Frances Lewis and Nancy Currier lead me into their late mother’s studio. Nancy flips on the light.
“What my mom always used to say is when people come here, the first thing they say is nothing about the art,” she said. “The first thing they say is, ‘But it’s so tidy. It’s so clean.’”
And it really is.
Everything — from the many art books to the canvases to the evenly staggered paintbrushes on her desk — has been left carefully positioned by artist Mary Ann Currier, who died at the age of 90 on Sunday.
This room is a metaphor for not only Currier’s art, but her life as well.
She is internationally known for her hyper-realistic still-lifes, in which everyday items are painstakingly arranged in such a way that draws equal attention to each part. And in her personal life, she similarly balanced her roles as wife and mother, artist and teacher.
Frances and Nancy say when they were growing up along with their eldest sister, Anne, art was always around them.
“We would come home from school and she would be right there in the kitchen painting,” Frances said. “For us, that was nothing, but our friends would come over, and…”
She makes a ‘wow-ed’ expression.
Nancy interjects with a story from when she was a kid: “I took it for granted so much, one time she wasn’t home and I went over to something and I thought, ‘I don’t think that part over there looks right, I’m going to fix it.’ So, I did. And she never said a word about it, though she changed it back at some point later that day.”
They said Currier had attended art school in Chicago, but for a long time, her painting was something that was just admired locally.
“We kind of worked up to the level of museums she was in,” Frances said. “She used to enter her pieces at the Kentucky State Fair. She always had a blue ribbon.”
But, Nancy says, Currier didn’t have her first real exhibition until she was 50.
Now, Currier’s pieces can be found in numerous collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, Crystal Bridges in Bentonville, Ark., and the Speed Art Museum here in Louisville.
Currier As An Artist
Miranda Lash is the contemporary art curator at the Speed. She describes one of Currier’s pieces the museum has on view called “Retrospective Rose,” which was painted in 2007.
“It was given by Mary Ann Currier in honor of her parents,” Lash said. “It’s a gorgeous oil pastel of a rose with yellow and pink petals, pink along the edges. And if you get close to the piece, you can see how delicately she’s rendered all the layers of color.”
Alice Gray-Stites curated a retrospective of Currier’s work at the Speed in 2005.
“For about two years, I was with her every Monday for three or four hours,” Stites said. “Over that period of time, we not only reviewed her artwork — all of the drawings that she had, images of all the works that were in collections locally and all over the United States — but she also shared with me her journals, because that is where she kept a lot of her thoughts.”
It’s also where she kept notes on the kind of art she admired, which wasn’t restricted to still lifes.
After turning 80, Currier moved into abstraction. Examples are currently on-view at the Speed, which has a total of twelve of her abstract paintings.
Currier As A Teacher
And Currier’s admiration for all types of art was evident to her students. She taught for more than two decades at the Louisville School of Art in Anchorage.
Martin Rollins, a Louisville painter, was one of her students.
“She was not interested in having people work as she did,” Rollins said. “She was the sort of teacher who took people where they were and if you were a serious student and you were serious about her work and you were a hard worker, she responded.”
In her own practice, Currier’s daughters describe her as “intensely disciplined.”
“I actually think her being the only child of German immigrants is a lot of her persona because it’s part of that German discipline,” Frances said.
Currier didn’t like to be distracted when painting.
She rarely listened to music when she worked — though she would sometimes make exceptions for classical pieces and did some of her best paintings while following the Watergate scandal on the radio.
But, Nancy said, their mother always made time for her family.
“Her job, her art, it took up her time — but she was always there for me if I came to her and needed something,” she said.
Nancy and Frances said their mother taught them to operate as a family unit; to bring a bunch of disparate pieces and people together and make them shine, much like composing a perfect still life. And that’s the legacy they’ll most remember Currier by.