Behind the Book: Mary Carroll Nelson, A Portrait of a Barnard College ’50 Fine Arts Alumna

I’m pleased to mark the beginning of a new blog post series on the historical background of Before the Flood, and we’re starting off with Lydia’s artistic background at Barnard College, one of the Seven Sisters colleges of the Northeast.

Someone asked me if Lydia is based upon a real historical figure, and the answer is no. Lydia is a completely a fictional character that is my brainchild, yet I draw influences from historical figures and real people of the time.  I researched the lives of Barnard College women through archives of the Barnard College Bulletin, then a weekly student newspaper, and the Barnard Mortarboard, the college yearbook. I then poured over the work and biographies of mid-century female artists to help sculpt the portrait of a young artist at the beginning of her career.

Lydia entered university in a time when a college education a privilege and not as accessible as we know of it today. The women of her class knew they were daughters of fortune. From Convocation in 1946 with Dean Helen Gildersleeve (a powerhouse and great advocate for the international exchange of ideas) to their Commencement in 1950 with Dean Millicent Carey McIntosh, these women were “expected to be adults, and expected to change the world.” They knew from their first days at Barnard that they  had a great responsibility to use their knowledge and background to impact not just themselves, but their communities and the world around them. It emboldened them to lead lives that distinguished between artifice and reality. (6). It’s these qualities that will mold Lydie for the rest of her life.

Getting to know these ladies through research and their biographies led me to want to discover what achievements they made, especially Lydia’s fine arts sisters at Barnard. This led me to Mary Carroll Nelson, one of the surviving class members of the Class of 1950. Call it intuition or fate or what have you, but it drew me to her.  Recently after viewing some of her artwork at Weyrich Gallery in her adopted home of Albuquerque, New Mexico of many years, I contacted Mary and that led to a lovely correspondence that I’m privileged to share.  More about my visit to Weyrich later in this post.

Just who is Mary Carroll Nelson, how do you put such a life into words? Her accomplishments are many. She’s a celebrated Marquis Who’s Who Lifetime Achiever. She’s been listed in Who’s Who of America, Who’s Who of the West, and Who’s Who of American Women. She’s also the founder of the Society of Layerists in Multi-Media  (http://www.slmm.org)  and a respected artist, panelist, teacher, and author.

But who was Mary in college, and how did Barnard impact her world as an artist and a person?  Well, she was someone I definitely wanted to know. She stayed up late to study and took the bottom bunk in her dorm room so her roommate could to go to bed early. She noted that campus was rather ugly at the time and her recollections of her dorm Brooks Hall,  “when I arrived to move into Brooks Hall the rooms were truly ugly.  A double-decker bed bought as war surplus from the Navy was the first thing I saw.  A little basin, a pair of low dressers, and a middle room with desks for four, and a third room where two juniors were living.  I and my roommate were their wards for the first year.  In a while, we had made the room our own, more personal and with some color here and there. (1)”

She also wrote in her correspondence that she looks back on Barnard with gratitude. Her “fine arts education there has nourished my lifelong commitment to art, as student, collector, admirer, and artist.  It is how I view history.  The rest of the required curriculum was widely dispersed and provided a background for understanding the origins of things, ideas, places, and events.”

Her career piqued my interest because like Lydie,  their paths post graduation are similar: both became elementary school teachers and art teachers and both married within the same year they graduated from Barnard.

Born in Bryan, Texas, to James Vincent and Mary Elizabeth Carroll, Mary Carroll Nelson married Edwin Blakely Nelson, a West Point graduate and physicist in 1950, the same year she earned a BA in Fine Arts from Barnard College. Her mother was also an alumna of Barnard, class of 1923. She raised two children before returning to earn her M.A. in art education  at the University of New Mexico in 1963, and further education in 1969- 1970. Her accomplishments as a panelist, juror, co-ordinator, author and artists are lengthy. For a more detailed catalogue of her achievements, please visit  Marquis Top Artists Who’s Who and Mary’s website.

What drew me to her was her views on originality and style. On originality, Mary Carroll Nelson states that:  “The actual breakthrough in the privacy of the studio, when one dares to apply paint in a new manner, is a solitary thrill, dependent upon no one else.”  One of Lydie’s opening statements in Before The Flood as she stands in her studio, her most sacred space, Lydie transforms from a place of doubt and fear into wholeness.  It’s a place where she comes back from beyond the brink back to herself.

Lydie’s background of abuse from her uncle, and the trauma she witnessed and experienced, art releases the anguish she feels to form her own style.  Although Lydie’s art evolves throughout the series, she uses the power of visuals to transform those negative images in her mind into empowering, beautiful things that touch and impact lives long after we’ve finished the last stroke.  To quote Mary, “every artist who evolves a style does so from illusive elements that inhabit his or her visual storehouse.”

I wish I could have discovered Mary’s life and work a lot earlier, but I was ecstatic to get to opportunity recently to see her work in person, and while she’s still with us. As Mary noted in her one of her emails her class was a fine group and is shrinking by the year. With her permission, I’m sharing a few of my photographs of her work I took from my visit a short time ago.

If you get the chance to visit with Gary Tibbetts, you’re in for a real treat. He’s a wonderful fountain of knowledge, and a great guy. You will stay there a while, and you will love it.  I wanted several of Mary’s pieces, and I left with her book on Crop Circles, something she has researched for over fifteen years. Many of her books on art are available for purchase online on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Mary-Carroll-Nelson/e/B001K8F84Y

 

Some of Mary’s work. I apologize that I’m not the best photographer:

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Crop Circle. This was one of my favorites.
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One of Mary’s miniature paintings.

 

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One of her layered works. This iridescent piece changes colors with different angles.

 

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The author with a grouping of Mary’s layered pieces and her miniature.

 

For more on Mary’s pieces at Weyrich Gallery,  visit http://weyrichgallery.com or if you’re in the Albuquerque area, stop by at 2935-D Louisiana NE.

Next up on Behind the Book, it’s Henry’s turn I go Behind the Book to share the physicians that mentored Henry at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons.

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