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A Mural in Michoacán - on Marianne Greenwood
Joanne B. Mulcahy on transformation.
Since January, I’ve been in Mexico writing the biography of artist Marion Greenwood. She was, as described by someone she met here in the 1930s, “an adventuress from Brooklyn” lured south by the post-revolutionary Mexican art renaissance. She would become the first woman to paint a mural in Mexico.
In 2013, I was teaching in Michoacán’s capital, Morelia, when I discovered “Landscape and Economy of Michoacán” at the Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolás de Hidalgo. Now, writing the chapter about how she created that work, how I long to go back! To stand in the courtyard below the second story wall. To drink in the blue of Lake Pátzcuaro, the Purépecha couple side by side mending nets, and the women in striped rebozos grinding pigment for pottery. To remember why those images so mesmerized me that I had to pursue the painter’s life. Seven years into research, Greenwood’s biography has driven me to far-flung places and deep into questions about art.
Why do some works so compel us? There must be some alchemy of timing, color, composition, and what we, the viewers, bring to the experience. Sometimes a painting responds to questions we haven’t yet asked. I didn’t know that Greenwood’s painting would lead me to her life. That her life would inspire me to change my own and leave my teaching job in Oregon. That it would push me toward the kind of risks that Greenwood had taken in putting creative work before money.
The university is only a 45-minute drive from where I write each day but the buildings are locked tight. I am left with the consolation of memory and this certainty: that art invites us into lives beyond our own time and place. In that encounter, transformation can happen.
Joanne B. Mulcahy is an essayist, biographer, and teacher of creative nonfiction based in Portland, Oregon.
Marion Greenwood (1909-1970) was an American social realist artist best known for her murals. Many of her works depicted the intense conditions of shipyard and factory workers in the 1930s.