– Story by Chealsea Forman Photography by Don Denton
Mary Ploegsma is waiting for our meeting outside the front doors of her studio on lower Johnson Street. The renowned portrait artist introduces herself warmly in a lovely English accent.
“Do you mind if we walk for a coffee?” she asks.
I follow Mary’s quick stride across Johnson Street and through Theatre Ally to Bean Around the World on Fisgard Street. Mary orders an Americano and chats affably with the baristas as they work.
“My husband and I walk into town from our home, pick up coffee, and then I spend the day working in my studio,” Mary explains.
Mary and her husband, Wob, are relatively new residents of Victoria, having purchased their home in the city just nine years ago. Mary met her husband, who is Dutch, while working as a flight attendant.
“I really wanted to see the world but I didn’t have any money so I applied to airline companies. I ended up working for British Caledonia and I met my husband six months into the job on a flight from London to Amsterdam.
|Artist Mary Ploegsma stands with a pair of portraits she painted of her two sons.|
“We moved to Belgium where Wob worked for a subsidiary of an oil company. I couldn’t speak French, so I couldn’t take my job with me. I decided to learn to speak Dutch, and then taught English at a private school,” says Mary, as she unlocks the front door of the building where her studio is located.
We are immediately immersed in the most brilliant floral scent from the flower shop on the first level of the building. The smell is so wonderfully dense, I feel as though we have to push through it to reach the twisting staircase leading up to Mary’s studio.
“Welcome to my oasis,” she smiles, opening the door.
The space is clean and charming, with open, brick-arched windows that continue to draw in the scent of flowers. Mary offers me a seat at a quaint, bistro-style table and continues her story.
“Wob was invited to move to Houston for an assignment, so we went … because life is an adventure! We ended up staying for 40 years. Once children and schooling came along, it became more difficult to move,” she recalls.
Upon settling in Texas, Mary and Wob welcomed two sons into the world.
“Producing the next generation’s citizens was a huge thing to me. But I did take one day off a week for painting lessons in a program called Paint Along with Lindy,” Mary says with a laugh.
It wasn’t long before Mary’s skills became apparent and she began studying under Texas-based artist Dick Turner. For Mary, this was the breakthrough she needed.
“He was a brilliant teacher and knew how to use colour, light and value. I learned so much. I painted a portrait of my youngest son in 1993 and people said, ‘that’s what you should be doing.’”
Mary’s first paid commission was a portrait of three children in 1996 and portraiture became both Mary’s area of expertise and her passion.
“I find people fascinating. We are all the same but also very different. We are male and female with two eyes, a nose, a mouth, two arms and two legs, and yet not one of us is the same. Capturing a person is not just painting their image. What I want to do is get on the inside; I want to paint what it is that makes that person tick. I want people to look at my paintings and say, ‘I feel as if I know this person.’”
Mary completes her portraits from photos, which she takes before beginning a commission.
“I take hundreds of photos of a client; it’s part of my process. I do that because I want to capture a certain look, a subtle nuance. In the beginning, the client will try to pose. Once subjects relax, they let their guard down and almost forget my camera is there and become themselves. And I’ll capture that moment that says everything about their personality,”
After Wob retired, the couple wanted to find somewhere to escape the heat of the Texas summer. Having searched both England and Wob’s native Holland, the couple struggled to find a place that fit their lifestyle.
“Because we had grown up in England and Holland and then lived 40 years in the states, we just didn’t feel as though we fit in anywhere. Finally, my husband said, ‘why don’t we try out Victoria?’ We had visited the city some 25 years before for a conference,” Mary explains.
“I suggested we try a trip to Victoria that winter, just to get it out of his system, because I knew it would be cold, miserable and damp, and it was, and it actually snowed, and we fell in love with it. It’s like a piece of England from my childhood. We really feel that this is home.”
Although Mary and Wob are legally limited to six months of the year in Victoria, they have submerged themselves in the city’s culture and community.
“We are both foodies. I actually went to culinary college in England many years ago. Wob and I eat out a lot and I have gotten to know many of the restaurant owners and chefs, and I noticed that many have tattoos. Tattoos are artwork on skin, so to paint skin with muscle tone and then to paint all the tattoos on top, well I thought it would be a real challenge — so I did just that,” Mary smiles.
|Artist Mary Ploegsma with one of her portraits from her chef/tattoo series. The subject of this painting is local chef Sophie Fenlon.|
Throughout our conversation, I have been admiring Mary’s tattoo series featuring local Victoria chefs. Each portrait is so filled with personality, I feel as though I have had an audience throughout my interview with Mary.
“I painted Dylan first; he used to work at Camille’s. I painted him standing in front of a graffiti-covered wall behind the restaurant. He was very quiet, very pensive but like the wall, there was so much more going on,” Mary says nodding towards one of the portraits.
She moves along the series of 10 portraits, acknowledging each subject.
“Heather is a confectioner. What I found fascinating about her is that her tattoos are like chocolate-dipped strawberries, cupcakes, little hearts and ice cream cones. Kerry owns DeadBeetz food truck; she can handle anything. She has the most beautiful, pale gray, sparking eyes. Her tats are like a whole aquarium on her arm. She was a great subject to paint. This is Matt the Butcher at Farm to Field. He has everything that’s in the butcher case on his arms — all this wildlife.”
Mary has donated all 10 chef and food artisan paintings to the Victoria-based, not-for-profit Power To Be. The organization provides inclusive adventures rooted in nature to people living with a barrier or disability, offering them a chance to focus on inclusion and personal growth. The paintings will be part of an annual silent auction during the Power To Be signature fundraising event this coming summer. Proceeds will support the development of a nutritional education program as well as a facility with kitchens that will be used for teaching.
As my time with Mary draws to an end, my admiration for this vivacious woman and her adventurous life compels me to ask what she feels is the secret to happiness.
Mary replies, “Through each stage of my life, something really fantastic has happened. People ask, ‘If you could go back to one point in time when would it be?’ That time would be now; I don’t need to look back. Life is supposed to be an adventure — every moment enjoyed to the fullest — and at this moment I want to give back and use my art to help people.”
Leaving Mary’s studio, I am inspired by our conversation. Mary reminded me that life is a journey and anything can be accomplished when we are honest with our desires and follow through on achieving them with a lot of heart.
Mary’s art can be viewed at maryploegsma.com
|Artist Mary Ploegsma with one of her portraits from her chef/tattoo series. The subject of the painting is local chef Sophie Fenlon.|