a journal of...

A journal among friends...
art, words, home, people and places

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Life Lessons

[photo from the Philadelphia Milton Hershey School alumni website]
Hershey, Pennsylvania has its name all over the map, usually wrapped around their famous chocolate.  In town, that confection is the symbol of the city (coming and going, a billboard with the iconic bar pronounces "Welcome" and "Thanks for Visiting"), as well as the theme of festivals and tourist attractions, the names of major streets, and, in a dash of humor most probably not intended, the small brick corner building entitled Chocolate Workers Local #464 AFL-CIO, a sweet oxymoron, if ever I saw one.

butterfly garden in the Hershey conservatory

Milton Hershey's legacy has its elegance, too, in the gardens and conservatory, which includes a charming butterfly garden with friendly inhabitants who will light on you if you are wearing the same coordinating colors they are, and legendary generosity in the schools he created and children he and his wife Kitty have fostered there, even long after their deaths.

It's been interesting to explore the town in various seasons, especially fall and spring, though I am not usually in tourist mode when I travel there.  This last visit, however, brought a sweeter treat, an introduction to a painter whose work still brings amazement to the few people who are lucky enough to view it.
friends Sadie and Mary

Mary De Bon and her late husband moved to Pennsylvania when they retired some years ago, and after his death, she eventually left for an apartment at Country Meadows in Hershey, where, as luck would have it, my aunt also moved last summer and soon met her.  "I want you to see her work,"Aunt Sadie has been telling me.  It isn't the first time my aunt has directed me to art--because of her I found the Print Council of New Jersey, where I fell in love with monoprinting. This time, she arranged for the two of us to visit Mary so I could see what she so admired.

Mary herself is a friendly, good-humored woman (and, by the aroma coming from her kitchen, a wonderful baker), and she took us on tour of the dozen or so paintings in oil that she has hanging there.

Mary De Bon, husband and son at lodge

But, here's the thing...it's been forty years since she's painted.  "Before I had children, a friend told me about a group they were starting; they'd go into the city together and take painting lessons from a man they knew about.  I thought I'd like to tag along."

Mary De Bon, early still life

Join them, she did, and her prolific work began, at first whatever the instructor had them copy, and then, as their technique grew stronger, finding inspiration from their own sources.  Mary often chose photographs of people from the National Geographic, whose faces drew her.  "Faces are the most difficult things you can paint," her teacher warned.  "But I like painting them," she told him.  Obviously she followed her own muse.

Mary De Bon, face
Mary De Bon, portrait of a star
 Followed it until the children came along, and painting became something that, as she puts it, seemed to belong to another life.

She didn't stop art, however...needlepoint became her medium, and later fabric collages, and you won't be surprised to learn that she brought thread and needle to the complicated images of portraits.  "Oh," she demurs, "I was just following the patterns."  Well, there are followers, and then there are followers.
Mary De Bon, needlepoint
I hope I didn't gasp audibly when she told us that the rest of her paintings, many more of them, were being stored in her daughter's basement.  Mary smiled, "She has different taste," and mentioned that one of these days, she'd divide up the treasures among her three children and their children, letting them choose whichever ones they'd like.  Mary hasn't sold her work, or tried to.  It's hard even to talk to her about showing them at Country Meadows, though she has had a few hung there in exhibits with others, and she's won prizes for her Christmas card designs.

Her art is about as far from mine as mine is to the English portraitists, whom I also admire but could never emulate.  What they have in common is their high talent for impressing on us the character of the faces they paint.  It's not only the precision of the lines and shadows that matter to them, but the unseen root of the person...that expression at that moment.  As much as I sigh over Winslow Homer and his wild skies, I stand back at a piece by Mary and shake my head at the clarity of her vision.

And not only the vision of art.  I can understand perfectly the notion that art, of whatever kind, can be useful to us at certain points in our lives, and then we move on to something else, driven by a wholly reformed phase of self we've fallen into.  We see the world through changed lenses; we see art through the motions of hands that take to other tools, to other subjects.  We don't disparage our former work; far from it.  We use it as a foundation for seeing, if not doing, more.  Life and art make good tradespeople, lending one another their best experiences to shape and reshape as the conditions and circumstances of life reshape us.

It's really a matter of dedication, not necessarily to art, but to ourselves.  I admire that, most of all.


  1. Spectacular is the word that came in my mind after reading this article. The relationship discussed is so beautiful and eternal. Definitely a mood changer for me.