L’Anse-raised Mary Wright was a homesteader, a teacher of health education, English, history, and art, a cancer survivor, and a feminist. Most people remember her, however, as a community art organizer.
Well over three-thousand blue and white hand-painted chairs brightened NMU’s campus during FinnFestUSA 1996 and 2005. 50 colorful fish shanties appeared at the Lower Harbor parking lot during the World Winter Cities Conference held in Marquette in 1997. Residents painted 400 book covers to represent their city block and raise money for their library. The history of pioneer settlers and families of today were recreated on one of the 500 Heritage Family Poles, set up to celebrate the Marquette Sesquicentennial in 1999. In 2007, 200 doors told the stories of grandmothers, past and current. Over the years, many thousands of people participated in these and other projects, and uncountable locals and tourists viewed them.
When Mary Wright dreamed up these community efforts, the sky was the limit.
No idea was too big or impossible to carry out. Her criteria for any of these undertakings were straightforward: The project had to involve fun, collaboration, and community spirit. Mary believed that every person has the capacity to be creative if provided the opportunity, and that working on joint art projects, reflecting the spirit of old-time barn-raising events, could create miracles.
This community aspect was essential. All participants, from elementary school child to grandmother to prisoner, were welcomed. The wilder the inspiration, the better! If you wanted to cover the wall of your fish shanty with left-over socks gathered at laundromats, or hang shoes of your relatives from your family tree, why not?
To make these complicated events happen required multiple skills. Mary had a knack for roping people in, persuading them to help paint a mural, create a prototype, drive logs from Munising to Marquette, give money, or procure materials. She networked with local and state art organizations, city government departments, labor unions, and corporations, found donors and sponsors, and worked with the news media. She made countless presentations in schools, clubs, and to any group. And she did it all without a computer or the Internet! Her persuasive powers and persistence were legendary. Mary Wright did not take “no” for an answer.
Mary Wright had a special gift for finding the perfect expression of a particular event:
Blue and White Chairs, Finland’s national colors, were the perfect symbol for FinnFestUSA, an annual international festival held each year in a different city. They gave people of Finnish heritage a chance to honor their families and to define what being Finnish meant to them. They were an expression of hospitality, an invitation to sit down to strike up a conversation, to recycle old furniture, to create an heirloom. All fifteen UP counties participated. Chairs were set up by their painters’ regions, so visitors could find the chairs, benches, stools, and rockers they had decorated. A calendar was later created to provide a lasting souvenir of the event.
Mary felt Fish Shanties symbolized the spunk, spirit, and sisu of UP winter culture. Some grandparents used them to create playhouses for their grandkids. Book Covers were a natural for a library fundraiser. The project was organized around city blocks. This created special pride for residents and helped distribute the covers widely. Family Poles were perfect to portray the 150-year history of Marquette. The many different stories of individual families and organizations told through these poles formed a kaleidoscope of the community’s past and present.
Mary Wright learned how to draw the attention of the news media. Her flamboyant way of dressing in bright exotic costumes, colorful hats, and artful jewelry made her stand out. She managed to get herself on the Today Show in New York, at which she presented a bench decorated with portraits of the show’s luminaries. In the days before drones, she had an aerial photo taken from a helicopter to help advertise her book project. Family poles rode in the Fourth of July Parade. Outdoor working sessions gave visibility to a given project. There were interviews, photographs, and editorials in the newspaper.
Mary’s unique style is featured in Yoopera, a film documenting the production of the Rockland opera and the creation of Mary’s Storyline project in which thousands of white panels strung on wires fluttered in the wind like layered prayer flags from their spots around the Rosza Center and more Michigan Tech campus areas. Primarily made by schoolchildren, each panel had a photo transfer of someone’s image and the story of that person’s life told in the first person.
Mary Wright’s activities were not restricted to Marquette and Houghton.
She organized over thirty-five community projects, including in places like Alpena, Ypsilanti, and Port Huron, and also worked internationally in Toronto and Finland. Her themes were often based on ordinary objects such as shovels, stepladders, pillow cases, spring flowers, or winter mittens. In 1999, she received Michigan’s Governor’s Award for Arts and Culture.
Participating in one of these community projects has had a lasting impact on many. Often it was the first time someone had created an art object. Mary Wright supporter Doug Hagley said about Family Poles, “Some families were reunited after years of separation. Dialogues were fostered… Children honored their parents and grandparents…. The community and its visitors experienced the healing and community-building power of art.” School children became interested in their family history and realized that you could be an artist at any age. Poet Sandy Bonsall’s experience painting blue and white chairs with her students prompted her to write My Mother’s Story Is My Story. I myself was inspired to create a family pole to explore the Finnish background of my husband, and Grandma Doors led me to research the life of my Bavarian grandmother whom I had never met.
We lost Mary in November 2021. To honor her and her work, the Beaumier Heritage Center at Northern Michigan University will feature her in an exhibit in the spring of 2023. If you are willing to loan Mary Wright project object for the exhibit, please contact Dan Truckey at (906) 227-3212 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Austrian writer and visual artist Christine Saari has lived in Marquette since 1971. She has published memoir Love and War at Stag Farm (2011) and poetry book Blossoms in the Dark of Winter (2018). Find her visual work at The Gallery and Wintergreen Hills Gallery.
Excerpted from the Fall 2022 issue of Health & Happiness U.P. Magazine. Copyright 2022, Empowering Lightworks, LLC. All rights reserved.