THE NEWFOUNDLAND QUARTERLY :: ONLINE EXCLUSIVES
Mary Wadden Brown: Profile of a Painter
Mary Elizabeth Brown, nee Wadden, was born July 30, 1921 in east end St. John's, the eldest of five children. She early exhibited artistic talent but made her living in a secretarial career launched in the early years of World War Two.
She first looked for work at Camp Alexander, the makeshift tent encampment where American troops sheltered in 1941 as workers built Fort Pepperrell beside Quidi Vidi Lake. There were no job openings, so she headed for Fort McAndrew in the former fishing village of Marquise, near Argentia.
Social life was active and exciting in a base filled with lonely young servicemen, and Brown had a string of ardent boy friends, many of whom she showed off on occasional weekend home visits in St. John's. Celebrity visitors were not so fortunate. Hollywood hunk Victor Mature, serving in the U.S. Coast Guard after appearing in several pre-war movies, wanted to date her, but Brown politely demurred. "I didn't like the look of him," she recalls.
Her 24th birthday in July 1945 became her wedding day as she married a sergeant Edwin Brown from Georgia. She moved to his home state for what proved a short-lived marriage. By 1949, she was back in St. John's, raising three young children on her own while living with her parents. She applied her secretarial skills to new challenges as a court reporter at Pepperrell Air Force Base in the city, and enjoyed an active social life of house parties, picnic outings, dances and other festivities.
Developing her artistic skills, Brown found early and inspired training just around the corner from home at Reginald and Helen Sheppard's thriving Cochrane St. studio. She had begun painting in oils on canvass, but soon shifted to acrylics, dabbling occasionally in watercolours. She earned an honourable mention in the annual Arts and Letters Competition in 1961. EveningTelegram critic Peter Bell, in his review of an Art Association of Newfoundland summer exhibition, penned this glowing comment: "Among the best works was Mary Brown's painting looking up Gower St. from city hall. There was some licence with the perspective of the building in the left foreground...but this gave tremendous stature to the excellently painted row of houses on the brow of the hill. The sky was beautifully luminous. A very effective painting."
Selling works to various admirers helped pay for further instruction and enabled her to venture out of town. She loved to wander, driving off for hours to capture the scenic landscapes along the shoreline of the Marine Drive, Conception Bay and the Southern Shore. Further favourite sites included St. Pierre and, for what became annual summer forays, Eastport. Much of Brown's painting in town and out in those years was done in company with an enthusiastic group of ladies sharing a similar passion - Penny Wilansky, Daphne Howse, Millie Fearn, Jean Earle, to name just a few.
When Pepperrell closed in the late 1950s, Brown moved on to the Federal Fisheries department and later to Memorial University as secretary to John Colman, Director of Extension Services. In the university milieu, artistic pursuits were much encouraged. She met Christopher Pratt and took a copper etching course from master artist David Blackwood. Exhibiting regularly in the University art gallery, she became active in the Art Association of Newfoundland, serving as secretary and newsletter editor.
In the mid-60s, she took up teaching of secretarial skills at the College of Trades and Technology. Extra work helped to ease financial worries as Brown took on supporting her parents following her father's retirement with a minuscule pension. The family home on Gower Street had to be sold at rock bottom price in that economically depressed era. Undeterred, she contrived to purchase a sturdy house on Long Pond Road large enough for her parents, herself, and her three children.
In 1975, Brown was one of 28 leading Newfoundland women artists selected for a special exhibition marking International Women's Year. Curated by Edythe Goodridge, the exhibit toured across the province. The next year, she presented 32 of her works in her own exhibition at St. Mary's Bay Crafts in St. John's.
When a Parliament Hill job offer came two years later from St. John's East M.P. Jim McGrath, she sold her city home and moved to Ottawa. Until retirement in 1986, she continued her keen artistic interests, exhibiting in City of Ottawa competitions, picking up one first prize ribbon. A solo exhibition featuring mostly new work but including pieces from Newfoundland was held in 1985. She also joined Ottawa's RA Photo Club, winning first prize in an audio-visual competition for a floral images presentation.
After recovery from a 1993 car accident causing serious leg injuries, she continued to drive until a few years ago. Painting until her late 80s, she ventured as far afield as Giverney, France, and Spain, Portugal, the United States and Mexico. More recently, she joined francophone friends in regular painting sessions at Baie St. Paul, Quebec. She currently lives in Almonte, ON.
Nix Wadden (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a retired federal government communications manager and former journalist living in Ottawa. His first book Yesterday's News was published in 2008 and he is working on a new one centred on growing up in St. John's. Mary Brown is his sister.
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