Artist of the Month Mary Oliver

Artist of the Month Mary Oliver

Title: Mary Oliver, The Artist Educator

by Jerry Slayton

Let’s face it, being an “Artist” is a bit of a different career path than business or finance. A career in the arts usually starts from a deep inner connection with a medium. Often, at an early and formative age, a person is introduced to an instrument or a tool, such as a piano or paintbrush, and creates something that they and their peers consider “good” or “interesting.” Then curiosity ensues: “I wonder what others have created with these instruments or tools.” Then hours and hours of creating, reworking, and ongoing research follows. This process then builds a large enough footprint in someone’s life that they finally confront a big choice: should I pursue this passion as a career, or not?

Three photos including Mary and two of her handmade percussion instruments
From left to right: Mary posing in a wildflower garden, a circular animal hide drum that Mary made by hand, and three animal hide rattles that Mary created and hand-painted.

This month, Art Spark Texas would like to recognize Mary Oliver for making her big choice, and for sharing her life as an artist with others. Mary is an incredibly generous and thoughtful human being, a multidisciplinary Artist Educator that has worked for 40+ years to bring people of all ages together around the arts. She is a mother, a Kentucky native, and now a Texas-based artist and drum facilitator. Mary is the quintessential Artist Educator, a practicing professional artist with the complementary skills, curiosities, and sensibilities of an educator. It is my honor to share a bit of her work and background with you all today.

Mary’s professional career in education began in the small town of London, Kentucky. For 34 years she taught visual and performing arts in an elementary school setting. During that time her work focused on instilling the joy and fundamentals of the arts, particularly music, in her students through instrument and voice training. Mary leveraged the fundamentals of Melody, Harmony, Rhythm, and Form, to help her young students explore their inner ideas and expressions through making music. Her classroom became a place to recreate the magic of music that she had felt as a young person.

Growing up in Eastern Kentucky, Mary was introduced to traditional Appalachian music and folk dancing. She grew up in a musical family as both her mother and brother are musicians. At age 8 she started taking piano lessons and she sang in church. Music connected her to her family and the place she was from. At an early age, knowingly or unknowingly, she was experiencing the connecting power of the arts, and an impression was made. To this day that connecting power continues to fuel Mary’s work and life.

Side-by-side photos of Mary with a horse and preparing for a drum circle
On the left, Mary smiles beside a tan horse. On the right, Mary sets out 70 chairs in a horse arena as she prepares for her drum circle event.

After her retirement from the Kentucky school system in the Spring of 2016, Mary made a conscious decision to relocate to Texas with her two children. While attending a folk art event that summer, she learned about drum facilitation and the healing work that was being offered through music. Her curiosity had been sparked, and upon arrival in Austin, some seven years ago now, she began educating herself through workshops and trainings, eventually becoming a trained drum circle facilitator and Reiki practitioner. 

But that’s not where this story ends, because at the very same time Mary was furthering her education in music, she was also continuing her work in the visual arts, and this is where we met. Upon meeting Mary back in 2016 I quickly hired her to teach at The Arc of the Arts, a studio for artists with disabilities here in Austin. Aside from her stellar resume and wealth of knowledge, Mary’s ability to build instant rapport with students caught my eye. She has a peaceful yet intentional presence that gives each learner the space to try and feel supported throughout any activity. And I do mean any activity. In the years I’ve known her, I have seen her teach lessons in over ten different mediums, including but not limited to: basket weaving, instrument making, theater, ceramics, printmaking, painting, and mosaic. Her technical ability mixed with her boundless curiosity never ceases to amaze.

Four photos of art by Mary's Mobile Art students
A few examples of art from Mary’s Mobile Art students. From left to right: a student holding a pumpkin paper collage, a crocheted rock covering, a student posed with a basket weaving, and a student holding a patterned painting.

Mary now teaches part-time for us at Art Spark Texas. She leads weekly classes in our Mobile Art program and always receives rave reviews. Her healing work continues as well, and she’s established a long partnership with Natural Lifemanship in Brenham, Texas assisting in adding rhythm and art experiences into trainings geared toward equine assisted services.. She does commissioned paintings, mosaics, and sells the musical instruments she makes. In short, Mary is an Artist Educator that gives and lives through her community. She’s never forgotten her inner connection to the arts and continues to help others find their way. It’s our privilege to know you and build community with you, Mary. Thank You.

1 thought on “Artist of the Month Mary Oliver”

  1. Art Spark is fortunate to be associated with the likes of Mary Oliver. She seems like the consummate art educator with boundless energy and creativity.

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