Donald Munro

An appreciation of Fresno artist Mary Maughelli: A life of art, done her way

The Bee photographed Mary Maughelli in 2006 for her “Persistent Images” show at the Tulare Historical Museum.
The Bee photographed Mary Maughelli in 2006 for her “Persistent Images” show at the Tulare Historical Museum. Darrell Wong

Mary Maughelli didn’t believe in easy art.

A memory: I’m at her 2003 one-woman show “Recurring Themes” at Fig Tree Gallery, one of the two Fresno galleries she loved in an artistic career that spanned more than 50 years. It is not a bright and cheerful exhibition.

The subject matter is emotional and somber. Maughelli lost a breast to cancer. One of the paintings is of an image so startling that I do a double-take: a pile of disconnected breasts.

She responded to adversity in her life by incorporating her pain – and resilience – into her art.

Maughelli, a cancer survivor for decades, died Oct. 25 in Fresno, less than a month shy of her 80th birthday, after a recurrence of the disease. (As of press time, her family had not decided the date of services.)

There was, of course, much more to her art than illness. But it seemed fitting that she would focus on her body, and what she had lost to cancer, in this 2003 show. One of the things she did so well was make you look at the female figure in different and interesting ways. She gave us a glimpse of a world in which women run, lounge, struggle and persevere.

A professor emerita at Fresno State, she taught at the university from 1962 to 1998. She was there to revel in the glory days of Fresno State’s feminist art program in the 1970s, that heady time of Judy Chicago and Joyce Aiken, and was a founding member of Gallery 25, originally a feminist art gallery.

Her work was complex, not something to be brushed by in an instant, but to be lingered upon and mulled over. She loved to make references about art in her art, often working classical figures of women, such as Botticelli’s iconic “Birth of Venus,” into her works.

In that 2003 show, she used oil paint and graphite. Her brush strokes and penciled musings were vigorously applied to a series of square gessoed canvases that became journeys in themselves.

In a 2007 show titled “Evolving Images,” also at Fig Tree, she filled her works with numerous secondary figures and objects – some painted, others drawn – crammed into nearly every square inch of the canvas. A fiercely figurative artist, Maughelli excelled at presenting strong, sure women: some in moments of reflection, others in vigorous motion.

She also was enamored with the technique of collage, in which she collected photos and photocopied them for use in transfer drawings. In the 2007 show, her works contrasted anonymous figures with female icons from paintings in art history.

The remarkable thing about Maughelli is that she never veered from her artistic vision – not because of changing artistic fashions, nor to become more commercial. She had a calling. She stuck to it.

She was a very good painter, and she probably never got the recognition she deserved. In some ways, the art world moved past her, writing off “feminist art” as something from another era. Perhaps it was all in the timing.

Yet there’s something else I remember about Maughelli: her advocacy for the visual arts scene. She supported Gallery 25 and Fig Tree like a mother staking out a seat in the stands for every soccer game. It felt like I saw her at every ArtHop, walking slowly through the galleries, giving the works her full attention – and banishing the socializing to a secondary role. (With most people, it’s the other way around.) She and I would meet eyes, and we would nod and smile, and she’d go back to intently taking in the art.

I will miss her gentle, serious, supportive presence. So will many others.