If you wanted to understand my mother’s commitment to social change, I would start out with her belief, “We don’t become who we are in a vacuum; we are shaped by those around us and our experiences and time.” Born in 1909, Mary Perry Stone grew up in a family of seven in the small town of Jamestown, Rhode Island; she described her childhood as happy and developed a love of art from an early age.
When she was fifteen years old she worked for a summer for a very wealthy family in Newport, Rhode Island who said if she worked for them at their winter home in New York City, she could take art classes at the Art Students League. While the Art Students League experience made her want to continue to study art in New York City, she found the wealthy family shallow and backbiting; the person she admired most was the family’s kind chaperone and cook who had helped her.
After Mary finished high school, she did return to New York City to study art. Unfortunately, when she graduated from Traphagen School of Fashion and Fine Art in the 1930s, she was unable to find work for it was in the midst of the Great Depression. She joined the New York Artists Union which had both employed and unemployed artists. Mary was involved in fighting the Relief Bureau who tried to deny her relief and made it hard for her to qualify for the Federal Arts Project (WPA) which wanted to hire her. She finally with help from the Workers Alliance was placed on the New York City Federal Arts Project as a sculptor and teacher.
Not only were her beliefs also shaped by fellow artists in the Artists Union and Federal Arts Project, but she attended meetings and demonstrations. Two women artists – Nadja a“Red” Russian who had been educated in Paris, and Gertrude, a very poor highly talented sculptor who became her roommate – had a big influence on Mary becoming radical for they took her to Left demonstrations, often held by Socialists and Communists, involving thousands which were startlingly under reported in the press. That’s how she said she began to question those in power. While living in run down railroad flats she remembered seeing people fainting from lack of food or dying from what was termed then “malnutrition” but was really starvation. When Mary became committed to social change in the 1930s those beliefs stayed with her all her life. Her empathy was for the poor and exploited and she saw wealth in terms of ill gotten gains which could only be made by someone’s labor. Mary felt a different social order was needed, and it was reflected in her hatred of capitalism as a system. She hoped artists, granted they had the ability, would use their art to be a force for social change.
Mary left behind over 50 social protest murals on canvas and many of these were done in her eighties and early nineties. She died in 2007. – Ramie Streng
Mary Perry Stone (1909 - 2007) was an artist and social activist. During the 1930's and 1940's , she exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum, Carnegie Hall, New York University, Rockefeller Center, The Roerich,The New School for Social Research, Radio City, Independence Hall, and such galleries as the A.C.A. Gallery and the Municipal Gallery in New York City. A website dedicated to her work and memory is maintained by her daughter, Ramie Streng.