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Originally published Sunday, July 5, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Obituary

Mary Henry, 96, Northwest painter

Mary Dill Henry, one of the Northwest's most accomplished painters, died in May in Coupeville on Whidbey Island.

Biography: Mary Henry

Birthplace: Calistoga, Calif., 1913.

Education: Ms. Henry earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts at the California College of Arts and Crafts, Oakland, Calif., and a Master of Arts at the Institute of Design, Chicago, where she was a favorite student of László Moholy-Nagy.

Major exhibitions: Ms. Henry's artwork is in numerous collections including the Portland Art Museum, Seattle Art Museum, Tacoma Art Museum, the Institute of Design (Chicago), the Whatcom Museum, Microsoft, Safeco, Amgen, and Hewlett-Packard.

She was the focus of a major retrospective in 2007 at the Wright Exhibition Space in Seattle, curated by Matthew Kangas. Her work is represented by Howard House Contemporary Art in Seattle, Aaron Gallery in Chicago, and PDX Contemporary Art in Portland, where her work was recently on exhibit (May 5-May 30, 2009). Her forthcoming exhibition at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts, curated by Courtney Gilbert (Aug. 7-Oct. 2, 2009), will feature her large-scale paintings as well as her delicate constructivist figure drawings from the WPA era.

Awards: She was the 2006 recipient of the Twining Humber Lifetime Achievement Award and 2001 Flintridge Foundation Award and was a featured poster artist for the Seattle Corporate Council for the Arts.

Family: She and her husband, Wilbur Henry, lived with their two children, Suzanne and Bill, in Cambridge, Mass., and Helena, Ark., and settled in Los Altos Hills, Calif., on the family apricot ranch. Mary divorced Wilbur in the 1960s and moved to Mendocino, Calif. where she lived an independent life devoted to painting.

She moved to Everett in the 1970s to be closer to Suzanne and her husband, John Rahn, in Seattle, and in 1981 settled on seven acres in the middle of Whidbey Island, where she created an elaborate garden of rare plants surrounded by forest and meadow. She continued to live there until her death.

Source: Billy Howard, owner, Howard House

Mary Dill Henry, one of the Northwest's most accomplished painters, died in May on Whidbey Island. She was 96 and lived in the town of Freeland.

Local art dealer Billy Howard remembers Ms. Henry as a modernist "of great vision and integrity."

Howard wrote recently that Ms. Henry's paintings "are characterized by crisp, clean lines and an unemotional use of color, highlighting an extraordinary intellectual clarity. Working from small-scale sketches, [she] perfected her compositions and color choices before moving on to larger scale canvasses. Like Zen koans, Henry's work explored depth and profundity through simplicity and balance."

Ms. Henry's friends and admirers are legion in the Northwest and beyond. Here, she is remembered in words by curators who treasured her work:

Bryan Ohno, art dealer, Seattle

On my second Mary Henry solo exhibition at Bryan Ohno Gallery in 2003, I had my iMac computer playing music with the iTunes Visualizer turned on.

Anyone who uses iTunes knows the wonderful psychedelic colors and patterns it plays to the musical notes. Mary saw it for the first time, and with a smile, said to me, "Bryan, this reminds me of the '60s back when I was living in the Bay Area. I may look like a nice old lady now, but back in those days, I enjoyed my fair share of you know what I mean." With happy eyes, I saw her travel instantly back to those days. It was good to see that glimpse of happiness from her as she was constantly burdened with bad, painful knees and cold hands during the winter.

Matthew Kangas, curator and critic

Mary Henry is increasingly being recognized as the senior Modernist painter in the Pacific Northwest. Recent museum and gallery exhibitions have honored the accomplishments of this (then) 93-year-old artist, who, until recently, maintained an extraordinarily active studio life creating the hard-edge and geometric multipanel paintings and drawings upon which her acclaim is based. Through her studies with Constructivist master László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) and by her own achievements, Henry is an important link to the European Modern movements. Her life has been a balancing act as a painter, printmaker, designer, teacher, wife and mother. (From Kangas' 2007 essay "Mary Henry: Selected Paintings.")

Billy Howard, owner, Howard House, Seattle

Before our 2007 exhibition at Howard House, I visited Mary at her home and studio in Freeland to pick the works for the show. After lunch, talking about László Moholy-Nagy the Constructivist master she studied with, we went out to the studio to look through the paintings together. I was continually struck by the boldness of her geometries and color that were in such sharp contrast to the bucolic setting of her home and studio. Some paintings we were looking at were made in the '60s. Mary's eyes lit up when seeing the work — like seeing old friends. And like her paintings, Mary was very bold and determined and this was not diminished in her last years. I feel that we've lost a great connection to the Constructivist and the Bauhaus, but her legacy will live on in her magnificent paintings.

Courtney Gilbert, curator of visual arts, Sun Valley (Idaho) Center for the Arts

I first saw one of Mary's paintings at PDX Contemporary Art where it was perched high up on a shelf in a storage area. I kind of fell in love with her painting right then — I think her compositions are always so well structured and she used color in beautiful and unexpected ways. But I'm also interested in how her career is part of the larger story of modernism in America — from her early realist work for the WPA to her transition to Op Art and her embrace of hard-edged geometry. I think she always stayed true to the utopian beginnings of geometric abstraction, seeing it as the most fundamental artistic form — an art with universal meaning made for everyone.

Brian Wallace, curator, Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, State University of New York, New Paltz

When I asked Mary whether she'd consider designing a wall mural for the Bellevue Arts Museum, she looked me right in the eye and said that she'd do it if I promised her that the museum would paint the mural out when the show was over. Mary felt she could take on such a risky project only if she knew that she could throw herself into it fully, without concerning herself with the possibility that failure would blunt her own sense of daring or diminish her reputation. I somewhat reluctantly gave her my word; a scant three months, "No Limits" was completed; three months after that, I put the first roller of museum white onto those walls myself.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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