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Undiscovered talent

Retirement ripens latent artistic streak for former professor

By Debbie Gardner

It started with a sketch challenge, and turned into something more.

Recently retired from her position as chair of the Communications Department at American International College (AIC), Mary Ellen Lowney had the time to dabble in something new, and the sketch-a-day challenge her two nieces, Alyce Abdalla and Kate Philitte, were following seemed like a fun idea.

So she and her sister, Melanie Denver, decided to give it a try. Armed with “a watercolor starter kit and brush” that Abdalla – who at the time was working in Columbia with the State Department – had sent to each of her aunts, the two women took the plunge.

“I had never painted but was always a doodler, so the drawing part came easier,” she admitted.

It was February – possibly March – of 2019, Lowney recalled, as her first work captured the snow on the ground.

“The first painting was of my house, Lowney shared. “I really liked it, and I started painting little things, like my coffee cup.”

The lure of the brush

“I never thought I had any talent,” Lowney confided, adding that one of her watercolors had recently been included in AIC’s virtual art show. “Back when I was in high school and middle school, art was an extra class that I never took. I didn’t have any confidence in my talent.”

But she did like to doodle during class, often filling the side margin of her notebooks.

“I’d end up with these artsy things at the end of the day,” she said. But her latent talent wasn’t something others took note of until she was a student at UMass Amherst.

“I was working on [the college newspaper] The Collegian,” Lowney recalled. “One of the reporters saw the doodles in my notebook and said, ‘why don’t you work that up and have them print it?’ It was a bookcase with flowers in a vase and books, and it looked very good.”

Her doodle was printed, but she said she never thought about doing art again until after her retirement in 2018, and her nieces presenting her and her sister with the sketch challenge.

“It’s on Instagram, a sketch a day,” Lowney said of the challenge that sparked her newfound passion.

However she quickly found that a sketch a day is “a lot when you are not used to doing it.

“A sketch a day is a quick thing. Sometimes I wanted to finish [the sketch] up a bit before I posted it,” she confided.

She also started taking photos of things she found interesting, and using them as a basis for her daily sketches.

“One was of a cardinal outside my window, a cardinal on a winter branch,” she said. It soon became one of her watercolors.

Time for a little training

By the spring of that first challenge, Lowney said she and her sister had quite a collection of work.

“We were looking at each other’s stuff and said ‘this is really pretty good,’” Lowney shared. She said it was then that her sister said maybe it was time the two found a teacher.

“With a teacher, you’re going to get better,” she said.

Denver found a local instructor, Joan Nelson, who was hosting classes in her studio at the Indian Orchard Mills complex, and the two women started attending lessons on Tuesday nights. But when the coronavirus pandemic hit in March of 2020, the world – and their beloved art lessons – came to a screeching halt.

“We had to stop for awhile,” Lowney said. “But the thing about Joan is she’s very dedicated [to her students]; she communicated by Facebook Messenger. We didn’t have lessons for a few months, but if I was having trouble I would take a picture [of the work] and send it to her and she would guide you through it.”

This past summer, Lowney said, the two sisters also escaped to a family cottage in Fairhaven MA, and packed their watercolors for the trip.

“We would get our paints and go out and paint for the day,” she said. “If we ended up liking what we painted, it is all the better.”

By fall, Nelson resumed her lessons in the Indian Orchard Mills, borrowing a larger gallery space from a fellow artist and limiting the class size to maintain COVID-19 protocols. There were just four class members, Lowney shared.

“Joan teaches any medium, she even does dollmaking,” Lowney said. “Melanie and I do watercolors, the other two women do acrylics.

“We are always talking that we should try acrylics and they should try watercolors, but I have all the things for watercolors now,” Lowney joked.

Sharing their creations

Lowney said it was a former AIC Communications Department colleague, professor John Nordell, who convinced her to participate in the college’s virtual art show earlier this year.

“He does the artsy end [of communications] and he put one of my pieces in the show,” Lowney said. “Joan had suggested [to Melanie and I] that we start entering some shows. But everything is on hold now because of COVID-19.”

And she does have one piece that will soon be on permanent display. Lowney said she’s on the board of directors of the Irish Cultural Center, which now makes its home in West Springfield, and the center’s president has asked her to “paint something, a scene of Ireland.

“It’s being framed and will hang there,” she said excitedly. “I can’t wait to see it.”

But beyond that piece, Lowney, who now also works, said she’s content to post her paintings. “I even paint postcards and note cards now, and I painted last year’s Christmas card,” she said. Mostly, though she posts on Instagram, where they can be viewed by family and friends.

“It’s just a hobby,” Lowney, who now also works part-time as the communications and community relations manager for the Springfield Housing Authority, confessed. “I put it on social media, and at least someone gets to see them.”

Undiscovered talent
Undiscovered talent
Undiscovered talent
Undiscovered talent
Undiscovered talent
Undiscovered talent
Undiscovered talent
Undiscovered talent
Undiscovered talent