“Dearest Margaret”: Local painter honors late loved ones & explores sentimentality in Quirk Gallery exhibit

Posted by: Amy – Feb 02, 2017


Mary Scurlock, a local painter and mixed media artist, was cleaning out her mother Margaret’s attic when she found over 50 letters that were decaying and on their way to falling apart.

The letters, dating from May to September of 1957, were exchanged between her parents. Her father, who was in the Navy and serving overseas, wrote her mother daily, who was pregnant with her at the time. The letters covered the everyday minutia between two people who didn’t want to miss a thing.

According to Scurlock, the letters were “kind and sweet”, but ultimately “not that interesting”. She felt that they might not be worth saving, but still had a sentimental attachment to these letters that documented her parents’ deeply caring relationship.

Instead of letting them continue to decay, she decided to use them as part of a mixed media abstract body of work, titled “Dearest Margaret”, after her mother. The pieces also feature magazine and newspaper clips from the era. Scurlock’s work is now on display at Quirk Gallery.

When her mother passed away in April, Scurlock found it therapeutic to begin her work as part of the grieving process. Being a teacher, she did the bulk of the work over her summer off. According to Scurlock, the work formed organically.

“It came very easily; I didn’t struggle. The pieces made themselves.” she said.

And when the Quirk Gallery offered her the space in January, Margaret’s birth month, she knew the timing was perfect.

She would start creation process by gluing down different scraps of paper from magazine clips and maps once used in the family. Then Scurlock would begin painting. Because she was building off of layers of paper and paint, Scurlock said she would often lose letters within the piece itself, unable to get them back.

But the intention of using the letters wasn’t so viewers could read them; nor was it so she could keep them in tact forever. “I didn’t want people to stand there and read the letters,” said Scurlock. “I wanted it to be more nuanced, and maybe the fragment would tell people something about what was happening at the time.”

The results were thick, loosely organized, lightly colored pieces, each unique in it’s content of family artifacts.

While the pieces grapple with honoring those passed, preserving their memory, and aiding her in the grieving process, Scurlock also draws attention to the way technology has influenced how we perceive history and connect with one another today.

Through her work, she invites viewers to consider the letters as historical artifacts. “Most people today aren’t gonna have that paper trail. I find that a little sad actually,” said Scurlock. “It’s a record of our history and how we communicated in the past.”

Many of us won’t have this kind tangible, hand-crafted evidence of significant times in our lives that allowed Scurlock to explore her family history and grieve. She found a way of making these records permanent through her artwork.

The other artwork featured in the gallery by Pam Sutherland covers the same kind of subject matter. Her collage work is prompted by a scrapbook once owned by her friend, Kevin Kelly, who had passed away. Both Sutherland and Scurlock invoke a sense of honor and sentimentality through personal artifacts in their works, but execute them in slightly different ways. In fact, the two artists are friends.

“Pam and I go back; we were on the board at 1708 [gallery] together. Every year she comes in as a visiting artist for my seniors,” said Scurlock, referring to her students. She’s currently a visual arts teacher at Henrico High School’s Center for the Arts.

Both Sutherland and herself were considering an exhibition at Quirk, but neither knew their bodies of work dealt with the same subject matter so closely. Scurlock suggested that they have an exhibition at the same time, and management at Quirk thought it a great idea. Scurlock said she knew the content and use of materials in their works would complement one another’s.

You can see Mary Scurlock’s “Dearest Margaret” at the Quirk Gallery located at 207 W. Broad St., now through February 19th.

You can also join her for her Artist Talk at the gallery, where she’ll discuss the work in the exhibit in more detail, February 11th at 5 PM.

Words by Katherine Mendes