As Long as I Can Use these Hands, I'll Paint




photo by natalie haywood

photo by natalie haywood

Many years ago, Mary Jane Orr taught piano lessons. From age 3, she had played alongside her mother, the church pianist. As a teenager, she earned college scholarships for classical piano (although she was made to turn them down: “My father was old school—‘Ladies did not leave town to go to school,’” she explained. “That was 60 years ago, and I’m still angry about it”). Offering lessons, then, seemed like a natural progression.

But her piano-teacher career was short-lived: she didn’t have the patience for students who “would take a piano lesson and then come back the next week having not even looked at that piano,” she said. “That was beyond me because I have always been so disciplined— sometimes too much so.”

For Mary Jane, being “disciplined” — hardworking, determined, steadfast — was not an option; it was a fact of life. For one, her parents would allow no less. Her father, who was the yard master over the railroad at Red River Army Depot for 58 years, “never accepted he had a girl,” she said, explaining that he often had her outside learning the value of elbow grease. “I could lay brick and pour concrete with the best of them by the time I was 7,” she laughed. Her mom, too, believed in grit: “She would say, ‘Suck it up,’ ‘Use it or lose it,’ so that was always my philosophy,” Mary Jane said.

But there was at play a force stronger even than
hard-line parenting: Mary Jane’s body demanded of her
mental strength if she were to pursue any of her passions.
Diagnosed with arthritis at age 12, she never let her pain get in the way of her creative, adventurous nature. As a child, she underwent many experimental treatments, including gold injections in Mexico. “I don’t know if they did any good or not,” she admitted, but regardless, the treatments could not have played a role larger than that of Mary Jane’s brave, hell-bent spirit. Between surgeries on both feet, both shoulders, her neck, and right hand, she has lived her life playing instruments, taking photos, skiing (on the lake and the slopes), scuba diving, snorkeling, playing (and coaching) tennis, and, most famously, painting.

Her visual-art career began in a class at Stanhope’s, painting a sweatshirt with fabric dye. Over time, her media evolved from craft supplies to fine-art tools. In 1999, she picked up “that oil brush,” she recounted, “and I never wanted to go back to any other paint”—though, these days, she does use watered-down acrylic paint to draw, as she can no longer grip a pencil.

Mary Jane’s most recent work, which she completed for this year’s Party With Picassos, is a 30-by-40 oil, depicting glass reflections. She spent about 170 hours over eight months completing it. “It’s probably my last big one,” she said. “As long as I can use these hands, I’ll paint, but I’ll have to do smaller pieces. I can’t paint for very long at a time, but that works out great for oil because it isn’t going to dry; you can go back hours later, and it’ll still be wet. It’s the perfect medium for me.” The final 45 or so hours of the aforementioned painting were completed left-handed, as her right (dominant) hand had given out.

A local luminary of the arts, Mary Jane has been voted Best Artist in FSLM’s Best of Texarkana seven times (2012–2017, 2019) and has received countless awards for her work within the Ark-La-Tex and beyond. She has distinguished herself and her career not only despite her arthritis but also without the benefit of much formal training. While in an art workshop in Florida one summer, the teacher asked everyone to share where they’d received their training. The students before her were naming renowned universities. When her turn came, she said, “PBS.” “They said, ‘Pittsburg? Philadelphia?’ I said, ‘No, Public Broadcasting System,’” she recounted. “I’d learned off the television—Bob Ross, ‘happy little trees.’ I’d never taken an art lesson at that time.

In January, Mary Jane helped Mrs. Wagy’s fourth grade class at St. James Day School with their Grandparents Day project.

In January, Mary Jane helped Mrs. Wagy’s fourth grade class at St. James Day School with their Grandparents Day project.

“When I started painting, I had no idea that I could paint,” she said. “I just decided that I wanted to, so that’s what I did.” She later came to realize that much of her ability is built upon her early years as a creative photographer, when she learned to see light as an artist. Though technical ability is crucial, Mary Jane’s brand of excellence (particularly her depictions of reflective glass) comes from her vision. “It’s just how you look at things,” she said. “You have to be able to see it.”

Mary Jane’s way of looking at things in a larger sense is heavily influenced by a dedication to serving others. “I’ve done a lot of volunteering in my life,” she said. “My mother instilled it in me: give of your time and help other people, and you will be greatly rewarded for it. And I have been: I’ve met the most amazing people through volunteering.” Her volunteerism resumé is too long to list: between being the volunteer tennis coach at Arkansas High for a decade, taking 50+ children from First Methodist Church on an annual snow-skiing trip for 12 years, serving on countless arts boards, offering arts education for area children, and more, Mary Jane has made a name for herself as a giver.

But now, after many fast-paced years, she is finally ready to slow down, just a little. This year marks the 20th anniversary of Party with Picassos set for March 23, and she is, for a second time, serving as the signature artist. “I think I’m going to get to sit down this year, maybe,” she laughed. “This is kind of my swan song, so to speak. I’ll still work with Women for the Arts and Party with Picassos and all, but because of my hands, my ability and time is getting shorter. I just want to enjoy it,” she said. Her 2019 New Year’s resolution was to paint what she wants, when she wants. “I’m 74; it’s time,” she said. “I want to paint anything that gives you a sense of peace and well-being, that makes you smile. I want my art to have a very calming influence.” As a woman of Choctaw, Cherokee, and Sioux ancestry, she says her prominent use of bright colors is in large part a homage to her indigenous heritage.

This past January, Mary Jane and David congratulated grandsons, Adam and Alex, after playing in their basketball games at Texas Middle School.

This past January, Mary Jane and David congratulated grandsons, Adam and Alex, after playing in their basketball games at Texas Middle School.

When she’s not painting or volunteering, Mary Jane can be found spending time with her two grandsons (both talented artists, whose works literally cover an entire wall in their grandparents’ home); two sons and daughters-in-law; and David, her husband of 48 years (“That’s three days and two forevers,” she laughed). She endearingly refers to him as Mr. Rogers of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood (“He is the kindest soul that has ever been,” she said), but at St. Vincent he is known as the Miracle Man, due to his incredible, beyond-all-odds survival of kidney adrenal cancer, autoimmune disease, and congestive heart failure. He has currently lived 14 months longer than was predicted. “Every day is a good day—that’s how we look at it,” Mary Jane said.

Or, if she’s not with her family members, who are themselves busy go-getters, maybe you’ll find her sitting at the piano. For over a decade, she has played for 30 minutes, three times a day, every day—physical therapy for her hands. These days, her right index finger lies permanently across the back of her hand. “It’s not always what the Lord meant when he said, ‘Make a joyful noise,’ but if I’m missing too many notes, I just put on my Bose headphones so I don’t have to hear it,” she laughed.