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Mary Vernon Painting Prize Helps Launch Young Artists’ Careers

Prize, awarded to one or more top art students annually, is a tribute to professor’s 50 years of teaching excellence at SMU Meadows

Mary Vernon with 2017 recipient Angie Reisch (B.F.A. Art ’18). Photo by Camilla Cowan

Nicolás González with Professor Vernon. In 2016, González (B.F.A. Art ’17) was the inaugural recipient of the Mary Vernon Painting Prize.

Fundraising drive underway to meet challenge grant and endow prize in perpetuity

A couple of years before Professor Mary Vernon’s retirement in May 2018, Meadows School of the Arts and a group of donors established the Mary Vernon Painting Prize to honor the veteran art and art history professor and to help launch the careers of top art students. Now, Meadows seeks to endow the prize fund so that, in perpetuity, students can benefit from the prize’s financial boost and recognition as they enter the competitive and challenging art world.

Fresh from receiving her M.A. in art and art history from the University of New Mexico in 1967, Mary Vernon flew around the country for job interviews. She visited a handful of universities, weighed her many options, then selected a teaching position at SMU’s School of the Arts, largely, according to Vernon, because of the people and the culture she found there.

“Of everywhere I visited, the place of real character and drive seemed to be the department chaired by Jerry Bywaters,” says Vernon of her impression of SMU. “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.”

At the time, she didn’t realize she would dedicate her entire teaching life to Meadows art and art history students and, at the culmination of her teaching career, that her efforts would be the inspiration of a coveted prize named in her honor.

During her first decade at Meadows, Vernon taught art history and drawing. The Art Survey class became a sought-after SMU course, with students lining up along Bishop Blvd. to register for the course. By 1981, she was chair of art history. After a leave to work with Yale professor Vincent Scully on a series of television programs about Pueblos, Greek and French architecture based on Scully’s books, Vernon returned to Meadows and became chair of studio art in 1987. From then on, she taught drawing, painting and color theory courses.

Through the decades, she inspired her students; for 10 years in a row they voted her their favorite professor. Her reach and appeal was so expansive that many non-Meadows students queued up to enroll in her classes. Meadows board member Belle Berg (B.F.A. Studio Art ’71) loved her art history course so much that she encouraged her boyfriend (now husband) Donald Berg (B.S. Mechanical Engineering ’70) to take it as an elective. “He did take her course the next semester and it changed his life and appreciation of the arts forever!” says Berg. “We will both be eternally grateful for her insight and knowledge that has enriched our lives.”

Many of Vernon’s students went on to become arts educators, artists, authors or collectors, including Cheryl Vogel of Valley House Gallery, painter and collector Camilla Cowan, artists David Bates, Tim Coursey and David Dreyer, and author David Searcy, among others.

Her many honors both on and off campus include being named 2006 SMU Altshuler Distinguished Teaching Professor – one of the University’s most significant honors – and, in 2017, she received the University’s prestigious Faculty Career Achievement Award. Among other awards, grants and recognitions, Vernon is the recipient of a Moss-Chumley North Texas Artist Award and has been a Fellow at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture since 1982.

The Mary Vernon Painting Prize: Student Impact

In 2016, Meadows and a group of donors honored Vernon’s long, successful career as both an artist and SMU professor by establishing the Mary Vernon Painting Prize, an annual award to be presented to an undergraduate painter 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.

The goal is to raise $100,000 or more to endow the Mary Vernon Painting Prize in perpetuity. When fully vested, the endowment fund will generate $5,000 annually to be awarded to one or more promising art students. To date, more than $60,000 has been secured toward the goal. An anonymous donor has offered to match dollar-for-dollar the next $20,000 in new gifts to help achieve or surpass the funding goal.

The first winner of the Mary Vernon Painting Prize was Nicolás González (B.F.A. Art ’17) in 2016; the 2017 winner was Angie Reisch (B.F.A. Art ’18).

“In spring 2016, Mary told me it was time to transcend from an art student into an emerging artist,” says González. “She told me to invest my passion and time with painting materials that are rich in pigment and surfaces that are delicate to the touch. She said, ‘Let the world know that you are a painter, a serious painter, who knows how to paint.’ When I received the Mary Vernon Painting Prize, it enabled me to purchase some higher-quality painting supplies such as a set of gouache, oil paint and mediums, Yupo paper, linen fabric and my favorite brush script liners. Through these specific materials, my abilities as a painter have greatly expanded. They have allowed me to have a better understanding that the quality of the painting surface and the type of paint are very important.”

