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Obituary: Mary Hughes

Mother, artist, teacher, community activist

Wife, mother, artist, teacher and community activist Mary Hughes died March 9 at her home in Claremont. She was 69.

Hughes was a key player in Claremont/Pomona community arts organizations and projects, including the dA Gallery, the Claremont Forum, 57 Underground, and the Claremont Lewis Museum of Art.

Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, an only child to Russian-Ukrainian immigrant parents, her artistic talent shone through at an early age. She was accepted into an art program for high school students at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, which gave her a strong foundation in art and creative thinking.

Hughes balanced her education in art with her interests in spirituality and mysticism. She first attended Edinboro State University, in Edinboro, Pennsylvania, and later finished her BA — graduating summa cum laude — in art and communication at Chatham University, in Pittsburgh in 1977. In 1982 she earned her MFA from California State University, Long Beach.

She met her husband Ed at Edinboro when he passed by her meditation group practicing in a park gazebo, and made a point to approach her. At age 19, she married her soulmate.

While still a student, she began working at Bethlehem Steel Mill. Her Claremont friends remember many of her stories about her job putting out fires on slag heaps with her characteristic (and later fashion forward) steel-toed boots.

In the late 1970s the young couple moved to Claremont. Hughes commuted to Long Beach and earned her MFA at CSULB while her husband earned his PhD in religion at Claremont Graduate University. The couple found their ideal community within the intellectual and creative offerings of Claremont, and decided to make it their permanent home.

Hughes gained recognition for her artwork early in her career. It was exhibited and collected far and wide: California, Ohio, New Mexico, Washington DC and Massachusetts. She experimented with many forms, from mixed media paintings, French marbling techniques, the figurative image and abstracted landscapes. Her endeavors also included book illustrations, clothing design, and liturgical banners for Claremont Presbyterian Church.

Hughes’ work engaged with her interest in feminism, motherhood, process theology and Jungian interpretation of symbols. Her paintings often portrayed a central figurative element that related to a deeper spirituality. Her larger scale works took form as installations and community projects that celebrated transformation and connection to nature.

Hughes organized community-based workshops, including for both senior citizens and children. She saw her efforts as laboratories for creative thinking and making.

She taught studio art at Chaffey and Crafton Hills colleges. After the births of her two sons, Hughes took a deep interest in their education and creativity. Turning her focus to children’s art education, she taught and developed art curriculum at Carden Arbor View School in Upland and Claremont’s Sycamore Elementary School.

“She brought to every situation a sense of thoughtfulness and reflection. She was our anchor,” said friend Chris Toovey. “In the beginning, when we were creating the dA Gallery in Pomona, everyone was trying to figure out our identity. Mary would help us to focus during our many discussions around the dA kitchen table when we were applying for our nonprofit status. She really took our application seriously and helped us to shape our mission at that time. She brought a gravitas to the table, drawn from her experiences working in museums in Ohio and Pennsylvania.”

Her many friends recall Hughes’ sweetly eccentric style of wearing long dresses along with Doc Martens boots. She is also remembered by her intellectual depth and big-hearted nature.

Home was her sanctuary. It was a gathering place for art and culture parties, bringing people together of various interests and disciplines. Her festive holiday celebrations were legendary. The joyful displays that she created were often left up in her home to enjoy for many months to follow. It was there her art studio was built and she raised her beloved sons in her free-flowing style of mothering.

When the children were young, Hughes moved her mother Lynn into her home and built a custom granny flat to accommodate her needs. After her mother’s passing, her kindness extended to many lost animals and lost souls, whom she housed until they found their way back to stability and independence.

“Mary’s legacy is one of compassion and love,” her family shared. “A chance meeting with her, at an art opening or in the Village, was always that chance for her to make you feel as if you were the person she was there to see.”

In recent years the Hugheses suffered with health concerns and mobility issues. Their sons helped their parents navigate the changes with purpose and dignity. With this help and that of her helper/caregiver Geoff Shaw, she remained active and continued to produce new artwork and fulfill her dedication to community arts. Several of her paintings were recently on display at the Ontario Museum of History & Art, where she received a third prize award at the time of her passing.

She is survived by her husband of 49 years, Ed; their two grown children, Sean and Matthew; family helper/caregiver Geoff Shaw; and her many close friends who were part of her family fold.

A memorial is planned for 2 p.m. Saturday, June 11 at Claremont Presbyterian Church, 1111 N. Mountain Ave, Claremont.

A retrospective exhibition of Hughes’ work will open Saturday, June 4 at the Sasse Museum of Art, 300A S. Thomas St. (basement level), Pomona, and run through July 28. An opening event will take place during the Pomona Art Walk, on Saturday, June 11 from 5 to 8 p.m.

In lieu of flowers, please consider a donation in Mary Hughes’ name to UNICEF, at https://www.unicef.org/ukraine/en, to help the children of Ukraine.

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