risk destroying what you have already done with no guarantee it will be any better. When a painting speaks to me it does so physically; sort of a tingle in the back of the neck if things aren’t right. Every time I would look at the painting I could literally feel the painting telling me it needed something, but what? The solution had to be a figure sitting on the steps. I asked two of our friends to pose for me and spent a day drawing each of them. One had a lean hungry look and long toes that hung over the worn steps. I chose her and painted her into the picture wearing my wife’s old faded nightgown.
My friend Bob had a woodworking shop, and we had built frames together for years. I took the boards down from the wall, and we built a frame for the new painting out of the very boards in the painting. A few evenings later while we were standing around admiring our handiwork Bob said, “There is going to be an art show on the square in Marietta next weekend; why don’t you show the painting?” I said, “Sure, I’ll take this painting and put $1500.00 on it and show it in a sidewalk show.” The whole idea was ludicrous. By this time I had shown in Grand Central Gallery in New York City for five years. I had had two one man shows at the Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee, two one man shows in Texas, I had just had a show at DeKalb College, and I was in the middle of what turned out to be a sell-out show of thirty paintings at my gallery in South Carolina. I had never shown at home. The price of $1500.00 was just as ridiculous. The most I had ever gotten for one of my paintings was $600.00. My paintings sold in the $100.00 to $350.00 price range and occasionally one made $400.00. I didn’t know it at the time but my paintings were seriously underpriced; all that was about to change. A few days later my friend said, “The show on the square is tomorrow; you ought to show the painting.” I said “Alright, I’ll call, but it is probably too late to get in.” I called the morning of the show. She said, “We’d be delighted to have you.”
When we arrived at the square everyone else had already set up, and I unloaded my paintings at the southwestern entrance to the park in the only spot that wasn’t taken. I propped the paintings against a park bench and went back to the car to get my easels. By the time I returned a crowd had completely surrounded my paintings. My wife gave me a wild-eyed look and said quietly, “Bobby, I think you had better go home and get some more paintings.”
When I came back the crowd had grown. With a painting under each arm and one in each hand I elbowed my way through and tried to answer questions and set up the paintings at the same time. I started writing titles and prices and taping them to the frames. When I got to my new painting it did not yet have a name. All I could think of was my models name; I wrote MARY on the card. Under it I wrote $1500.00.
For two days the crowd did not diminish. Late the second day I was on one knee on the ground writing something when a hand holding a business card descended into my line of sight and I heard a voice say, “I’m Tillman Nowlin, I’ll take ole’ Mary.” I looked up; “I’m on my motorcycle; could you deliver her for me?” Tillman Nowlin was the biggest real estate developer in the area. His signposts with their distinctive roofs were all over the county. Everybody knew him. The next morning I delivered Mary to his office. Tillman, an intuitive promoter, placed the painting in the window of his real estate office and kept a light on the picture all night so people could admire his painting. Months later, late at night my wife and I would drive past his office and see people looking in the window.
I have painted probably a thousand paintings during the 39 years since I painted Mary, but she still remains my most popular painting. Mary is now in the collection of Dr. Paul Payne of Marietta.
Prints of "Mary" are available for $50 each (shipping included). For inquiries, please fill out the information below, and the artist will contact you shortly.