EAST SULLIVAN — Mary Welsh was due last month to begin teaching an eight-week drawing class, but the 90-year-old Sullivan artist suffered a stroke and died on Feb. 6 at Maine Coast Memorial Hospital in Ellsworth.
In the Feb. 10 class, the warm, free-spirited Mary would have put her students at ease and shown them how to create volume and depth of field using charcoal, pencils and pens and the white of the paper. Then the class would have moved on to pastels with each student encouraged to express themselves.
In the Downeast region, Mary was known for her vibrant landscapes and tender portraits capturing the spirit, character and mannerisms of people, pets and animals. A fondness for dogs, especially Australian shepherds, ran deep.
Gouldsboro novelist Cynthia Thayer knew Mary well, noting that she did charcoal drawings of her granddaughters Leila and Melissa Saad. The one of Melissa is especially precious since the offer to do it came after the child’s tragic death years ago.
“That’s them,” said Thayer, referring to the girls’ portraits. “Not only do they look like them, but the little things in their personalities — their ch’I [vital force] comes through.”
In addition, Mary once served as the Frenchman’s Bay Library’s librarian and was active in a meditation group and the Ashville Community Church.
A passionate advocate for the visual and performing arts, Welsh was instrumental in founding the former Sullivan Harbor Gallery in back of the Sullivan town office and creating a place for local artists to show and sell their work east of the Hancock-Sullivan Bridge.
In addition, she painted murals gracing the former Sullivan Grammar School, the Sorrento-Sullivan Recreational Center and the former Armando’s Italian Restaurant in Hancock. The latter mural features Mount Vesuvius and restaurateur Armando Boccia and his family in the Naples area. She also created fine holiday illustrations for Maine Coast Memorial Hospital’s annual Poinsettia Ball.
Born in New York City in 1928, Mary lived on both the East and West coasts. She studied at New York’s Thomas Aquinas College and Arts Student League. She also attended Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colo., as well as the Arts Center College of Design in Los Angeles.
Seeking a quieter life, Mary and her surveyor husband, Joseph, moved from Tenafly, N.J., to Maine in 1976 and took up residence on the breezy hilltop that was formerly the Hannah dairy farm on the Tunk Lake Road. Meadows surround the old white-frame house. Come summer, petunias peeked out of window boxes. A whimsically painted angel adorns the garage exterior.
Besides advocating for the arts, Mary often exercised her right of free speech writing letters to the editor to The Ellsworth American’s Editorial pages. Last year, the then 89-year-old blasted the U.S. health care system after a 48-hour phone marathon in which she failed to get her prescription renewed for eye drops used for her glaucoma.
“What is happening to our medical system? The insurance companies have us all in a stranglehold, as well as the criminal pharmaceutical companies,” she wrote. “Family doctors are becoming as scarce as hen’s teeth as they are being told how to practice medicine by these huge profit-making machines, so are opting out of the profession. Who can blame them?”
Mary also illustrated the newspaper’s serialized fiction novel “Murder at the Black House” in 2014.
Curious about the world from a young age, Mary was an adventurous soul, who had an affinity for all kinds of wild and domesticated animals including snakes.
“They don’t bother me. They are wild creatures,” she said in an interview for a 2014 Ellsworth American story about her. “I had a horn toad too. It used to sit on my shoulders.”
Her fondness for snakes was forged while attending the co-ed, K-12 Chadwick School where her mother taught in Palos Verdes, Calif. She had an Australian classmate named Harry Higgins.
“I sat next to a boy who put snakes in my desk,” Mary recalled. Harry had some pet rattlesnakes too. The boy said he milked the rattlers and sold the venom for money to support his smoking habit. He also kept a tarantula named Gertrude in his pencil box.
“I had to make friends with snakes or be very unhappy. To make a long story short, I became friends with Fritz.”
Fritz, a mature western king snake, became so friendly with Mary that it lived for a time in her sweater drawer. In later years, she babysat a 5-foot pet python named Alexandra belonging to her daughter’s boyfriend. She came home one day to find the python stuck in a birdcage digesting the family’s pet parrot.
“He got loose and he ate the parrot,” relates Mary, who was not fond of the bird. “It did nothing but shriek all day and sat on my paintings.”
So it’s no wonder that Mary made a green snake the protagonist of her children’s book, “Sammy The Little Green Snake Who Wanted to Fly,” She got the idea sitting outside on the grass and trying to picture the world from a snake’s perspective.
“Poor things, they are on the ground a lot. They slither around and don’t see much,” quipped Mary, whose storytelling and writing were nurtured by Gouldsboro novelist Cynthia Thayer and Hancock author Sanford Phippen. A great storyteller himself, Phippen urged Mary to write down her highly entertaining stories and illustrate them herself in the former Puckerbrush Review literary magazine.
“She was a woman with an interesting past and thus had great stories to share,” Phippen said last week. “She was friendly, outgoing and genteel and knew when a kind word was needed.”
Mary was predeceased by her husband, Joseph. She is survived by her daughter and son-in-law Nancy and Bernie McLoughlin and grandchildren Sean and Brittany McLoughlin, who live in Boca Raton, Fla. Mary also leaves behind her brother James (JP) Reddick and his wife, Katie, as well as her beloved Australian shepherd dog Izzy.
A celebration of Mary’s life will be held at a later date. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made in her memory to Hospice of Hancock County and Hancock County HomeCare.