Artist captures adolescence and aging

by Jordan Green


Marsha Hierl, the owner and artistic director at Studio 7, was rifling through framed art in Mary Bailey Thomas’ studio when the artist called out from the entrance.

She ambled down the hallway to her studio wearing a colorful geometric print shirt with splashes of red, orange, purple, green and blue.

“I overslept,” she announced. “I just finished my last medicalresearch session.”

Hierl had hung prints of Thomas’ work, which combines photography and painting, in the hallway for her retrospective show, set to open on First Friday. In the large front room of Studio 7, soon to be named the McNeely Gallery, an unfinished mural depicting a fencerow and gate opening into a meadow hung near the front window, awaiting Thomas’ attention.

Metamorphosis tracks Thomas’ development over the past 25 years — a period that has seen her gradually scale back her teaching activities to give more time to her own art.

“As an art educator, I’ve always been interested in helping people, in planting seeds,” Thomas said. “As I’ve gotten older and I’ve developed physical issues, there this idea that medical issues mean the end of you. But you can use art as therapy to share your pain. Other people who might be going through the same thing see your art and realize they’re not alone.”

Thomas, who suffers from diabetes, degenerative lumbar disease and a number of related conditions, pulled out one of her frame pieces — one of many that mesh photography, painting and textual art.

Jarring and effecting, the piece combines an ultrasound of the artist’s pelvis worked through with straightening needles, a textured imprint using Vaseline to capture her face through a technique known as “photo resist,” her portrait and text containing exhortations of hope and perseverance, along with a quote of physicist Marie Curie.

Thomas continues to teach as an adjunct at Salem College and an instructor at the Sawtooth School for Visual Art, but she gave up a teaching job at Forsyth County Day School in 2011.

“I decided when I turned 64 that four jobs was too much,” Thomas said. “My daughter said, ‘I hate to be blunt and I don’t mean to be mean, but you’re running out of time.’ My health isn’t the best. I needed to focus on making art because art brings you joy.”

Thomas’ images capture fleeting glimpses of humanity, startling compositions and flashes of motion. With varying degrees of concreteness, they include a young girl in pigtail braids enviously watching a dance troupe she hopes to join, a nude woman kneeling at a pew, bellydancers at Reynolda House, an elderly man and young woman conversing at a café table and young people sunbathing on roof in Bangkok. The moments contained in them and the treatment used to render them reflect the work of an artist who is comfortable with both the difficult and joyous aspects of her life.

“Adolescence,” a deeply personal collage of photo transfers completed in 1988, both bookends the retrospective and reveals an artist willing to put everything on the table. At the time, she had recently lost both her mother and a niece who was like a daughter to her, while undergoing a divorce from a man who had molested one of her children.

She related an episode from junior high in which a boy falsely told schoolmates that he “felt her up.” On her mother’s advice, Thomas marched up to the boy and exacted a confession from him in front of his friends that he had lied on her.

“He’s planted between two boobs,” Thomas said, pointing to his likeness.

She thought back to the time when, as a single mother attending High Point College in the mid-1970s, she discovered she loved making art.

“I finally found something that let the well of everything inside me come out,” Thomas said. “You express it. I always loved color, lines and textures. I’m not a singer. I’m not good at writing. It’s a way to express life experiences and emotions. I think that’s important.”


Metamorphosis, a retrospective of Mary Bailey Thomas’ work, will be on display at Studio 7, located at 619 N. Trade St. in Winston-Salem, throughout the month of September.