by Michael LaTerz
To understand the important achievements of Mary Minifie's art, it is necessary to understand the Boston School of Art. The Boston School began as a group of painters in the early part of the twentieth century; not as an academic institution, but as a shared approach or style of painting. The Boston School has been influenced first by the rigor of classical realism and later by the open brushwork of the impressionists. In either case, depiction of light is paramount; think in equal parts Vermeer and Monet.
The Boston School and Groton Connections
The Boston School has as its harbor The Guild of Boston Artists, formed in 1914. Edmund Charles Tarbell was a co-founder and served as the Guild's first president until 1924. He was born in the Asa Tarbell House, which stands beside the Squannacook River in West Groton, next to RiverCourt. This is the first of several connections between the Boston School and Groton. Tarbell is considered an important American Impressionist. His paintings hang in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, National Gallery, and Smithsonian, to name a few.
R. H. Ives Gammell is a pivotal figure in American painting. He went to Groton School. Legend has it that when Gammell told the Rev. Endicott Peabody, founder of Groton School, of his desire to study painting, the elder patrician replied, “That's all well and good. But we'll just keep that quiet for now.” Later, Gammell studied under William McGregor Paxton. Paxton is a central figure in the Boston School, a contemporary of Tarbell, and a co-founder of The Guild of Boston Artists. Gammell served as the Guild’s president from 1950 to 1952.
Gammell brings us to Paul Ingbretson, master artist of the Boston School. He was president of the Guild from 2003 to 2014. Ingbretson studied under Gammell. And, he became Mary Minifie’s teacher in 1987. That term of study lasted nine years. Oh, and by the way, Mary is the current Secretary of The Guild of Boston Artists. This is what Paul Ingbretson had to say, “Mary has been a prime example of a lifelong student of her form and continues to this day to challenge herself to be better and more. This, even though she is already a master of her craft.”
Mary's portrait work hangs in the Moakley, John Adams, John McCormack and Courthouses in Boston; Boston University, Boston Medical Center, and King's Chapel; and in Washington D.C. among other notable locations. Her portrait work includes not only the official work displayed above; but, also families, both adults and children. Portraits Society of America, Art Renewal Center International Salon, and citations from the Guild of Boston Artists including two Gammell, and two Tarbell distinctions are just some of the many awards to Mary Minifie's credit.
Don't be fooled. Even the unrenovated mill buildings still possess a kind of charm. The 150-year-old architecture is all brick and wood and iron and big, big glass windows; made for when work could be done by natural light.
A visit to the Mary Minifie atelier starts with a turn into the complex, over a narrow bridge spanning the old canal, past the gears and mechanicals long since out of daily use. Then, a dip into an archway, a short tunnel passing through the first-floor level of the building before spilling into a haphazard parking lot; catch as catch can.
Enter a renovated mill building and you see the old wood restored and newly varnished, the brass polished, the tile floors new and the elevators modern; not to mention the creature comforts of climate control and updated "facilities." Well, I was warned; none of that exists in the few remaining relics like the one I went to visit. And, as it happened on that day, the only elevator, built for freight more than a century ago, was out of commission. That meant a walk up six flights; which, for my old frame, would be slow with frequent stops. Mary and I were accompanied by Mary's golden retriever, Eli. And, I noticed, Eli exactly matched my lumbering pace all the way up. Never underestimate the situational awareness of a good dog.
In the eyes of an artist, all this is a small price to pay for one precious thing, above all else; Northern Light, provided through big, big glass windows; reaching at least 15 feet high and 20 feet wide. Mary explained, “The northern light is the most consistent light throughout the day and throughout the year. It is cooler and bluer than southern light; which is warmer, more yellow, and too changeable to paint under." Southern light is perfectly suited for a family room or a sunroom; but not for a studio.
The sixth-floor studio is a wide, open space. It is cold during the winter. Only the minimum of heat is provided in these unreclaimed buildings. "I wear a heated vest, powered by a battery in a pocket," Mary says with a small smile. Her studio is filled with the tools of the trade. There are not just easels and palettes and paints and brushes, hundreds of brushes; but also, anatomical plaster casts, vases, some with silk flowers, and a whole assortment of objects used for still life studies and as props. It doesn't feel cluttered, though; but it is well stocked. Oh, and let's not forget the library. Hundreds of books, maybe more, are the necessary references for the serious artist.
“I had to learn how to see!”
After Mary saw Paul Ingbretson's paintings in the Anderson Gallery, at that time on Newbury Street, she committed to studying with the master artist. "I was thrilled and excited to finally start down the path of the Boston School. I knew it would be serious study, nothing like some two-year program at a school, somewhere. And, that's what I wanted. I was ready."
The Boston School has a range spanning the tight detail of classical realism to the painterly brushstrokes of impressionism. Always, the prime objective is to paint with acute attention to the color and tonality of natural light versus the traditional reliance on formulaic conventions.
This is the essential quality of the Boston School. Mary reflected on her training with Ingbretson, "Rather than building upon the years of training and experience I'd had before, I had to break all that down. I had to unlearn a lot and build a new skill set; to look for the way light plays over the surface of a form. I had to learn how to see!"
Only one year, during the 1995/96 sabbatical Mary’s husband, Jonathan, took in Turkey with her and their two sons, interrupted what came to be nine years of training with Ingbretson. Then, 1997 became the year Mary emerged from her training in the Boston School of Art. “I had some still life paintings shown in galleries and, I began to get new commissions.” This was a marked a departure from her prior commissioned work, before her Boston School training.
One early commission, in 1998, came from Groton resident, Bobbie Spiegelman, president of the Groton Historical Society. Mary’s "portrait of my daughter captures her essence to the degree that I feel her presence whenever I stop to look at the painting. The eyes are especially deep and expressive and just draw the viewer in." Bobbie added, “I consider her a special friend to this day.”
“They just surrounded me with their love”
There is nothing that is not understatement when referring to the loss of a loved one; especially when unexpected, when young. In 2000, at the age of 50, Jonathan died of a heart failure while hiking alone in New Hampshire. To say his death changed everything is to admit that words cannot capture the tectonic shifts that occur when suddenly you are a widow with two young sons and a future now unknown.
Under such circumstances, the only fortune to be found is the love and support freely given when needed most. At Groton School, "They just surrounded me with their love. It was incredible," Mary remembered, with emotion still fresh all these years later. The move from Groton School was short by distance, into Groton Center; but long by change. Bobbie Spiegelman, “Mary is one of the most spiritual people I’ve ever met, and I think this comes through in the thoughtful way she lives her life. She has had many tragedies to confront but she comes through with grace and resolve.”