An Interview with Artist and Poet Mary Freericks
by Silver Webb
I met Mary dancing. As one does. In full Regency dress, at the Winter Dreams Ball. “Will you take a picture of me?” I believe that was her opening line. How could I refuse a beauty in a sparkly green ballroom skirt with an abalone necklace, purple flowers in her hair, and long white gloves on? I said yes to her, of course. And Mary flung herself into a pose worthy of Martha Graham. As I snapped a few photos, I thought, There is a story here. What is it? It did not take me long to find out that Mary is both a poet and an artist. Normally I would smile brightly, and brace myself for Ring-Around-the-Rosy and Color-in-the-Lines. The vast majority of people who write or paint should do so with complete abandon within the privacy of their own home, and leave the rest of us out of it. But there was something about Mary, if you’ll excuse the well-worn phrase, which made me think, “This lady might just be amazingly talented.” It turns out that she is. At watercolors, acrylics, collage, clothing design, and pretty much anything she puts her hand to. And she can write. Her book Blue Watermelon gathers poems about her childhood in Iran. You might not guess from her accent and auburn hair that English is Mary’s fourth language. She was born to a Russian Jewish woman and an Armenian Gregorian carpet merchant living in Iran, then immigrated with her mother to New York after her father passed away, and then to California after her own husband passed. A few weeks after the dance, I met Mary for lunch as she walked out of church with her black coat belted at the waist, little buckles and lace and unexpected touches, at least one or two older gentleman following after her. She knew exactly what to make of them, although they hardly know what to make of her. “Now I just say I’m from New Jersey. It’s easier,” she mused, as we got into her car, the back seat filled with paintings she made over the weekend at an art workshop. We arrived at a nice deli and settled in for a conversation that began with the paintings of Velasquez and ended with musings on the way women hold one another up over the generations, even after they’ve passed. Mary is intensely aware of history. She remembers precisely the Atlantic passage on a Victory Ship, as one of three females on a ship full of sailors. She remembers also listening to Hitler on the radio in Tabriz, frightened of his manic shouting. Even now, she doesn’t like large stadiums of people cheering and shouting. She remembers hiding in the basement, lights out, while Tabriz was bombed. She remembers the family garden, her grandmother directing all of the women in the making of tomato paste. Such are the topics of her poems, and even her paintings. The cover of Volume 1 of the journal is a detail of a larger painting of Mary’s that shows the making of the tomato paste. A spur-of-the-moment venture into surreal, primitive color from an artist who can paint Russian tea glass with the precision of a watchmaker.
But there are more than dolls. The small apartment has paintings stacked everywhere. Exuberant watercolors of flowers, experimental splashes of paint, studious and precise, then wild and unpredictable. But the painting she really wanted to show me is the one of her matrilineal line. An Eiffel Tower of ancestors, one standing upon the shoulders on the other. In this reckoning of things, Mary is standing on the shoulders of powerful women, and her daughter-in-law stands on her shoulders, and at the top, young and enthusiastic, is her granddaughter Rachel. When I ask Mary what her favorite drink is, she thinks about it, and says, “Does soup count? I have soup two or three times a day. Soup is almost like a mother. It’s very cozy and comforting.” I wonder if this practical side of Mary comes from the sharp shift from being the daughter of a wealthy merchant in Tehran to the daughter of a single mother who made it by with help from the family’s wholesale rug business in Manhattan on West 33rd street. “Uncle Mesrop ran it,” she says, just as she mentions many such family members from her past, as if I might know them, as if they are still right there with her. Perhaps they are. But I suspect they are practical too. Her mother rented a few rooms in a house in Nyack, and had to learn how to cook food for the family, now that their life of servants in Tabriz and Tehran was over. Her mother never remarried, although she’d been widowed young. “My dad was her everything,” Mary says frankly. Mary went to Beaver College on scholarships, performed in college plays, and at her mother’s insistence, majored in the practical career of teaching. On campus there was literally a castle, where she met her husband-to-be in the mirror room. He’d come from Princeton for a mixer. Mary describes him as having sandy-colored hair with beautiful green eyes, tall, well built, and slow to ask her to marry him (three years, she tells me, as if that is outrageously long). For a while they lived in Ohio, while he worked for the railroad. She was a young mother then, and didn’t really know that she wanted to be a writer or a painter. She was too busy trying to find a teaching job. But she did write poems, and over time began to take poetry workshops, taught by writers like Sharon Olds and Galway Kinnell, and even went to Columbia for her M.F.A. After Mary’s husband passed away, Mary moved to Santa Barbara in 1992, to be closer to her sons. “I discovered Adult Ed and took watercolor with Margaret Singer, then to Rose Margaret Braiden for more watercolor for many years. Then I started spreading into other areas, oil painting was only $5 for the semester, so I took that. I took various other courses. Now I’m doing acrylics.” When I ask if she paints every day, she responds vehemently, “No! I have too many paintings. I only paint once a week! And I probably write once a week.” What else can I tell you about Mary? She was born at the tail end of the Chinese year of the Wood Dog, and she’s a Capricorn. So that would be an independent, stubborn, sure-footed person, who is patient and persistent in their work. That last one is a crucial characteristic for an artist or writer, in my opinion. She has taught poetry as well as contributed to the anthologies To Give Life a Shape, For She is the Tree of Life, Poetry in the Garden, and Armenian-American Poets. She has also read at the Distinguished Poets Series, William Carlos Williams Poetry Center, International Women’s Writers, Armenian Students’ Association, and the Karpeles Manuscript Library. Mary recently showed her work in the Abstract Art Collective in Faulkner Gallery and in Corridan Gallery with the Santa Barbara Visual Artists. She is currently working on a new book of poetry “to give strength to my grand-daughter, to future generations, to understand the pedestal we’re standing on and how we’re all holding each other up, giving each other courage to find ourselves.” Cheer for Freedom is the tentative title, and it will include both poems and works of art. Mary Freericks is a prize-winning poet with publications in anthologies including To Give Life a Shape, For she is the Tree of Life, Poetry in the Garden, and Armenian-American Poets. She has taught poetry both for the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and California Poet in the Schools as well as in service courses to teachers in New Jersey, New York, and California. She has led workshops for the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Foundation. Her poetry readings include Distinguished Poets Series, William Carlos Williams Poetry Center, International Women’s Writers, Armenian Students’ Association, and the Karpeles Manuscript Library.