Life isn’t static. We may start out on one road, heading to a particular destination, and by the time we’ve lived for awhile — say, 90 years — discover that we have been to all sorts of unexpected places.
Such has been the journey for Mary Soper, who spent 23 years teaching art in the Prescott (WA) School District and Pioneer Middle School (then junior high) in Walla Walla, and finishing out as the head of the art department of Garrison Middle School (then also called junior high).
But a bit prior to that, she competed in the Miss Washington Pageant, as Miss Grays Harbor, in 1949. That gave her scholarship money to attend the University of Washington where she enrolled as a drama major, quickly switching to business and interior design when she discovered that while the world of theater was beautiful, it was not her world. She subsequently worked as office manager of a furniture store, at a telephone company, as payroll clerk at a milling company, then accountant and secretary to the Walla Walla County Engineer.
A Change of Road Direction
After 11 years at the last job, she decided it was time for a change — a big change. She returned to school for her teaching certificate in art and history. This particular path twist brought fine art seriously into her life.
“I started painting a little while I was teaching,” Soper recalls. “The kids I worked with were so creative that it made me want to explore more.
“I read somewhere, ‘We begin to learn when we begin to teach,’ and this is so true, at least for me.”
She discovered acrylic painting, a medium she connected to immediately upon studying under a visiting professor from the University of New Mexico. Later, she traveled to the United Kingdom for a six-week study abroad program entitled, “Design Resources from London.” Returning with hundreds of reference slides, she embarked upon painting in earnest, never running out of ideas because, when she wasn’t working on a scene from London, she looked around the Pacific Northwest and found continuous inspiration.
“With the collection of photos I have, it is never difficult to decide what I want to paint. It is more difficult to determine which one I want to do next.
“When I start working on a painting, it will often suggest another one, so I guess you could say I work within a theme.”
On the Road to Creativity
Through the years, Soper exhibited her work extensively throughout the Walla Walla Valley, especially at the Carnegie Art Center when it was still extant as an exhibition venue. She has also shown at the Russell Creek Winery, Walla Walla Little Theater, Darrah’s Decorator Center, Williams Team Homes Realtors, and the Walla Walla Country Club.
Working out of her studio in an insulated garage (“When my little heater can’t keep it warm enough, I put down a tarp in my den and that takes me through the cold weather”), Soper describes herself as both a realist and a perfectionist. She loves old buildings and landscapes, often trying to visualize the people who, in the past, inhabited the space, visited it, or wandered through.
“When I saw an old blue pickup in the bushes beside the road, I started wondering, where has it been and what was it used for? Did children or pets ride in the bed of the truck?
“An old combine made me think of how hard it had to work in the sun. Why was it left where it was?”
Commissioned to Paint
Many of her paintings start as commissions for people who have seen her work. With these, the story of the person commissioning is as intriguing as the pieces they commission.
“My painting, Music in Park — a painting of the park bandstand — was purchased by a mother for her daughter in California. She bought it because her daughter swung on the low hanging branch of the Plane Tree when she was a child.”
Old Oasis Barn found a corporate purchaser at the former Frontier Savings & Loan. Harvest made its way to the Senior Center. The Old Wallula Shack was commissioned by a woman, originally from New Zealand, who wanted a color painting from an old black and white photo.
Continuing on the Journey’s Road
“I think viewers look at my work and it tells a story to them based on their experiences,” Soper says.
“I really enjoy creating something that the people who commission it love.”
For a while, Soper took a break from painting, but she is back at it, inspired ironically by an element associated with this article.
“When I started reading the articles Carolyn (Henderson) writes in the Marquee, I thought maybe I should start painting a little more, even though I am in advancing years.”
And so she continues on her journey . . .
Contact the gallery, located at 219 East Main Street, Dayton, WA, by phone at 509.382.2124 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Gallery hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. from Monday through Saturday, and by appointment. Visit the Wenaha Gallery website online at www.wenaha.com.