Missionary Mary Proctor overcame paralysis and painful loss on her way to becoming a beloved and renowned folk artist.
By J.A. Jones, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG – Missionary Mary Proctor’s paintings, sculptures and cutouts are imbued with a powerful, almost rhythmic energy.
She works with signature images: women, mostly in brown tones but some in peachy shades, with their heads thrown back as their arms lift to the sky. Chickens and roosters, flowers, music men and musical instruments, square houses with triangle roofs often appear in her landscapes.
Her beloved grandmother’s messages are painted into much of her work, along with Biblical ideas and words such as “love,” “joy,” “hope,” and her uplifting and empowering language is painted across her works in a large, playful scrawl.
An endless collection of objects find their way into her visually lively pieces: broken vases, bits of jewelry, old photos, beads, balls, and baubles of varying sizes and hues, record albums and playing cards, even miniature musical instruments.
Other creations sport buttons in vibrant colors, baby dolls or action figures, a series of old S & H Green Stamps. She even manages to embed golf clubs and golf balls, old spoons and forks, and old shoes in her paintings.
Her chosen canvases are just as eclectic – her well-loved abandoned doors, as well as chairs, bed frames, hub caps, tin, and plywood.
Proctor has spent more than twenty-years creating thousands of magical paintings and 3-D art pieces – but when she first started, she didn’t even know she was “painting.”
“I didn’t know I was painting. Only reason I had paint was because I was a flea market owner,” said Proctor in a recent phone interview.
She recalled the tragic medical accident that ended her nursing career at the tender age of 23 and left her paralyzed and unable to work. With three young sons and her supportive husband, Tyrone, she began collecting odds in ends on her large stretch of land outside of Tallahassee.
“I decided to continually try to make myself do things in spite of what I was going through. So, I kept working…picking up things, me and my kids. I got a lot of stuff, a lot of objects…and I just started having a flea market, and making myself busy cleaning things, selling things.”
But in 1994, when a fire took the life of her beloved grandmother, an aunt, and an uncle, Proctor said she was again plunged into depression.
“My grandmother was like my angel; I could tell her whatever I wanted to tell her, just talk to her. I became depressed and almost devastated. ”
Proctor related how one day, after fasting and praying, she looked to the sky for direction. “I said, ‘Lord, tell me — what is my purpose on this earth? Why am I here?” As she looked up, a light shone down — and she heard a voice say, “Paint.”
She had several old doors lying around the yard, as well as paint used to give her found items new life. “I followed the voice and started painting on the door. I didn’t know why I was painting the door; I never painted the door before. And then I drew a woman. And I was like, ‘Oh look; you drew a woman!'”
Soon she began breaking plates and gluing them on the door and soon had several doors on display in her yard. “My yard just got full of all this stuff, painted up. But I didn’t know — I just thought I was listening and remembering my grandma.”
But less than six months later, a New York gallery owner passed by her yard, saw the doors and offered her $500 for each one.
Proctor thought the woman was crazy until she returned with the money and took the doors with her. Soon she was commissioned to do more doors.
“It was Godly inspiration — breaking up plates,” Proctor stated. “I’ve never seen nothing like that as art. I wasn’t trained, I didn’t know — I was just looking for things I could use and things I could make a message out of — until the lady came and told me it was folk art.”
“Folk art” is the name given to work produced by artists who have developed their craft outside of the traditional art school-to-art gallery paradigm, and whose work combines a wide variety of mediums, techniques, and craft artistry.
Now Proctor’s work is in the collections of museums, including St. Pete’s own Museum of Fine Art, American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, and NYC’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“We are thrilled to have Missionary Mary Proctor return to Creative Clay Fest for her 13th year with us,” shared Kim Dohrman, Creative Clay’s director. “It will be her second time offering back-to-back folk art workshops, including a talk about her process and life as an artist. The last time she held workshops at Creative Clay, it was a full house.”
You can register online at creativeclay.org/creative-clay-fest for Proctor’s 11 a.m. or 2 p.m. workshops during the Creative Clay Fest on Saturday, Nov. 9. The festival will be held at 1846 First Ave. S, St. Petersburg.
To reach J.A. Jones, email firstname.lastname@example.org