Reference Entry

Washington, Mary Parks

Krystal Appiah

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Washington, Mary Parks

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artist, teacher, and arts advocate, was born Mary Jeanne Parks in Atlanta, Georgia, the eldest of four daughters of Hattie Brookins and Walter Parks, owner of a shoe repair shop.Washington began developing her artistic talent formally in an advanced art class in high school. While exhibiting her work at a school art fair, Washington met the artist Hale Woodruff, who would become her lifelong mentor and friend. After high school, Washington enrolled at Spelman College, where she majored in art, studying under Woodruff and the sculptors Elizabeth Prophet and William Artis. While at Spelman, Woodruff encouraged Washington to spend the summer of 1945 at the Art Students League in New York, where she studied drawing under Reginald Marsh.After Washington graduated from Spelman in 1946, Woodruff helped her receive a Rosenwald Fund scholarship to attend the Summer Art Institute at the experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Washington took courses with prominent artists including Josef Albers, Jean Varda, Beaumont Newhall, and Gwendolyn Knight. The free-spirited and racially integrated environment of Black Mountain, where students sat on the floor during class and wore dungarees, was a stark contrast to the rigid rules and curricula of Atlanta's segregated schools. Washington credits her experiences at Black Mountain, particularly her work with Varda, for giving her ideas that she would later develop into the histcollage, an autobiographical collage form.In the fall of 1946 Washington returned to Atlanta, where she taught for four years. She spent the summer of 1947 at the University of Mexico, studying Mexican art, folklore, and dancing. She also met Diego Rivera and other Mexican artists. Washington received financial assistance from the State of Georgia for her summer abroad. In an attempt to discourage the desegregation of higher education within the state, Georgia regularly paid the out-of-state tuition and traveling expenses for black students. Washington used this exclusionary policy to her advantage, becoming the first person to receive state funds to study outside the country.Upon returning from Mexico in 1947, she married Samuel L. Washington, a psychiatric social worker in the armed forces and former Tuskegee Airman. During the 1950s Samuel Washington's career took the couple to Japan, providing an opportunity for Washington to study Japanese brush painting. In 1958 they settled in Campbell, California, where Washington taught art and raised the couple's two children. The couple divorced in 1971.Despite the demands of work and family, Washington continued to create art although she did not receive public acclaim for her work until the 1970s. In 1971 the Johnson Publishing Company purchased Washington's painting Black Soul for display in its Chicago headquarters. Her first one-woman show took place at the San Jose Art Center three years later. Since then, Washington has exhibited extensively, including at the Asheville Art Museum, Atlanta University, Auburn Avenue Research Library, Oakland Museum, San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art, Spelman College, and Triton Museum of Art.In 1978 Washington earned an M.A. in Art with a specialty in painting from San Jose State University. She continued to combine the study of art with travel including a trip to West Africa and a collage workshop with Romare Beardon in St. Martin. In 1988 Washington retired from the Union School District in San Jose, California, after twenty-seven years of dedicated service but continued as a district art consultant until 1990.Beginning in the 1960s and increasingly after her retirement from teaching, Washington became a fierce champion of art in schools and a supporter of public art projects. She also advocated greater recognition of African American artists by chairing and serving on numerous committees, including California's Art Curriculum Criteria Committee and the advisory committee for the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco. She served on the advisory board of the International Review of African American Art from 1990 to 1991. In 1995 the California Art Educator Association named Washington Distinguished Art Educator of the Year.Washington uses a variety of media including drawing, painting, and sculpture. However, her works since the 1990s have displayed her preference for the histcollage, a mixed media assemblage through which she explores themes of history, memory, and omission by incorporating old family documents into her drawings and paintings. In Georgia Out-of-State Tuition (1996), the penciled outlines of three young women contrast with their bright hats and the texture of yellowed tuition receipts from the state of Georgia. For Washington, recording memories, both of triumph and of hardship, through art is an act of survival.

Reference Entry.  775 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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