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In Her Own Words:

"I'm terribly absorbed in the problem of bringing form into an absolutely pure essence by means of color, so  the form almost seems to vanish, so I have almost pure color. Color is the most fleeting element in nature.   I want to seize it." The  Evening Star, Washington D.C., 02/10/1960


The painter and educator Mary C. Rogers was born in 1911 to Tom and Margaret Rogers, Irish immigrants who lived in South Boston.  She was the first of five children in that working class family.  The third child, Mary’s younger sister Gertrude, was my mother.  I never prepared myself to be an eventual biographer of my aunt Mary, so this sketch of her life is based on information I gained from years of having her in my life and conversations with family members since her death in 1974. It’s important to keep in mind some of the powerful currents in the stream of American life during her formative years.  Her youth saw a number of truly revolutionary developments.  There was the transformation of daily life brought about by electricity; the shrinking of distance brought about by automobiles and airplanes; the upheaval in communications enabled by telephone and radio and film; the hard-won political empowerment of American women achieved through the passage of the 19th Amendment; the massive shifts in international political power and status, including the success of the Russian Revolution, the demise of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, and the rise of the U. S. as an international power.  The world of the arts saw similarly revolutionary changes during the first decades of the 20th century, including the rise of abstract painting and sculpture, the advent of conceptual art, the birth of jazz and of atonal music, the coming of age of film, the modern advances in forms of fiction, and many other major developments. It was, in short, a uniquely dynamic time of exciting (and, for some, frightening) ferment and change.  There was for many people born early in the 20th century a palpable sense of progress, and of the possibility of a different, brighter, freer future.  A young woman born to immigrant parents in the U. S. in 1911 might well think of herself—more so than a woman born 50 or 100 years earlier—as a person of independent creative talents, with the possibility of having a voice that could be heard and could contribute to the promising cultural developments of the new century.  Consider also that Mary Rogers grew up in the heart of Boston, which was, in those years, a city of far greater prestige and wider influence—political, intellectual, artistic—than it has become in more recent times.  Boston was not only as the “Hub” of New England, but America’s premier educational center, with its many great universities, libraries, teaching hospitals, and research centers.  It also had a history of cultivating progressive ideas such as transcendentalism, abolitionism, and public secondary education.  The literary tradition of Boston included Alcott, Longfellow, Emerson, Thoreau, James, and numerous other familiar authors.  By the 1920’s, The Boston Symphony Orchestra was internationally acclaimed.  Talented, ambitious, artistically-minded people who grew up in Boston felt encouraged and nurtured to a greater extent than like-minded people from many other parts of the country.  Mary Rogers was deeply and passionately committed to drawing and painting from an early age.  She received no particular encouragement or training from her austere and traditional family or from her early schooling.  She was not recognized as a prodigious talent and then fast-tracked to a career in art with private lessons, specialized art schools, and access to gallery showings in the way a similarly gifted young boy from a Brahmin family might have been.  But, being born into the milieu of Boston, U. S. A., in 1911, neither was developing a career in art entirely beyond the realm of imagination and possibility.  And one of the cultural institutions of her city, the Boston Museum of Fine Art, was only a half-hour walk from her home.  So she sketched and drew and experimented with water colors, charcoals, and, when she could afford them, oils, throughout her youth.  She visited the museum, and imagined a future path for herself unlike the one her parents imagined for her. Mary Rogers she was a bright, attractive, vivacious young woman who came of age in the Roaring Twenties.  It was a decade of devil-may-care self-indulgence.  Think Gatsby.  There was a reckless quality to the zeitgeist.  At the end of that decade she found herself, not long after finishing high school, married to a gentleman named Tom Conlon.  Soon there were two daughters, Dorothy (1931) and Virginia (1933).  For Mary Rogers Conlon, the 1930’s were a time primarily for motherhood, and the artistic dream continued to be for the most part deferred.  Once her daughters were in school she renewed her commitment to painting and drawing, and started to accumulate a substantial portfolio of work. By the early 1940’s economic conditions in the US were improving, and Mary was able to enroll her two daughters in a Vermont boarding school.  Mary could now, at age 29, fully indulge her passion for creating visual art, for the first time in her life.  