Vernon, says González, taught him to be brave and to persevere. “She encouraged me to never give up within the world of the arts,” he says. “There were times when I just wanted to throw in the towel, but every time, Mary seemed to always appear as a glowing light within the shadows of my fear. She would always encourage me to be better, to always do my best, and tell me that doors would always open as long as I turned the key. She said, ‘You already possess the key. It's in your heart and soul, it speaks through your work. As long as you keep trying, doors will always open.’

“Mary Vernon is someone very special to this world and a true master of the arts and its history. Her love for the arts and her students is equal to none. I am so grateful to have Mary Vernon as my mentor, professor and true friend whom I hold close to my heart.”

Angie Reisch, the 2017 winner, has used part of her prize winnings to travel to well-established museums and galleries. “So far, I have used the Mary Vernon Painting Prize to assist in traveling to Washington, D.C., to visit the National Gallery of Art, the Hirshhorn Museum, the Renwick Gallery and several of the Smithsonian Museums,” says Reisch, an SMU President’s Scholar and Meadows Scholar. “Being able to travel and see art in a new place and context is invaluable to developing an awareness as a young artist. I plan to use the rest of the prize to continue traveling and purchasing supplies for new projects.”

Reisch is also a fan of Mary Vernon, whom she calls one of her favorite SMU professors. “Not only is she a talented and successful painter as well as an insightful and engaging teacher, she is a kind and curious person who truly cares about the well-being of her students as artists and as human beings,” says Reisch. “I have taken painting and drawing classes with Mary and have learned so much.”

One of Reisch’s favorite memories of Vernon was when Reisch, then an incoming first-year student, went to a Mary Vernon exhibit opening at Valley House Gallery & Sculpture Garden and introduced herself to Vernon. “I told her I would be taking her class next year,” recalls Reisch. “She told me to spend the summer just making paintings that I enjoyed making, which would prove to be a recurring theme in her classes. She taught students not only about color theory, techniques and the history and context surrounding the practice of painting, but also taught them how to find the joy in creating something meaningful.

“She has been a resource and a pillar for so many students. We will miss her presence around Meadows every day, dearly.”

Mary Vernon, Artist

While teaching at Meadows, Vernon simultaneously built a significant career as an artist. Her work 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 embassies 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.

The Grace Museum in Abilene will host an exhibition of Vernon’s work from September 15 through January 6, 2018. In an essay on the exhibit, artist Frederick Turner writes, “… she is one of the great colorists of the world, but it’s all done with such insouciant mastery that one doesn’t feel got at or advertised to. … the really good artists around now, of whom Vernon is one, take their virtuosity as a gift, and give it away as a gift to our powers of sight and our capacity for joy.”

Vernon will also have her sixth solo exhibit at Valley House Gallery & Sculpture Garden, September 23-October 28; on Saturday, October 14, she will give a gallery talk at Valley House at 11 a.m.

Her work has been displayed in numerous solo and group exhibits, catalogs and art books. She also has contributed her writing to several art books, and is author of six artist’s books in limited edition. Her work has appeared on the covers of over one dozen publications. In addition, she has given lectures and presentations to various clubs and organizations in Texas, New Mexico and Mississippi.

Giving Back to the Arts Community

Vernon’s service to the arts has included membership on the board of directors of the National Council of Arts Administrators, the educational advisory board for the Wishbone™ PBS education television show, the advisory board of the Texas Biennial and the board of trustees of the Dallas Museum of Art. She is regularly asked to speak to cultural groups whose members enjoy reading, thinking, exploring and discussing ideas about the arts.

Vernon was the honoree of the 2017 international Dallas Art Fair in March. She was celebrated at the patron kick-off party at the flagship Neiman Marcus store in downtown Dallas, after which 25 of her paintings were on view in Neiman’s display windows for four weeks.

Read about Mary Vernon’s thoughts on art, art history and the gestalt of creating.

Read more about Mary Vernon’s art and career; SMU Meadows School of the Arts Division of Art; and Art History Department. Learn more about Mary Vernon Painting Prize recipients Nicolás González (B.F.A. Art ’17) and Angie Reisch (B.F.A. Art ’18).

To contribute to the Mary Vernon Painting Prize fund benefiting art students on the cusp of their careers, contact Lisa Chou, lisac@smu.edu, 214-768-2610, or visit http://bit.ly/supportmeadows. In the “Select a gift designation” field, enter “Other,” then “Mary Vernon Painting Prize.”

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