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Saturday, April 9, 2016

Mary Agnes Yerkes

Rainbow Arch at High Noon, 1967, Mary Agnes Yerkes
I like to think that artists tend to live longer than most other people. I like to think that because I'm getting to the point I have the need to prove it. In studying the lives of artists who have "lived long and prospered," and those who haven't, I've come to realize that those who do and those who don't each have certain traits in common. Those who do, tend to be happy, positive, ambitious, health conscious, and probably most of all, gifted with good genes. Those who don't may share some of those traits, but they also tend to be discontent, depressed, unhappy, burdened with poor health habits, and very often simply unwise. By the same token, longevity seems to have little to do with artistic talent, intelligence, creativity, fame, or hard work. Thus when I come upon an artist who lived to be 103 years old, I pay particular attention to factors (beyond sheer generic luck, that is) which may have contributed to such a long, happy life. In this case, I'm talking about the Californian impressionist, Mary Agnes Yerkes.

An attractive, charming lady who aged quite gracefully.
Just for the record, Mary Agnes Yerkes (pronounced YER-keys) was born in 1886. She died in 1989. She was born and raised in Oak Park, Illinois. If that name sounds vaguely familiar, it was the same suburb of Chicago where the architect, Frank Lloyd Wright first lived and practiced around the turn of the century. No, Wright didn't design her family home; but after Mary's father died in 1908, an early follower of Wright, John S. Van Bergen, did (below). Van Bergen catered to middle-class working women like Mary Agnes and her mother, Mary Greenless Yerkes. Van Bergen even designed a special, second-storey studio for the then twenty-seven-year-old artist's use. Her good genes Mary got from her mother, who lived in the Van Bergen house until her death in 1935 at the age of eighty-three.

The John S. Van Bergen designed Oak Park home of Marry Greenless Yerkes is at upper-right.

After the Fire, 1915,
Mary Agnes Yerkes
Mary Agnes Yerkes took a two-year course in art history and decorative design at Rockford College then studied at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, where she also taught, as well as the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She participated in numerous exhibitions, including those of the American Watercolor Society at the Art Institute of Chicago from 1912 to 1915. Yerkes had a two-week solo in October 1915. In 1917, Mary Agnes Yerkes married Navy Commander Archibald Nelson Offley. They had a daughter, Mary Yerkes Offley, born in 1918. She died in 1933 at the age of fifteen. Being married to a naval officer meant being often transferred to various seaports including Portsmouth, Virginia, in the East, and San Diego, Vallejo, Long Beach, and San Francisco, on the west coast in California. During the 1930s, the family took up permanent residence in San Mateo, California.

Camping in Yosemite during the 1930s out of a 1920 Buick.

Balboa Park, 1926, Mary Agnes Yerkes
Having chosen Northern California as a permanent home, Yerkes painted for herself. She had ready access to some of the West’s greatest natural wonders. She and her family traveled, camped, and painted from Yosemite Valley to Santa Fe and from Tucson to Alberta, Canada. They traveled in their specially modified 1920 Buick which was equip-ped with extra storage pockets and a canvas sling for an inside bed. Yerkes, her husband, and their daughter spent weekends and holidays traveling on dirt roads to explore hard to reach parts of the newly established National Parks. Extended excursion and incursions took them throughout the West as they toured parks such as Crater Lake, Mt Rainier, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Mesa Verde, Death Valley, the Grand Canyon, and Yosemite, as well as the Oregon, Washington and California coasts. Yosemite Valley was a particular favorite in that it was near San Mateo.

Mt. Diablo, 1920s, Mary Agnes Yerkes

Mt. Robson, Mary Agnes Yerkes
Yerkes mostly painted en plein-air, but also worked in her home-studio. She took numerous photos on each trip for use as reference later. Archie died in 1945 at which time Yerkes’ painting travels subsided. However she re-sumed painting in the 1950s with encouragement from her second partner, Albert Cobb, though she did not remarry. Yerkes continued to camp and paint the American West well into the 1970s and into her nineties. She died in San Mateo in November, 1989, at the age of 103. After decades of painting, more than 150 of her works hung on her walls at the time of her death.

Yerkes painted the obvious beauty, as well as that which was behind her.

The Broken Arrow and Falls,
1959, Mary Agnes Yerkes
Had it not been for the onset of the Great Depression as she reached the height of her talent, Mary Agnes Yerkes might well have had a formal career in painting. Mary once noted that, "The Great Depression of the 1930s and the consequent lack of funds to patronize art severely affected the careers of many artists, both men and women. A few artists during this time were lucky to find jobs through the Works Progress Administration's Federal Art Project in painting murals in public buildings, but for many artists their careers were crushed." This situation was confirmed by Yerkes' own journal, on one weekend’s journey to San Francisco from San Mateo in 1935. Yerkes had an ap-pointment with the art director of Gump's Department Store. She left very discouraged because the director said "nobody is buying art during these times." As a result, their lifestyle was quite modest, yet far better than most during this period, given Offley's secure position at the Office of Censorship in the Navy. Any free time and saved money went for putting gas in the car, to roam the countryside for her artistic explorations.

The Alamo at Old Tucson,1 970, Mary Agnes Yerkes


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