She had separated from her husband and found a studio apartment on Commonwealth Avenue in the Back Bay section of Boston, just a few blocks from the Boston Common.  This section of town was, and still is, the artistic center of the city.  The compact neighborhood (roughly a half square mile) includes the Newbury Street art galleries, the Boston Public Library, the Stuart Street theater district, the Charles River Esplanade (where the Boston Pops Orchestra held free concerts every summer), the Copley Square night clubs, and numerous cozy cafés.   Two substantial universities (B. U., where her daughters eventually went to college, and Northeastern, where she later mounted a solo show) and her lodestone, The Boston Museum of Fine Art, were within a couple of miles.  Her first step was to enroll in the Massachusetts College of Art.  This school was the first in the nation to offer a degree, a BS in Art Education.  Mary was more interested at that time in the studio side than in the pedagogical side of the program, so she was accepted, based on the strength of her portfolio, into the college’s certificate program in the fall of 1940, which she completed in 1944.  She continued her studies the following year at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, where she matriculated for three years (1945-47).  In addition to drawing classes at this school she also took courses in anatomy and graphics, which would turn out to be commercially useful later in her life. By the later 1940’s she had begun to widen her circle of contacts and actively seek opportunities to show her work.  And her work was evolving in one of the significant new directions in 20th century, Abstract Expressionism.  She travelled regularly to Provincetown, where young artists, including Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler, Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, and others, would congregate in the summers.  The older German artist and teacher Hans Hofmann, who had emigrated to the US in 1932 at the age of 52, had established a school in New York with a summer program held in Provincetown.  Mary enrolled in the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Art in 1951 and studied painting and drawing with him in both New York and Provincetown for eight years.  Hofmann described Mary as “a very outstanding student,” and praised her use of space and color.  During the 1950’s Mary’s work began to gain some recognition both in her home town of Boston and also in New York and, on occasion, farther afield.  She became a perennial exhibitor at the Boston Arts Festival, a summer event in the Boston Commons, beginning in 1954.  Her first solo show opened on Newbury Street in Boston in 1957; for the next decade she had solo and group shows at both private galleries and university museums in New York, Boston, and Washington DC, virtually every year, some of which were reviewed favorably in respected newspapers such as the Boston Globe and the Washington Post.  While she was able to sell many of her paintings, she could not make a living strictly from sales.  So she had two art-related jobs that helped pay the bills.  One was teaching.  She worked at both Chamberlayne Junior College and at the New England School of Art for a number of years in the 1960’s.  The other, primary job was doing women’s fashion drawings, which clothing retailers used for their newspaper advertising.  These small drawings were of course in a figurative and realistic style, and used pen and ink.  They were quite the opposite of her mature work in water colors, charcoals, and, especially, oils, which are characterized by abstraction, dazzlingly bold colors, and ambitious scale.  But she was the “very outstanding student” Hofmann remarked upon, and she put her formal training to good, remunerative use in these highly professional, and ultimately anonymous, commercial drawings.  I was born in 1949 in Newton, Massachusetts.  My earliest memories of my aunt Mary date from about 1954, and I saw her frequently up until the time when I went away to college in 1966.  The woman I remember was a dynamo.  When she showed up to visit, often rather late, almost always dressed in all black accented with a colorful scarf, she was animated and voluble and very much the center of attention.  She was never without her sketch pad, and, often, a set of watercolors and charcoals and good quality paper.  She tried, again and again, undaunted by the evident lack of success, to teach me how to draw and paint.  When she came over for dinner—Thanksgiving, for example—I remember her declaring, “I’ll do the dishes!”  My mother would demur, “No, I can handle it.”  Mary would insist: “No, Gertrude, I’ll do the dishes!”  Even as a young child I wondered about this: was she making a show of it? Visits to her place on Commonwealth Ave. were unlike visits to any other family member.  It was a large studio with a tiny kitchen and bathroom on the side.  The main room was quite large, large enough to be turned into a one bedroom had the owner desired, with a high ceiling and windows on three sides.  It had the feel of a workshop: over here finished paintings stacked up in several groups, over there by the big west window two or three easels with works in progress, under the north window a pile of raw, unstretched canvases.  