Mary Smyth Duffy

December 8, 1955—September 17, 2002

Biography for art show, "Retrospective," Johnson Art Gallery at Middlebury College, February 17-22, 2003.


Friends and colleagues at Middlebury College knew Mary Smyth Duffy in a number of ways – as coordinator of the Mae Bell Chellis Women’s Center, or as onetime administrator with the Political Science Department, or as spouse of English Department faculty member David Bain, or as supporter of the children’s skating program – but many were unaware of her calling as an artist. She followed art passionately for most of her life.

There was, to be sure, artistry in everything she did. At work it illuminated the Chellis House interior and every function. At home art was not only on the walls but in assemblages everywhere: vintage Art Deco-influenced toasters, waffle irons, and juicers on display shelves; in the living room, artifacts from the desert and relics from the Iron Age in Western railroading; in her bedroom, crowded with ornate old bureaus, dressers, and marble-topped tables, every horizontal surface teemed with its assemblage: beach glass on a miniature Lazy Susan tray, incense burners, statuettes, candles, cameo frames, filigreed boxes, flowerpots, ring caddies, ceramic figurines, antique bracelets and earrings, seahorses, clam shells, doilies, rocks. A tiny teapot. Hanging on the walls there were: dried flower wreaths, a whisk broom, ancient hats, Chinese fans, a cardboard Sixties butterfly mobile, a Nepalese shawl, and three or four small framed prints, none of them her work. She transformed her surroundings into art, even down to the stacks of immense art books in every room, each flowering with a multitude of colored paper placemarkers: Manet, Monet, O’Keeffe, Degas, Klee, Matisse, Picasso, Kahlo, and her favorites, Cezanne and Renoir; Joseph Albers and Joseph Beuys sat companionably next to Albrecht Durer, Reginald Marsh, Hiroshage, and Rockwell Kent.

Her studio, carved out of a former wood workshop space in the big old chicken barn behind her house in Orwell, Vermont, was similarly an exhibition of her eclectic tastes, wide-ranging influences, and relentless curiosity.

Art training began in elementary and middle school and never ceased. She was born in Waltham, Massachusetts, daughter of Katherine Smyth Duffy, a physical education teacher, and Dr. John Lester Duffy, a pathologist, both of them natives of Northport, Suffolk County, Long Island, New York, with deep generational roots in that quaint harbor town. Her early years were spent in Northport in the time it was still a small town with old families and everyone knew everybody. Fraternal twin siblings, Sarah and John Duffy, joined the household in 1960. The family relocated to Laurel Hollow, a community of widely-spaced, tree-shrouded houses dotted by fields and paddocks some miles west in Nassau County.

As a girl she was more interested in horses than art, but she was always creative and preternaturally curious, constantly bringing home wildflowers, rocks, Indian paint pots, animal bones, feathers (sometimes bird carcasses) to share, explore, and sketch. Forays to the beaches of Long Island Sound – extended family members inhabited various beach cottages year round – always produced a sandy array of tidal deposits, reverently carried home.

Artistically she was encouraged first by family members: her paternal grandmother, Mildred Aitken Duffy, a registered nurse and proprietor of a rest home for elderly ladies; her maternal aunts Isabel Smyth Mahurin, who painted (Isabel’s son would be Matt Mahurin, now a well-known illustrator and artist) and Estelle Rose Smyth Von Alt. Estelle’s husband, Albert Von Alt, though professionally an engineer, was an active and inspirational amateur painter and sculptor.

In middle school she began her formal study, although until high school one might have predicted that she would become a horsewoman (she would have preferred simply becoming a horse) or a naturalist. The art instructor William Kail at Cold Spring Harbor High School particularly encouraged her into drawing, pastels, water colors, and oils. They found she had a distinct talent for landscapes, although even then she was fascinated by the abstract artists of the Fifties through the early Seventies.

For nearly two years illness forged her courage and focused her skills: she was diagnosed with Hodgkins Disease at age 16 and endured a series of operations and radiation therapy, which cured her. (The lifesaving radiation left price tags, much later causing tumors of the thyroid, salivary glands, and breast cancer – all of which she beat – and heart disease, which she did not.) Convalescence intensified her attention to art, and she was accepted into the Fine Arts program at Bard College at Annandale-on-Hudson, in 1974.

The Hudson River valley has long been a place of inspiration for artists, and for Mary the riverbank with its wildlife and mountain views, the thick woods around campus, and deeply-cutting streams with waterfalls and rapids, unleashed her imagination. She studied primarily with artist Matt Phillips, although there were others of important influence. Impressionistic landscapes in her early time at Bard were succeeded by abstract acrylics – geometric, almost always employing a compass to create concentric or overlapping circle motifs cutting across great fields of color or through tapestry-like figures. Circles, being symbolic of nature’s perfection, would figure in her work for years.

After graduating from Bard with a B.F.A. degree in 1978, and after a year living in Tucson (where, she later said, the light of the Southwest made her newly appreciate the work of Georgia O’Keeffe), she returned to New York, working in book publishing for several years and living in Brooklyn, New York. Dover Publications, a family-owned, idiosyncratic publisher of art and photography and crafts works, was an enjoyable home for her. She married David Haward Bain, a writer whom she had met while he was playing piano in a wine and cheese café in Port Washington, in June 1981.

Working first in a tiny apartment studio and then in a more spacious but lowceilinged basement, she continued to paint. In 1982 she began work on a Masters in Fine Arts in Painting at Hunter College, studying with Sanford Wurmfeld and other painters and concentrating on abstract expressionism for her thesis show, held in 1985. She also participated in a Sources of Color Theory course, assisting in the research, organization, preparation of catalogue, and mounting for an exhibition, “Color Documents: A Presentational Theory.” From September 1985 she was Curator of the Hunter College Art Gallery, serving nearly two years. In May 1987 she was in a group exhibition at the Cork Gallery of Avery Fisher Hall in New York.

