By Gus Widmayer
Another notable classical realist and former West Groton resident, Edmund Tarbell, was president of the Guild of Boston Artists.
Mr. Tarbell and a group of Boston School painters founded that organization as a gallery for their work. One of the tenets of the Boston School was the “big light effect” emphasizing skin tone. Students were encouraged to draw from a plaster cast, focusing on angles, values and form. This technique had been employed by the French Academy and reached a level of excellence in the late 1800s.
After that, the Impressionist movement and all subsequent abstraction eschewed these rules, and the academics of classical training, judging realism to simply be too boring. Students of the traditional school, in contrast, including Mary Minifie, desired to return to its practices.
Mary found many connections to the art world in the town of Groton. She recalled Groton schoolmaster, archivist and furniture-maker Douglas Brown, who once regaled her with a well-worn story about classical realist John Singer Sargent. The painter was visiting the old field house with Mrs. Isabella Stewart Gardner. The gymnasium had a running track that circumnavigated the second floor. In a burst of energy and frivolity, Mr. Sargent proceeded to chase Mrs. Gardner around the running track; all to be witnessed by Groton student Ellery Sedgwick, who went on to become editor and ultimately owner of the Atlantic Monthly.
Mary and her husband spent 16 years at Groton School and she has since lived another 15 years in the town of Groton proper. The two are worlds apart at times, with the former being a focused enclave where tightly knit relationships follow an intellectual agenda. Mary became close friends with many faculty members, their children and students, some of whom moonlighted as baby-sitters.
The school is akin to a small village where everyone knows your name, likes and dreams, dislikes, and expectations. Housing on campus has a hierarchy for families. They are moved relatively often based on seniority or, for instance, if a young child had been placed in an older home with lead paint.
When Mary and Jonathan moved into their campus home in 1985, Filho’s Restaurant was an abandoned gas station. Main Street was very quiet. Bruce’s and Sargent’s pharmacies and the old post office were really all that was there, along with a few small retail establishments in the strip mall above the Prescott School.
Mary moved to town after her husband died suddenly while hiking by himself atop Mt. Moosilauke, about an hour’s drive north of Hanover, New Hampshire. The couple shared a vacation home in New Hampshire with Jonathan’s family.
At 50, Jonathan Minifie, the youngest of six boys and one girl, who loved children, learning and teaching, succumbed to heart failure that was likely hereditary. He had had a particular affinity for twentieth century American Literature, of the likes of Faulkner, Fitzgerald, D. H. Lawrence, and Hemingway, not to omit his love of Shakespeare. Mary believes that he was attuned to the ways in which these authors brought to life character and the sense of place. For a year after his death, Groton School provided for Mary and treated her young sons with kindness and schooling.
The time came, of course, for Mary to move to town. She purchased her new home from friends and fellow Groton School parents Jim and Katherine Corum. Mary wanted to be near the school while in town. She met her neighbors and made friends with other families through her sons’ school and sporting activities.
To Mary, the contrast of living at Groton School and in the town proper was akin to living on an estate versus being wholly self-supporting and on her own. From the minute her husband died, Mary devoted herself to her painting. Her attitude shifted to one where she now viewed painting as a means to earn a living. Hers is a somewhat stoic philosophy. “The day I have to admit it is not working is the day I will do something else,” she said with an air of steadfastness.
Mary did not expose her own heart in her early portraits, as “A portrait artist works on commission and the work is about what the client wants.” It was not until recently that Mary has begun going back to where her own spirit leads her. It is one thing to instill a portrait with the human element, psychology and the life of the person but, ever the pragmatist, Mary reports, “you still have to paint what’s there in front of you.”
Her more important clients have less time to pose for a sitting. She often has to paint from photographs. In one instance, her subject was a deceased woman whose family desired a memento of their loved one. John Singer Sargent was said to have painted his subjects over the course of six sessions of two hours each. He might paint the head from these sittings and then add the clothing and backdrop later. Mary added that photographs help to a point, “because the subject’s personality does not go away. However the three-dimensional view can tend to go flat.”
Today you can find Mary working at her studio in Manchester, New Hampshire; the mill building offers her “a northern light that is blue and constant. The opposite southern light is yellow, streaked and changes over time.” Her former mentor, Paul Ingbretson rents his studio to Mary and teaches in an adjacent space.
In time, Mary expects to retire south nearer to any yet-to-arrive grandchildren in or near Maryland but not at the expense of portraiture. “I have always made choices that favored my painting,” Mary admitted. “At each fork in the road, I chose art.”
At her lows, she felt the gray despair of losing a child, a husband and frustration from not doing what she wanted to do — thanks in part to an initial lack of formal training, time or money. She remembers receiving little encouragement on that score from her father.
But the high mark has been regained from time to time in the joys of watching her two sons grow to maturity, one now married. She keeps cherished memories of her husband and daughter. She looks forward to life alongside her faithful four-legged companion, Eli.
Mary can finally feel an inner glow that comes from a lifetime of pursuing what she loves; capturing the outer light of the world. Her fortune is to live longer into her career. She made an apt comparison, “A painter would not lose her talent at an early age like a singer might lose her voice.”
The value of light as it moves from white to black and back again has painted in Mary’s life the variability in all our lives. As dark as gray can get, still here is Mary adding evermore a daub of color, of light, and the searching spirit in all our faces.
(This will also appear online at https://gusongroton.wordpress.com/ (a work in progress).