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50 Years of Art and Teaching

Retiring Professor Mary Vernon on art, art history and the gestalt of creating

Mary Vernon with SMU alumna Laura Bush (’68) at SMU-in-Taos Cultural Institute, 2013.

Were you a student of Mary Vernon’s?

If you took classes from Mary Vernon, we want to hear from you! Tell us about the impact her class(es) had on you, what favorite works you created as a result of her guidance, favorite and funny memories you have and more. Maybe you’re a successful artist, curator, educator or author, or know a former student who is. Maybe you took one class and it opened your eyes to the art world. Tell us about it! If you have photos, even better. Please email us at

1987 feature about Mary Vernon in The Dallas Morning News.

Fun with art! Photo courtesy of Mary Vernon

“Make it stretch like a spider,” note from Mary Vernon to student Angie Reisch (B.F.A. Art ’18).

Mary Vernon has a great deal of respect for observation, for opening up to one’s creative self and for people who are diplomatic and kind.

After 50 years of teaching art and art history at SMU Meadows School of the Arts, Professor Vernon will retire in May 2018. Over the years, she has chaired both the art and art history departments and taught hundreds of students, many of whom have gone on to be successful artists, authors, curators and collectors. She has presented dozens of lectures to art and civic groups, written for various publications and journals and served on arts boards.

Simultaneously, she built a significant career as an artist. Her art has been shown in numerous exhibitions and in various books, articles and essays, and is widely held in corporate and private collections, including the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, The Belo Foundation and the U.S. Department of State. One of her large paintings, Botany (2014), was recently acquired by the U.S. Embassy in N’Djamena, Chad; other U.S. embassies have shown her work, including those in Bucharest, Romania; Riga, Latvia; and Santiago, Chile. She served as the U.S. State Department Visiting Artist in Chile in 2003 and has shown her work internationally in countries such as France, Hungary and Kazakhstan. She is represented by Valley House Gallery & Sculpture Garden in Dallas.

Below, Vernon shares some thoughts about art, art history, having your colleagues’ backs and gently helping students overcome their blind spots:

Q: When you launched your teaching career in 1967 after having graduated from the University of New Mexico with your M.A. in art and art history, what were your aspirations at that time?

Mary Vernon (MV): I had flown around the country interviewing for jobs, and the place of real character and drive seemed to be the department chaired by Jerry Bywaters. He was a hero of American art and art history, having written for Life magazine about Mexican modernists like Rivera, Kahlo and Modotti. I found the offices of the art department eccentric and its faculty and habits quirky. But what did I know? They might all be geniuses and this might be the real normal.

While the SMU folkways had to be learned, the acts of teaching were second nature to me. Teaching was my family business. I was confident in it, perhaps even foolishly, since my encouraging of a class “happening” once threatened to get me fired. (Jerry Bywaters calmed the ire of a chemistry professor by guaranteeing him I was neither a vandal nor a communist, and I never knew my head had been on the block.) Friends had warned me not to come to the town that killed Kennedy, but Bywaters overcame that. One of the students organizing that happening in my first year was David Searcy, now an acclaimed novelist.

I was thinking about going to Princeton for a Ph.D. because they offered me a scholarship. At the same time, I was thinking about why I was not painting enough. At the same time, I had a husband in Vietnam. And at the same time, I had a son in elementary school. I loved teaching and loved paychecks. The year-long Survey of Art History course was teaching me as much as it was teaching the students. My colleagues were tolerant of me. So I stayed.

Q: What were the most satisfying aspects about teaching art and art history?

MV: In teaching, there are stories and there are diagnoses. It is completely rewarding to get to tell stories to captive audiences. But often, in teaching drawing or painting, I must see what a young artist’s need is, her lack or blind spot, and bring attention to it without a sense of blame. Here is something I wrote on my website: “There are two things I see when a student is drawing well (therefore, having learned, to some extent, to draw): attention accumulating over time, and pleasure. A drawing is not a single observation, but hundreds of them, or thousands. That means that the thing drawn and the drawing have moved together in time. This shifting changes both things. And the drawing is a bit of time travel. A drawing is a thing that reveals time, in that the field of the drawing usually remains open so that the delicate shifts show all the way through. The act of accumulating the moments of attention, called drawing, causes, in the person enacting it, an increasing urgency and focus. The moments of making changes and making satisfying physical realities entice the artist to keep on. It is pleasure.

