By Christine Clark, March 2012
A physician and reproductive rights advocate has returned to her first love: art.
Growing up in St Andrew’s by the Sea in New Brunswick, population 1500, Mary Conley always wanted to go to art school, but says, “I didn’t even know where they had them.” She says that the public schools didn’t offer arts programming back then in the late ‘50’s. Instead, after graduating from high school, this daughter of a lobster wholesaler and his wife (a retired telephone operator), won a scholarship to the University of New Brunswick to study science and began what would eventually develop into a long and storied career in medicine as a champion of human rights, and in particular, women’s reproductive rights.
In her home studio, a clean spacious room on the main floor of an old mansion where Mary now lives with her husband and collaborator, retired fisherman and sculptor David Gray, you can see the birds coming and going at the feeder right outside of one of the many large white-silled windows. The bright light softens everything, but the room has an almost clinical atmosphere in spite of its purpose, which is to make art. There are papers on the table in profusion and a work in progress on an easel, but there are none of the usual tell-tale signs of an artist at work, at least not glaringly so: no accidental paint on the carpet or on the walls, no smell of turps, no rotting brushes in tubs of water. Nothing black or dirty or grimy.
Is this apparent need for cleanliness somehow a reflection of her career in medicine? I ask her about that career, and am transported back several decades. Probably it’s difficult to imagine, especially for people born after 1970 or so, but contraception was actually illegal in Canada until 1969. That year, under Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government, safe medical abortion became legally available, but only under strict conditions: abortions had to be performed in a hospital setting and only after a panel of three, predominantly male, doctors had reviewed the circumstances of the pregnancy and had decided whether the case for abortion was morally allowable.
Mary Conley says “women were desperate. They took a lot of risks. They died.” And so, in protest and because they felt it was right, certain doctors began to take on the risk; people like Dr Conley and Dr Henry Morgentaler, a survivor of Auschwitz and Dachau, with whom she trained in 1980 and who spent 10 months in a Canadian prison during the mid ‘70’s for providing women with safe abortions outside of a hospital setting.
And the danger for doctors was not confined to the threat of prosecution. Referring to a period during the 1990s when an American, James Kopp, subsequently convicted for killing a doctor in New York state, was suspected of shooting and injuring three Canadian doctors as well, Conley explains that, “They began shooting doctors. [I had] seven years of terror wondering if I was going to be shot. The government even offered me a flak jacket, but they were using high- powered rifles and a flak jacket doesn’t prevent you from being killed. My friends told me to quit so that I wouldn’t get shot, but I said no. I would have been a coward.”
She goes on to say, “Anyone can have an unwanted pregnancy. Women with AIDS, prostitutes, drug addicts. Women with cancer. Women with disabilities. And what happens to…[unwanted] children? Why did they close all the orphanages when birth control became legalized? No woman ever came back and said that having an abortion was a bad thing.”
It’s very difficult to reconcile Mary’s career as an award-winning doctor (she won the Nobel Prize in 1984 as a member of Physicians for Social Responsibility, among other distinctions) with her work as an artist, other than to say that this is an incredibly passionate woman with her feet firmly grounded in the highly regimented world of science. (As a young woman, she worked as a medical researcher for four years in the chemistry lab at UBC, earning money to complete her medical degree, and she describes this experience as profoundly influential.) It’s a most awkward combination to dissect and quite challenging to understand, possibly because she herself hasn’t as yet reconciled the two, at least not in her art. As a doctor she was, without a doubt, extremely brave; a ground-breaker and not at all averse to risk. As an artist, an endeavour she committed herself to after her retirement in 2003, she is rational, orderly and careful.
About her approach to art-making she says, “I can’t do anything that’s messy. It doesn’t appeal to me. I see art as clean and neat. I don’t like things that are messy. It’s not my personality. If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” Her approach has earned her a good few awards from art shows, including the Sooke Fine Arts (people’s choice) and a number of Federation of Canadian Artists juried shows both in Victoria and Vancouver.
Conley, who works in pastels, oil and watercolour, considers herself to be an academic artist. She explains that “to learn new things is the most exciting thing about painting.” A self-described “workshop junkie,” she has taken classes in calligraphy, sign painting, airbrushing, watercolour, oils, pastels, silk-screening, batik, greeting card and book making to name just a few. She sees herself essentially as a student. “I consider the people I take workshops from to be better than myself. I’ve tried to do it on my own and it was a big mess.”
This is what she says, but the truth is that Mary is extremely talented. Better, I think, than she knows. I would like to see her so-called messes. Messes can be very revealing, very honest, and isn’t that, too, what art is supposed to be?
For now you can see Mary Conley’s perfectly rendered, perfectly beautiful, photo-realist portraits of children and birds at Morris Gallery. Who knows what’s coming next?
Mary Conley’s work is on exhibit at Morris Gallery, and she is one of the featured artists at its 12th Anniversary Reception, March 2, 7-9pm, on Alpha St at 428 Burnside Rd E. See http://www.morrisgallery.ca and http://www.artworksbymaryconley.com.
Christine Clark is a Victoria-based artist. See her blog at http://artinvictoria.com.