Tucson in Prints

When asked how she got her start in the art world, Mary Lou Williams laughed warmly.

"I was 6 years old," she said, "and my mother won $30 at the roulette table, and used the money to buy me a canvas."

Born in Winslow, Ariz., Williams was an only child, so she did a lot of traveling and hanging around with her parents. She said that the lack of sibling-provided entertainment forced her to look elsewhere for amusement—specifically, within herself.

When her mother bought Williams her first set of art supplies (which she still owns), it sparked a lifetime of art.

Williams found her way to the UA to study art, specifically scientific illustration, from 1960 to 1964.

Her favorite medium is traditional watercolor- and oil-painting, but she has explored many other avenues of artistic expression. Williams taught figure-drawing and printmaking at Pima Community College, and for 13 years owned a private graphic-design business. Through her business, Williams worked a lot with the Invisible Theatre, and did some work with silk-screening. She also worked for a time as a fabric designer.

However, her upcoming show at Tohono Chul Park will focus solely on her printmaking work.

"They're very happy prints," said Williams.

Indeed, they are. All of them incorporate many colors, and are expressive and lively. They do a beautiful job of capturing the influence of Spanish culture in Tucson. In images depicting everything from salsa-dancing to weddings, the prints all have an inherent Tucson feeling.

Printmaking is often a lengthy process. Williams begins by drawing an initial sketch of her subject. She then transfers her drawing to a linoleum block and, using a chisel, carves out the image. Black ink is applied to the top of the block, and paper is placed over that. As an additional step, Williams adds watercolors to the black-and-white images to really make them pop.

"A big one might take a couple of months," said Williams. "But a smaller piece that I'm feeling excited about might take three or four hours."

The prints that will be displayed in the show are mostly landscapes. Williams said she enjoys making landscapes because of the memories that they provide.

"People like to go places and travel, and people like reminders of those places," she said.

One of the non-landscape prints, "Tamale Makers," is a vibrant image of several women making tamales together in a kitchen. Williams says it is her most popular print. Her theory on why everyone likes it so much?

"Men like to go into the kitchen and eat a tamale, and women like to gossip and cook," she said.

Indeed, Tucson has served as a big inspiration for all of her work. She lives in the old barrio, which is rich with the culture for which Tucson is famous. She said she is fond of the sense of history, as well as the more contemporary traditions. Williams loves and embraces all of the diversity here, she added.

Williams hopes that the art displayed in her show will provide viewers with joy. Ultimately, she said, she wants to make art "that brings (people) up, not down."

Sadly, these might be some of the last prints that Williams will make. Due to both an ailing shoulder and the amount of work that it takes to make the prints, Williams said she may leave behind linocuts and go back to watercolor and oil painting.

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