In June 1987 she and her husband left New York City for the Vermont countryside, buying a 150-year-old sheep farm in Shoreham and finding new jobs locally: David joined the Middlebury College English Department, part-time to keep up with his writing; Mary worked for several years for a Middlebury lawfirm, and then for the Addison County Counseling Service, administering the community friends mentor program until funding cutbacks forced her to move to the college Political Science department. During this time she continued her painting and drawing – her abstract work began to be more figurative, employing elements of the hilly pastureland and disappearing elms, and she often returned to landscapes. With the birth of their daughter, Mimi, in 1988, and son David, in 1992, she had taken leaves from work to be with them – and found this period to be very fruitful as far as her art was concerned. The children grew up in her studio, and Mimi’s hand and footprints can be seen on some of Mary’s paintings (when given a chance to fingerpaint, young Davey always demanded a brush).

Working and childrearing and emerging health problems took time and energy away from her art, but she continued to forge ahead, appearing in a group show of Vermont Visual Artists at the Vermont State House in Montpelier in the winter of 1988, in a show called “Sacred Art” at the Springfield (VT) Art and Historical Society in the summer of 1989, in “New England Women: Valley Women Artists,” a juried exhibition at the Northampton (MA) Center for the Arts in 1990, and in a group show, “View From the Edge,” at the Fletcher Library in Burlington, VT, in Spring 1991. She had a solo exhibition at Community College of Vermont (Middlebury), a two-person show at the South County Cenmter for the Arts in West Kingston, RI, in May 1992, a two-artist exhibition at the Geonomics Institute at Middlebury College in winter 1993, a group show, "No More Nice Girls," at the ABC No Rio Gallery in New York City, in early 1994. Work traveled with the DNA Xerox Project, an exhibition of works related to AIDS and curated by Spiral Arts, between 1994-1998.

For several years she taught art at Community College of Vermont, at Castleton State College, and Green Mountain College, and was a panelist or presenter at conferences at the University of Texas at Arlington, Marquette University Women’s Studies Conference, the Rutgers Institute for Research on Women, “Subject to Desire: Refiguring the Human Body” at SUNY-New Paltz, and the New England Museum Association’s Annual Conference, Boston, 1987. For several years she was a member of the Community College of Vermont Humanities Committee, creating The CCV Resources Guide for Art Instructors (1996). She co-edited, with David Haward Bain, Whose Woods These Are (Ecco Press, 1993), an illustrated history of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference of Middlebury College.

In 1993 the family moved from their Shoreham sheep farm to the Victorian village of Orwell, where childrearing, office work, the parent-teacher organization, and continuing health problems eroded her artistic time. In 1997, though, she became coordinator at Chellis House, a 20-hour-a-week job that often demanded more than 40 and many nights and weekends, but one which she thoroughly enjoyed. Completion of the barn studio and a cutting-back of various activities got her painting a little, but it was not until after a two-month family transcontinental driving trip, following old wheel ruts and vanished iron rails between the Missouri River and the Golden Gate, that she and her husband decided they could finally afford to give her “early retirement” from work in favor of fulltime art.

Between September 2000 and June 2002, with admittedly some time taken off for P.T.A. work, she tried to devote herself exclusively to her art – deciding to return to her first love, landscapes. The year 2001 was her watershed, as she spent late spring, summer, and autumn out in the fields and lanes of southern Addison County – primarily Orwell, in the hayfields off North Orwell Road or down overlooking Plunder Bay on the Lake Champlain shore; much, too, she did in the backyard gardens and wraparound porch of their 1840 Greek Revival home, the onetime Methodist parsonage in town. She made frequent expeditions to museums and galleries in New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, and Montreal, finding a great enthusiasm for the Clark Institute in Williamstown, MA, with its great collection of Impressionist art, for some time driving down for a day almost every week. In her work elms, peonies, sunflowers, and massive rhubarb leaves gave her immense joy. Finding continuing pleasure in rendering still lifes, she wintered in her studio.

In the spring of 2002, with health problems finally coalescing into congestive heart failure, she did two large watercolors, plainly influenced by Georgia O’Keeffe, featuring rhubarb leaves, for her an early sign of spring’s promise and life’s bounty. The second, her last, included the skulls of sheep from their farm and that of a deer found in Orwell; it was, she explained, a way of expressing her fears over approaching open-heart surgery, performed June 13, 2002.

Severe complications during surgery (her chest was opened three times) for replacement of two heart valves greatly weakened her, and recuperation in the hospital stretched into three and a half months; in July she came home for a couple of days and got to see the garden she had struggled to finish planting before surgery – her hope was to spend two months of convalescence drawing and painting it – but she was too weak to be away from the hospital. Braving a procession of setbacks with patience and incredible courage, she did have several weeks in which she was able to sketch the Green Mountains she could see out her hospital window in Burlington; her family brought in several small paintings of hers to decorate the room. But tragically she slid back, succumbing to a valve thrombosis on September 17, 2002, aged forty-six. As she died she was looking at the painting of her side porch and trumpet vine, which her husband would later title, “The Way Home.”

Her funeral service in Middlebury was bright with flowers and her paintings, overflowing with family, friends, and work colleagues, many of whom thought they knew her well but, because of her characteristic modesty, were unaware how art figured in her life.

The art lives on.

[Art show walltext remembrances by friends]

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