Palettes stained with oils everywhere, and always the odor of turpentine.  A couch (where she slept) and one reading chair—she would have to bring the two kitchen chairs in to make room for all of us to sit.  Against one interior wall was a well-worn upright piano.  The kitchenette was, honestly, a mess (maybe that’s why my mother would demur at Mary’s offer to do the dishes—did she even know how?).  An active, baseball-crazed young boy was not thrilled by these visits, not yet at least: what was there to do here besides sit and listen to adults talk?  She didn’t even have a TV! But while not thrilled, I was fascinated.  There was something kind of exciting about the downtown location, with a lively cast of characters on the street and neighbors in the building whose voices and footsteps you could hear; this was far different from, and more interesting than, my rather bucolic suburban home.  And there was a sense of reckless abandon in her lifestyle.  She seemed to be unburdened by obligations, which irked my parents.  When Mary had sent her daughters away to school and gotten her first studio apartment, there really wasn’t room for them when they came home for holidays and vacations, and my parents, who were both physicians and had a whole house in Roxbury, and later Newton, always kept space for them.  I thought this arrangement was great: these lively older cousins were fun to have around!  My mother was on the one hand willing and able to share her good fortune with her bright and engaging young nieces, but was also not happy to have the extra responsibility (she had a demanding job and two children of her own) every Christmas and some summers as well.  The resentment, which I really didn’t understand until much later, festered. After a time I became fascinated also by other aspects of my aunt.  One was, obviously, the paintings themselves, with which I have been surrounded nearly my whole life.  They were in nearly every room, and still are decades later, and they simply don’t get old.  Some are purely abstract, others are more like impressionism taken to the next level.  Lots of bright color, thoughtful compositions.  There is a sense of joy, exuberance really, as if she were delighted to see the world the way she saw it and even happier with the materials and process of rendering her vision on canvas and paper.  And then there was the piano.  I had heard her talk about her love of music, and I knew that she was taking piano lessons, but it wasn’t until a visit to her place in the early 1960’s that I heard her play.  The experience taught me a lot about who she was.  The piece, which I’m afraid I don’t specifically remember, was a challenging one from the Romantic era, probably Chopin.  While I hadn’t begun my own study of music, I did have a good ear, and I could tell that the piece was a bit over her head, at least at the tempo she chose.  But the passion in the music came through her rendition, even with the occasional infelicities, loud and clear.  I could sense her total commitment to the music, and could feel the reckless abandon with which she engaged with it.  It made me understand her visual art better: passion, and total commitment.  But in the realm of visual art, where she had trained for much longer, I didn’t have to tune out any infelicities. Moreover, there was the content of that “adult talk,” which had bored me as a little boy, but which I found increasingly engaging as I got older.  She brought that same passion and commitment to her political opinions.  What I remember was a strong expression of indignation at the treatment of African Americans.  She was appalled at legal segregation in the South and de facto segregation in the North.  She was frustrated by how difficult it was for her to be taken seriously as a woman in the art world, and proud of how her little sister had persevered, had gained entry to medical school, and established a meaningful career.  She was highly critical of US military involvement around the world.  I was impressed and perhaps even inspired by the idealistic positions she took and by the strength of her convictions.  I drifted out of her life when I left Boston, became preoccupied with my studies and with my own young family.  I was quite surprised, and very sad, when I got a phone call from my mother in early 1974 saying that she had died.  Mary was certainly the most interesting of my aunts and uncles, the one who courageously defied convention in so many ways, who lived her passions, who made glorious and beautiful art, who embodied the spirit of freedom and creativity.  As my own life has progressed, and I left behind my academic career as an English Professor to follow my own passion for the improvised American music we call jazz (I have been a performer and educator for 40 years now, in spite of my very late start), I have come to realize that she was a kind of role model.  I hope more of her beautiful and joyful work can find its way into homes and museums, and that the essence of this intrepid spirit, embodied in that work, can enrich other lives as it has mine. Dan Greenblatt Seattle, Washington October 2022

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