Monte Rio artist Mary Silverwood, 79, has died
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.