MARY HACKNEY WICKER -- MEMORIES
By Nancy D. Wicker-Eilan
My paternal grandmother, Mary Hackney Wicker, was a painter. My maternal grandmother was a couture-level dressmaker for herself and her daughter. Put simply, good mothers, good "homemakers," brave women (each lost one child in infancy and early childhood), and they both excelled in their additional genetic (?) talents.
Mary Hackney (known as "Mae") was raised by parents who recognized and aided her artistic talent all through her childhood. She won an award for her painting in an Illinois state contest at age 14. She married a young man, Charles Gustavus Wicker, Jr., in the 1890's who not only respected her remarkable gift, but encouraged her to the point of helping to finance, along with her brother, her studies in Paris. She went to the Julian School in 1906-07, which was the only school in Europe, at that time that accepted women students. She took her seven year old son, my father, with her, found a school for him, a flat in Paris, and without a single word of French in her fine mid-west vocabulary, began studies at Julian where she is listed in that year's catalogue as "painter-sculptor."
The family photos show them together, with their dog, sitting at a tea table, dog on chair, dog large enough to be almost eye-to-eye with his owners, and another with her husband and his sister, Caroline, holding one of her paintings. His attitude is one of respect and admiration. What a wonderful, supportive second family she joined! I cannot imagine her later success would have been possible without their backing.
My relationship with her spanned two entirely separate worlds; one consisted of the standard Sunday lunches, along with my great-aunt, Caroline, at our home in Chicago. Great-aunt Caroline was not always present as all 4'10'' under 100 lbs of her might be travelling. She went on an archaeological trip to Tibet and another to India in the early 1900's. She also went to China, and lastly and later, to the more traditional European countries. They conformed, if such a word can be used, to family Sunday lunches. My mother and father had very busy careers in Chicago radio. Sunday was the only day we could eat with the whole small family.
The other was the treasured and magical afternoons at her studio on Delaware Place, Chicago, where I went with our dog, Irish terrier "Mike" and some household employee. The studio was a child's dream (if art is primary). The floors were stacked with paintings, two – three deep, leaning against the walls. The overall aroma was a sublime mixture of oil paints and turpentine. I took my appointed place on a foot-stool with some sort of drawing set-up, crayons, pencils and paper, at her left side, while she painted. Oil paints and canvas were artists' tools. I was a beginner and started with beginner's equipment – a very important lesson in the undertaking. Begin something you don't know with familiar tools. As I do not remember a time I was not drawing something, At some spontaneous moment we would take "breaks" and have all the forbidden foods, cocoa, Fanny Farmer's marshmallows dipped in chocolate. Nuts for "Mike". And finally a reluctant parting as I went home for reality – dinner and homework.
She was beautiful and elegant; when working, remote but kindly and supportive. Whenever I was in an art class, later on, and asked by a fellow student to comment on their work, I tried, politely to refuse by saying – "no one other that a knowledgeable teacher should comment on your work." I never did. I realize now it's undoubtedly because she never said anything more to me than one would say to any child – "..that's fine – keep it up." It is the only way an artist can grow. If one doesn't learn to develop and exercise their own capacity to observe, watch and put down on paper what they see, (and hope it will be better next time) they cannot be artists.
My grandmother was certainly the main reason I felt it was all right to want to be an artist, and to work hard at developing whatever talent I might have. I cannot conceive of my life without art, music, and friends who did unconventional things. Going to Paris alone with a small child in 1906 was certainly not conventional. It took incredible courage and what she viewed in her journal as an imperative and sometimes "awful ambition." She held the traditional view of art and women of the time, and yet pursued her dream – so much more difficult than for my generation. She never re-married after her husband died in a sailing accident, he had rescued four companions first, and succumbed to exhaustion. My father was 9 years old. She painted only sporadically after that until my father graduated from college, knowing that her 9 year old son needed his one remaining parent more than she needed to paint. Once he graduated and married, almost simultaneously, she went back to work and painted and exhibited almost until her death. She was recognized and praised in her lifetime and received attention, respect, admiration of and awards for her work. She had the painter's "flaw" in that she would sometimes ask for a painting back, after it had been sold, so that she could improve upon it. I don't know what owner's reaction was to that, but I suspect they complied, secretly believing that all artists are somewhat mad and should be treated gently.
With two generations of "working women" as an example, I had a path cleared for me that many women of talent did not. My family came first, in all my decisions, but I did not ignore my other self in the interims. It is almost entirely due to my grandmother's example to know that we can do more than the traditional family privileges and obligations. It is incumbent on us to try – and very good luck to all who venture forth – whatever the field.
About the author Nancy Wicker, granddaughter of Mary Hackney Wicker
Childhood: Drawing alone or at the side of painter-grandmother, Mary Hackney Wicker; continued art classes through 12 years of schooling. After graduating from high school took life classes in New York at Columbia University; Arts Students League; In Connecticut, Sculpture studies with Vincent Leggiadro, Silvermine Guild of Arts; Stanley Bleifeld, Weston.
Private portrait commissions; awards at juried Art Exhibits; Public works: 8' Bronze statue of great-grandfather, Charles Gustavus Wicker in Wicker Park, Chicago, unveiled September, 2006; memorial Bronze Plaque of Lisa Derman, Holocaust Hero, Spring Grove Park, Illinois, unveiling, July, 2011. Recently exhibited pastels and sculptures at "Art of the Land", sponsored by The Land Conservancy of McHenry County, September, 2011; H'Arts Exhibit (Harvard Artists working in the public schools), October 2011.
Former Artist member of the National Arts Club, New York City.
Additional essays about the artist: "Mary Hackney Wicker--A Brief History" by Rena Church in the Essays Section of our website. "Mary Hackney Wicker" by Jodi Lox Mansbach in "Women Building Chicago 1790-1990: a biographical dictionary" (edited by Rima Lunin Schultz and Adele Hast)is a good resource as well.