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Monte Rio artist Mary Silverwood, 79, has died

Tuesday, December 20th, 2011 | Posted by

Mary Silverwood

Mary Silverwood, one of America’s premier painters in oil pastels, passed away in her sleep in a northern New Mexico nursing room at 4:30 a.m. Dec. 15, after developing complications caused by a respiratory infection. She was 79.

“As is the case of many people her age, she suffered from a number of medical problems, most of which were not life threatening, but contributed to her loss of strength, her discomfort and her eventual loss of mobility,” said her neighbor Reynold Conger.

Conger said Silverwood wanted no funeral or formal memorial service.  Her body will be cremated, and her ashes will be scattered on the friend’s property in California.  In lieu of a memorial service, it is likely that the art community in Santa Fe will gather together to talk art and celebrate her art.

Canyon de Chelly

Silverwood lived in Monte Rio before moving to Belen, New Mexico, in 2000.

Born into a poor family in 1933, she grew up in Ft. Worth, Texas, one of four children of a domineering Southern Baptist mother. She drew constantly as a young girl and in high school studied art and visited museums.

Silverwood said in an earlier interview that she was sure of her direction and how she wanted to spend her days. “I love to be alone with the landscape, think about it and paint it,” she said. “I love getting lost in my work. A piece gets hold of me, and I can’t leave it, so I keep working as it is getting darker and darker outside, until my nose is pressed against the paper.”

Sonoma County

Silverwood confessed that she was pathologically shy, and criticism about her work eroded her confidence. Blocked and depressed, she stopped painting for 15 years. Instead pursuing her teaching certificate and working with special education students,  she said, “I was the one who needed some help.”

She moved to Berkeley in 1962 after graduating with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Studio Art from the University of Texas. She taught in public and private schools and traveled extensively in Europe, Mexico and Central America, intending to enroll at the University of California but unable to afford the tuition. She expressed a certain apprehension about the new and less disciplined world she encountered at Berkeley in the 1960s.

“I was this conservative person from Texas, and I was in culture shock,” she said. “In terms of art, I was a modest regionalist painter amid abstract expressionism.”

For a creative outlet she turned to weaving, spinning and sewing. In 1980, trying to be practical, she signed up for accounting classes at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, but quickly found that accounting held no interest for her. Instead she began  to find reasons to attend painting classes. Her great love of art captured her spirit, and she experienced a creative rebirth. To her great satisfaction,  she found she could still paint and draw. Experimenting with pastels, she discovered an appealing simplicity. There were no brushes to wash or canvases to stretch. The experience of holding color sticks in her hand and rubbing color into the paper with her fingers was eminently satisfying.

Desert Greens

Soon Silverwood rekindled  the career she had given up, painting  with fervor and confidence,  and immersing herself in her art while working as a substitute teacher. During that period, she recalled shoving her paintings under her bed because she wanted to work on getting over her “fear of failure.”

“I had to teach myself that unless you fail, you aren’t learning anything or trying anything new. I wanted room to grow.”

Entering local art shows in 1988, she found people were actually buying her work and calling for more. Originally working on figurative pastels, she then focused on landscapes, turning out work that pulsed and reverberated with vibrant and vivid colors. Using black rag paper on which to paint, she blended fields of supernaturally rich color which gave incredible energy to her easily recognizable pieces.

Senator Mike Thompson, who counts Silverwood’s work as part of his treasured art collection, said, “She sees most of the events of her life simply as interruptions to her need to put color on paper. She is a studio artist, first using a camera to capture her images. She returns to her studio to transform and compose the photos into images of brilliant color and composition.”

Her work also hangs in Kaiser Hospital and VNA/Hospice in Santa Rosa, but the bulk of it is under the care of the Joyce Robbins gallery in Santa Fe. Robbins was named as the executor of her will.


Silverwood lived for several years in Monte Rio,  where meadows still exist and steep hills wind down toward the nearby Russian River  some five miles from the Pacific, with her Boston terriers Betsy and Polly.  Of her work,  she said, “I have always been acutely aware of the environment in which I live and work. In my paintings, I deal with the earth, sky and water. Color and shape are my tools.”

She often said she “disdained people who bought her painting because it matched their sofa.”

One of her Monte Rio neighbors, Joy Trimboli,  spoke of her generosity, disclosing that when she had difficulties paying a lawyer, Silverwood gave her two paintings which she traded to offset the lawyer’s fees.

Silverwood made several trips to New Mexico and Arizona, photographing landscapes and drawing inspiration and painting  from her photos. “Parts of New Mexico are so high, and the air tends to be so pure that I think color is intensified, especially in the mountains,” she said. “For me color has become the most important thing in my paintings.”

Blue Skies

She spoke  of someday moving to the Land of Enchantment, and when her landlady almost doubled the rent on her two-story house, Silverwood moved there in August 2000, finding a reasonably priced house in Belen, south of Albuquerque.

  • Dave Edmonds

    Mary was a wonderful person, bright, warm, and genuine. A rag-tag group of us (I was the local sheriff) had coffee together in the 90’s on Sunday mornings out a gold coast in Duncans mills for a few years..

    I always enjoyed her mind and heart–she spoke them both well. But it was months into our friendship, when she told me that she had written a letter to the (press demo) editor over something that I got her riled up about, that I learned she was the “famous” Mary Silverwood.

    Painting was only one of her life talents–maybe a lesser one! God Bless you Mary.

