Thursday, March 31, 2011

Mary Fletcher ~ feminist, socialist ~ and artist

‘My pieces celebrate ordinary people’s extraordinariness’ – Mary Fletcher

As I admired the magnificent view from the front window of her home in St Ives, Mary Fletcher reflected on her first visit to the town as an impressionable youngster in 1959. A group of ‘beatniks’ sitting on the harbour wall enjoying the sunshine is an image from this family holiday which stayed with her throughout her teenage years. When her schooldays came to an end, the prospect of a life beyond her home town of Derby beckoned. Mary dreamed of a bohemian existence, unfettered by authoritarian constraints.

Encouraged by an art teacher, and in opposition to her father’s wishes, in 1967 she enrolled as an art student at the University of Nottingham. The social and sexual mores of the previous generation were being swept away in a mood of hedonistic optimism which characterised the ‘Swinging Sixties’. Students everywhere were challenging the values of their parents’ generation, and finding a political voice by protesting against the Vietnam war.

Attitudes among the Nottingham university teaching staff were, however, slow to change. The only woman artist considered worthy of academic attention was Barbara Hepworth. The Fine Art department (whose staff did not include women) was vehemently opposed to any expression of the personal in the creative output of its students. Visiting students from Hornsey College of Art radicalised their peers in Nottingham by drawing attention to the student and worker protests in Europe. The local art students began to question the status quo within the politics of the University. They also demanded a broadening of the curriculum, to encompass an art which crossed the boundaries of the European tradition.

On graduating with an honours degree in Fine Art and Art History, Mary
moved to London to take up a post as an art teacher. Here she found herself in tune with emergent feminist voices. She joined ‘Brixton Women’s Work’ and ‘Woman’s Eye’, groups which exhibited women’s art. Later, a course of lectures by Roxane Permar entitled ‘Our Hidden Heritage’ proved influential. At the time, the patriarchal view of art history was being challenged by feminist critics who sought to redress the balance of gender power relations in art. In her teaching practice Mary sought to empower her female students by encouraging them, through art, to overcome the sense of inferiority which many had absorbed as a result of their upbringing. These experiences engendered in her a strong sense of social justice.

Kate Williams Band
© Mary Fletcher

In the early 1990s Mary trained as an art therapist, and then moved to St Ives. Working in this field gave her the flexibility to devote more time to her art practice. Close observation of the everyday movements of the individual has enabled her to capture transitory moments, recorded initially as rapid ink sketches - a skill acquired over many years. She develops these images using a variety of media, including painting, ceramic sculpture and print-making. Favourite subjects include dancers, jazz musicians and circus performers. Her work as a piano teacher, in conjunction with her experience as a therapist, facilitates an engagement and empathy with the concerns of individuals.

While in some cases her subjects have been unaware of their role as models for her sketches, a number of Mary’s projects have required the collaboration of passers-by. In ‘Carbon Footprint and the Last Taboo’, she set up her easel in a gallery space located in the basement of a charity shop. Here she produced sketches of people’s shoes, in exchange for information surrounding the circumstances of the acquisition of the footwear. The drawings were given to the participants, while Mary kept a carbon copy and a rubbing of the sole, subsequently incorporated into a limited edition book and a video.

Extract from ‘Carbon Footprint and the Last Taboo’ ~
"Has walked from Vézelay to Santiago de Compostela – not in these – to hit 60 running. These were bought in Helston – at a shop closing down. Italian shoes with holes in the bottom – not expensive: £45? – got a pair free as they were faulty & sent back. Starving artist – about to get OAP pension – a pay rise. About to sell her body for medical research – drug tests in Plymouth - £2,800 for two months."

An MA in Contemporary Visual Art at University College Falmouth in 2006 gave Mary the impetus to complete a film digitally which she had begun in 1971 using Super-8. ‘Morning Walk’ deals with the anguish of many years of grief following the murder of a partner. The medium of film has enabled her to confront other painful life experiences such as child abuse and involuntary childlessness. The latter is addressed in ‘Women & Clocks’ of 2006.

A book, published in 2006, entitled ‘Women Without’ was a project which invited contributions from nine women who were childless due to circumstances beyond their control. This is a moving account, in which each woman’s experience is recorded in her own handwriting, accompanied by Mary’s illustrations.

In the same year Mary produced an installation documenting 20 years of her own unfertilised ovulations. On a background of dark red felt, 260 quartz stones were laid out in a pattern. ‘Misconceptions’ was reviewed in an online exhibition of art on a feminist theme. The selection was curated by the art critic Katy Deepwell, who commended Mary’s work for its ‘strong formalist and conceptual edge’.

Misconceptions 2006
© Mary Fletcher

A more recent work, also intensely personal, is ‘Fading Away’. This painting depicts Mary’s mother as a resident in a nursing home, nearing the end of her life. The subject is portrayed as a tiny figure, dwarfed by the massive scale of her surroundings. The selection of photographs on the table suggests a link to a past which is fading from memory. This image is one of great tenderness and poignancy.

Fading Away 2010
© Mary Fletcher

Art Notes’ of 2009 takes a wry look at the struggle of the artist to gain recognition. Using her own musical and vocal accompaniment, Mary is completely the subject of her own production. She is viewed from behind, making a written statement on a wall: ‘Stop minding that you are not a global success’. Grounded in her own experience, this work nevertheless succeeds in communicating a message which is universal - and cannot fail to raise a smile.

While Mary’s success may not yet be global, her talent as a film maker has recently been acknowledged. At the Cornwall Film Festival of 2010, ‘My Uncle was always at Grandma’s’, about a childhood experience, won the jury prize for the best experimental/non-narrative short film in the category ‘The Edge’.

Since 1994 Mary has been instrumental in raising the profile of women’s art locally, as the driving force behind ‘Taking Space’. To date, an average of four exhibitions per year have been organised by this collective, at a variety of venues throughout Cornwall. The next show will be held at the Crypt Gallery in St Ives, from 23 April to 6 May.

Mary is committed to campaigning against the planned changes to the NHS in Cornwall. Recently she filmed MP Frank Dobson talking to Labour Party members in Camborne regarding the proposed cutbacks to local health services. She is also a member of Cornwall Humanists, with whom she has made three films. In one,
fellow humanist Peter Blake explained his views on Christianity and the reasons for his adoption of the humanist ethic.

While she would not regard herself as primarily a film maker, Mary is attracted to the egalitarian nature of this relatively new medium, which she finds a refreshing contrast to the atmosphere of elitism associated with the conventional art world. Before I left, I asked her what she had in mind for her next project. She is being cagey about her plans, but did reveal that her next film will be a ‘critique of capitalism’. Given the current state of the UK economy, this should encourage a lively debate!

© 2011 Helen Hoyle

Mary’s work can be seen at

1 comment:

  1. I just stumbled across this piece about Mary, which I have thoroughly enjoyed reading! Mary, hope all is well with you! Roxane