BRAVO! Mary Nelson

Mary Nelson the fourth of five children was born at St. Mary’s Hospital in Racine in 1961. She grew up in West Racine on Kinzie Avenue and has been a lifelong resident. She was married for 24 years and has a 22-year-old daughter Kaitlyn.

Mary’s path to becoming an artist is a bit atypical. She was creative as a child and wanted to be an artist, but her parents said, “No,” so after graduating from Park High School she went to the University of Wisconsin-Parkside to study business. Those were the days when you’d likely see her walking around with the Wall Street Journal tucked under her arm. After two years Mary realized this major wasn’t a good fit. Business required a science and Mary took a human structure and body class that led her to nursing at Gateway Technical College where she graduated in 1987. Her creativity was always active and while she worked as an oncology nurse at the cancer center in Racine she volunteered her design talents to work with the Masonic Temple and The Cup of Hope, where she did merchandising. At the hospital, she was the go-to girl for all holiday decorating. 

After 27 years as an oncology nurse, Mary was forced to take a medical retirement. An MRI revealed brain lesions caused by migraine headaches. She’s had diagnoses of MS, Fibromyalgia, or stroke (right sided weakness) depending on which doctor she was seeing. Added to all the health issues, within a three-month period in 2013, Mary’s father died, she divorced, and she moved from her family home. Even though most people looking at Mary today wouldn’t suspect there is anything wrong she concedes there are many deficits. However, she credits her health history and medical retirement as the gateway to her art.

It all started when Dina Walker, a fellow church member, invited Mary for coffee and said that she should come to Geezers. The Geezer group was so welcoming Mary went to the Wednesday morning sessions. She was experimenting with colored pencils in an attempt to get the tremors in her right hand under control. She wasn’t sketching yet at this point. She continued going to Geezers and then started sketching with the colored pencils using a circular motion (influenced by the tremors) which gave her colored pencil pieces the look of watercolor. Lance Raichert and Thom Peterson took note of what Mary was doing and encouraged her to go bigger, which astonished her.  And, they encouraged her to exhibit her work. Mary said, “Exhibit, what? I’m just a nurse who colors!” She entered Anderson’s fall exhibit and her work was accepted and that’s when things started to flow. Mary found support in Chet Griffith at Art Works, Lemon Street Gallery, Monne Haug and Terry Evan’s Muses of Mirth, a group of artists from Racine and Kenosha,

and others who mentored her. She showed her pastels at Fusion in Kenosha. Mary heard about the Racine Art Guild through the Geezer group and she worked with Brenda Thomas on hospitality and was on the board until her health prohibited her from continuing. 

Mary’s earliest art memory is of her grandma Sorenson taking her on her lap and saying, “I’m going to teach you how to draw.” Later in grade school a teacher asked her if she had taken her project home and copied it. She had not.  In junior high and high school Mary took art classes but it wasn’t until after her medical retirement that she discovered her gift. Mary said that had it not been for her medical issues she would never have found her art or all the wonderful art friends and mentors she has come to know. These are the people along with her family who inspire her.  Brain lesions are a gift according to Mary!

Mary is happiest in her art when she can translate the emotion she feels, usually from a face, to a blank piece of paper with graphite pencils in such a way that viewers sense the emotion. A challenge for Mary is learning drawing techniques. She’s had no classical training and is more an intuitive artist. Because her hand tremor continues she is unable to draw smooth, straight lines, so she has developed her own unique technique using uneven lines. She creates a sort of rhythm that produces beautiful, extremely sensitive portrayals of the faces she loves. If Mary had one wish her art fairy could grant she would like to work larger. She thinks it would be a nice challenge. Mary’s greatest achievement thus far is not in the art she makes, the shows she’s been in, or the sales she’s had, but rather it’s in the friends and mentors she’s come to know through her art. She calls this her “Art Community.”

Mary plans to continue her art-making and her learning. She’d like to work with more color, use pastels, and work on canvas. She is thankful for all the kind, sharing artists and mentors she’s met through her wonderful art journey.