5 or 6 years ago, I whined to Mary MacDonald that I was being irresponsible to have left a job to write another book. She took something out of her pocket and pinned it on my coat. A little black badge that said Art = Work. A smile on her face like, Shut up, and don’t forget it.
Art = Work. Valuable work. Work that’s good for the economy, work that enriches local culture, and work that makes us stop, broaden our hearts and minds, identify with each other, unite us against issues affecting us all, and shape a better world.
Mary had a way of bringing art’s necessity and worth out of the vague nebula in which it exists for many of us, and making it feel necessary, healthy, and invigorating to engage with. Good, topical art can generate urgent, meaningful, and productive discussion on big societal issues.
People like Mary who did it all — arts curation, arts writing, art making, arts admin, volunteering. festival planning, organization founding — are a valuable community commodity: they’re a vessel by which to help the public engage with The Arts and make it exciting, or accessible, or whatever a person needs it to be, to get out of their house and go see an exhibit or a reading or a dance party fundraiser.
But ultimately, what Mary pushed for in her writing for The Overcast was freedom of the artist, and a way for them to escape the bounds of whatever might shackle true art’s production. In our very first issue, Mary wrote about the importance of a space like Eastern Edge that allows for “The Artist-Run Life,” explained like this:
“A group of artists are sitting around a kitchen table. A bottle of wine cracked. They start talking. They imagine a place of their own, a place to show the kind of work that they want to make, without rules, without the need to satisfy trends, collectors, museums. A place where they get to call the shots, a place about now, right now, all the time now … and in the morning after everyone had said everything that had to be said, they would get up and do it all over again.”
Mary moved here, saw the promise of the place and its artists, and wondered, with articulation, how artists could reach their full potential here. Her own efforts centred on engaging emerging artists to pursue their creative impulses; defending the sanctity of unadulterated curation in places like The Rooms; and advocating for better funding and infrastructure to support artists here, namely to keep bright minds and discussions in the province.
In May 2016’s print issue, she wrote,
“I came to St. John’s in 2008. At that time the trickle down oil effect was being celebrated around kitchen tables as Newfoundland and Labrador’s big break. Residents revelled in being a “have” province and those of us in the cultural community waited with baited breath on what that could mean for us.
“As the years went by, I came to recognize St. John’s, and NL more broadly, as a very transitory place. Artists came for school, studio space, or their first big break, but many would eventually hit the wall. There are only so many jobs in arts admin, only so much money in the grants system, and only so many venues, festivals, and galleries to support them.
“Though everyone tries their best, squeezing pennies and starting new projects, there comes a time when many decide to go. Like any other workers, artists will move to develop their careers and unfortunately (for us) Newfoundland and Labrador was not where they saw that happening.
“But why not? Below is a partial list of 236 artists who have moved on in recent years. It is not perfect, nor is it meant to be a memorial, more a statement of potential. But imagine if we could stop the brain drain, imagine how rich our communities and economies could be.
“This province lacks vision and the ability to retain young professionals across the board. So next time the province touts the cultural industry as alive and well, I’d encourage you to think about this list of 236 names who have taken their ideas, vision, and creativity with them.”
The Arts are not a frivolous hobby, they’re a rich well of human expression, and a discussion generator for what ails society, and what brings us together. In turn, artists aren’t lazy-arses looking for a handout, they are hard-working economic drivers. Newfoundland and Labrador’s Arts Sector generates more than $400 Million a year, and it employs a lot of people, and it feeds other industries, from retailers selling arts and crafts, to those doing PR for a dance festival or set decoration on a film.
If art holds a mirror to the heartbeat of its time, it seemed important to Mary that the public was paying attention to modern art and local artists. In the summer of 2014, Mary told The Overcast she was working on curating something that focussed on “what happens in the space between artists and audiences … I love the idea of contemporary art as a part of everyday life involving everyday people … too often people think art isn’t for them, they won’t get it.”
Watching Facebook light up with pictures and memories and surges of nostalgia the week Mary passed away felt like fitting celebration. Or maybe recognition is the better word. Admiration for the impact one person really can make on their community, in a broad sense, or on their friends and family in a more profound sense. Mary left a mark on people. It doesn’t wash off. Whoever knew her will fondly and forever wear this invisible tattoo.
The way Mary MacDonald threw her head back in a laugh, lost in it, savouring it maybe, said everything about her: engage with life. We lost her at 32, but I like to think she got more out of daily life, and did twice as much good work in a year than most of us do. It makes her early loss feel like a fuller life.
We’re lucky she knew so many people and ran in so many circles, so her Mary-ness rubbed off in every nook and cranny of our community. Mary was proof people can still think for themselves and encourage others to think harder, be better, and enact change instead of just blindly raging.
It isn’t even her astounding community impact we’re taking note of upon her death. Instead, it’s that light she had in her, that just went out on us all. Whatever that was, it’s something so rare we miss it already. Community Building aside, what a witty-funny-kind-fierce-smart-and-riveting conversationalist. And what a laugh she had.
She was the kind of bright, realistic visionary that imparted critical thinking and intelligence and influence into her community, instead of just regurgitating the opinion and ire of others. We needed that. Goodbye, you model citizen. Thanks for showing us all how to be, in a small community like ours.