“I teach drawing by enlisting the student into the legacy of pleasurably attentive people who make drawings. Drawing itself is likely to enlist the student over a long period; and knowledge of great drawings is an enticement. Rembrandt or Piranesi or Cézanne allow at the same time that they admonish. But the real pleasure can be caught when the student finds a personal need to get something just as he/she wants it, just as it ought to be, over time. To get to this, the student must adopt a discipline (the right materials, the right light, the right stance, and the isolation of thought). The student must belong to the work of drawing. The teacher encourages the discipline until it is natural. When the discipline is easy, then the work may be real and interesting. When the work is interesting, the teacher says so and says why. The teacher brings the student’s work back to the realm of great drawings, and questions it there. The teacher is the first one to make the assumption that the work must be in the realm of real drawings. To keep one’s work in that realm is to work pleasurably over time, to work with great drawings and against them. In the realm of real drawings, time reveals itself, and the finest things may be noticed.”

Q. Any particular favorite people or experiences from your time at Meadows?

MV: Knowing and working with Laurence Scholder and Dan Wingren. Meeting Mark Strand, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Hughes, Pablo Casals, Dore Ashton, Kiki Smith, Melissa Miller, Margaret Livingstone, Timothy Hutton, Dennis Hopper; having Claude Picasso and Dan Flavin interrupt my art history class and take over the lecture; and teaching the famous and the not famous.

Q: What do you hope will happen in the teaching of art, or the exhibition of art, in the future?

MV: It is hardly likely that something that has been taught since the caves will cease to be taught. While I can see art history taught well in virtual media, the real understanding of visual art and its making is always a matter of physical experience. It deals with real things. What matters is a conversation about ideas and an elbows-deep love of materials.

Q: What advice can you give to young art students about developing their art and careers?

MV: Advice: If you can stop yourself from being an artist as a profession, stop now. It is only for those who cannot stop. Work, look, read, listen.

Q: Can you name a few of your students who have gone on to become art educators, artists or collectors?

Oh yes. There are many. Cheryl Vogel of Valley House; Camilla Cowan, painter and collector; David Searcy, author; David Bates, painter and sculptor; Tim Coursey, artist; David Dreyer, painter and sculptor; Juan Negroni, painter; Olivia Martin, painter; Kristin Cochran, artist; Michael O’Keefe, sculptor and educator; Ray Larrow, painter; Julie England, painter; Lin Medlin, painter; Melissa Mohammadi, painter; Caroline Chandler, artist; Elainy Lopez, painter; Nic González, painter; Angelica Reisch, painter; DJ Knowles, collector ... there are so many more!

Q: You are well known for being a master of color theory. Did the time you spent in New Mexico influence your use of colors in your work?

MV: I wrote this a long time ago: “I grew up in the Pecos Valley, in southern New Mexico. The land outside the valleys is desert land, of subtle and nuanced color, its variation great, its values pale, its shadows intense and chromatic. The painted, wooden santos bore saturated, matte-finished coats of paint, and the Immaculate Conception statue in the local church had a blue neon halo. The rocks my father used to build our house held grays worthy of Whistler. In the valleys, the wind more often than not tossed the leaves of the willows, apple trees, pecans, and lilacs about in the air so that all the complex greens were dulled and robbed of their glossy surfaces. The weather announced itself days ahead of time by minute changes in the sky. Gardens of hollyhocks, daisies, and old asparagus grew quickly and made dense patterns. That landscape taught me what to look for.”

Q: You taught art and art history at Meadows for 50 years. You could have taught anywhere. Why did you choose SMU Meadows over and over?

MV: Staying with the institution at Meadows was sometimes a matter of staying with my colleagues and doing a task that they needed me to do. Sometimes it was the thrill of proving I could do things I said I could do. Some semesters, I came back to win a battle, to defend someone or some idea, or to influence the future, or to watch the circus. It was always because my colleagues were essential to me, and almost always, my students were remarkable.

Why did I choose Meadows? The Division of Art at SMU is a treasure – the right size for a private university, superb faculty, surrounded by the humanities and in need of constant work to make it good and keep it good.

Read more about Mary Vernon, SMU Meadows Division of Art and SMU Meadows Art History Department. See a selection of Vernon’s paintings on the Valley House Gallery & Sculpture Garden website.

Read about the new Mary Vernon Painting Prize, an annual award to be presented to one or more students with the best body of work in the year, as judged by faculty. The prize is intended to provide funds to help the winner establish his or her art career.

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