    • Stephen Gross

      Thanks for getting in touch. My wife and I lived around the corner from her in Rien’s Beach, we were good friends and visited her after she moved to N.M. Do you mind sharing what it was that she got riled up about? I’d love to know.

  • Carin Johnson-Kragler

    Be at peace beautiful soul

    • Stephen Gross

      Thanks so much for your sweet sentiments. She was truly a great lady in so many ways.

  • sue falvey

    RIP Mary Silverwood. Boy could she paint . My house is filled with framed posters of hers. She was a good freind of a friend & a very generous soul.

    • Stephen Gross

      Thank you for your comment. Indeed she was. There are many of us who were touched by her spirit and talent and will miss her. I have ywo original landscapes and she did a gorgeous pastel of my Standard Poodle, Vinny, when he was 12 weeks old – one of my proudest possessions. I feel honored to have been her friend.

      • http://none Nancy Jansen Kennedy

        Stephen, I would like to introduce myself. I just visited Sedona for a week, and by accident became acquainted with Mary Silverwood’s work. I am now on a passionate mission to find and buy one of her original landscapes, and I have discovered that it is rather difficult to find any available. If you are, by chance, interested in selling one of your two landscapes, would you please let me know? My email is included here – njkennedy@comcast.net Thank you!

  • Mary Robertson

    Mary was so good I remain jealous of almost every single thing she painted. And then she actually got to live in New Mexico! She said she became a member of “Old Broads in the Desert.” She will be missed.

    • Stephen Gross

      Hi and thanks for getting in touch.I’ve seen your work and you needn’t be jealous of anyone. You and Frank are remarkably talented and have, in positive ways, touched many lives.

  • Kerry Messer

    I first met Mary when I was a young girl. My cousin attended Mary’s school in the bus and my siblings and I were jealous. The day I met Mary she had set up a boxing ring and my brother joined in a ‘boxing’ match with my cousin. My next memory of Mary I was in my twenties and when I mentioned how much I loved a particular piece of Mary’s Art that my aunt had at her house, Mary gave me an artist’s proof of it (the mouth of the Russian River). I have it show-cased in my house today as well as many other framed posters of her work. A couple years ago my husband fulfilled a long-time wish to own a Mary Silverwood original when he bought me a stunning piece with two eggplants for my birthday. Now I’m 52 and have very fond memories of visiting Mary in Belen after she moved there, and watching her work in the morning hours at her studio in the garage. Watching her eyes twinkle when she talked about a particular color was magical — she was like a little kid in a candy store with her colors. I know this will sound silly but on one of my last visits to see Mary a few years back she made a special meal for me (I have food allergies) and sent the leftovers with me to eat on the plane ride home. She gave me one of her spoons to take with me as well. I call it my Mary Silverwood spoon and to me it represents the generosity that others have written about. I wrote an essay called Mary Silverwood’s Spoon and sent it to her later. I think she liked it :) I am a writer and Mary always took time to encourage my creative interests. I will miss her but also feel her spirit with me through her art on my walls.

  • Jeanette Brantley

    I knew Mary back when her last name began with a “J” and she raised beautiful wolves. This was decades ago when she still painted in oils and acrylics.

    For several months I had been trying to find Mary to discuss one of the paintings she had done for my father back in the late 70s, but I didn’t know her last name! Finally, a younger brother told me he thought my older brother knew it, and he did!

    I began my search to find her and finally found the gallery she was listed with in New Mexico. So tonight, Stephen, what a surprise I got when I got onto the internet to finally make contact with Mary and found your beautiful story about her life instead… Missed her by that much…

  • Tammy Fitch

    One of my favorite possesions is a framed poster my father-in-law gave us as a house warming gift over 10 years ago. I wanted to find out more about her art and was sad to see she had passed. What beauty she left behind!

    • Stephen Gross

      Thanks for sharing that. Was it a Sonoma county landscape? After she moved to N.M. she did N.M landscapes and architecture. She was a truly fascinating person, great storyteller, and lived around the corner from us, so we got to know her rather well.

  • William Foley

    Mary did one piece in her life with a yellow sky. When we bought it in 1998 or so she was quick to point out that it had been an experiment and that we were not obligated to like it. Like it??! We loved it! In our brief but wonderful relationship with her during her time at Monte Rio, Mary was kind, warm, funny, self-deprecating, and wise. It was a brief encounter with an eternal, sensitive spirit by whose departure we are diminished.

    • Stephen Gross

      Thanks for getting in touch and sharing that. The colors she used changed radically after she moved to New Mexico – she had a gift for capturing the inner spirit of whatever she was replicating. My favorite Silverwood is a portrait she did of my standard poodle when he was 12 weeks old. She was truly a great lady in many ways and there are many of us who miss her.

  • http://none Nancy Jansen Kennedy

    October 2013 — I just visited Sedona for a week, and by accident became acquainted with Mary Silverwood’s work. I am so sad to hear that she passed on a couple years ago – I would have dearly loved to know her. I am now on a passionate mission to find and buy one of her original landscapes, and I have discovered that it is rather difficult to find any available. If any of you know of, by chance, any original landscapes that may be for sale, would you please let me know? My email is included here – njkennedy@comcast.net Thank you!

  • St Johnny

    We own two of Mary Silverwood’s N M landscape pieces and we just love them. She has such a unique technic and her field of depth is so well supported by color choices in every piece. Good art is timeless. Thx RIP M.S.

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