As Americans, most of us are pretty charitable people. As artists, most of us are probably even more so. Usually this involves donating time and money, whether to our churches for various outreach programs, or to various humanitarian groups servicing the unfortunate in some way. It's not uncommon for us to be asked to donate our art to a charity auction or to create signs and promotional materials for some such similar event. It's rare, however, when an artist devotes his or her entire LIFE to such causes. One who has is Mary Lee Barker. Several times a week, often daily, she can be found at the Loaves and fishes, a soup kitchen run by her church in Mt. Pleasant (a suburb of Washington, DC). There she works, not ladling out soup and sustenance, but painting and drawing the tired, troubled faces of those seeking such assistance. Sometimes she draws them from life, sometimes from photos she takes herself. Often the portraits end up on the walls of the eating area, or in various nearby aid agencies serving a similar clientele. She's been doing it now for eleven years.
Mary Lee Barker is 66. She's a talented woman in several of the arts. As a child, the daughter of a Congregational minister and his wife, she was painfully shy. She took lessons in painting and dance and played the cello. She still does all three. It's something she HAS to do. She feels fortunate it's something she CAN do. In 1911, one of Mary's uncles used $100 from an insurance policy and started making electric wringer washing machines. Her mother was given some stock in the company to help supplement her husband's meager salary. That company later became the Whirlpool Corporation, and in 1982, when her parents both died within a few months of each other, Mary and her sister inherited substantial wealth. While her cousins live on Lake Michigan and race sailboats, or raise horses on big North Carolina farms, she lives in a modest bungalow in Silver Springs, drives an old, beat-up Toyota, and wears denim jeans, T-shirts, and sneakers. Her paintings do not grace the walls of trendy Georgetown brownstones, but look down from above the shelves of the Mt. Pleasant Pharmacy not far from her church. She's NOT your typical, well-to-do, artsy society matron.
Not all of Mary's subjects are homeless derelicts. One, whom she has painted six times, is a recovered alcoholic, her portraits serving to record his life from the streets to a job working for the government. Others are drug addicts, often high on heroin or marijuana when they set for her. Most react with joy and disbelief when they see themselves in her work. Some though, have not, wishing to isolate themselves from the reality of their plight which Mary's work imposes upon them. Not satisfied with just writing checks to her church, or volunteering her time to the needy, Mary has made three painting forays to the jungles of Central America and the Caribbean to paint similarly destitute natives. Moneys from the sale of her work go to support relief efforts both there and within her church. In addition, she is setting up a trust fund to continue to support these efforts when she no longer can. It kind of makes our donation of an occasional painting to charity seem rather meager by comparison.