by Linda T. Dautreuil, photos by Candra George
WHEN MARY HELEN SEAGO presented her thesis exhibition in the fine arts department of Newcomb College in 1961, she displayed sculptures in bronze and plaster of Paris. The bronzes became part of the Newcomb College Collection. Several other sculptures remain with her, including a striking relief sculpture hanging in her living room. Because of the limited number of pieces in this series and Mary Helen’s eventual move into painting, these early works are important markers in her artistic development. The theme of these abstractions reference birds and various aspects of flight, including lift off and destination. Titles such as Moon Sails and The Dance suggest a poetic sensibility that continues to express itself in 2019 in a different form and medium.
I arrive at Mary Helen’s home for a conversation about her life and her art. A wide-open studio is filled with colorful large- scale paintings that catch my eye. These works appear to be in harmony with the springtime landscape of Southeast Louisiana. Mary Helen greets me in the gracious style of one born and raised in New Orleans. Her subtle accent is unmistakable and authentic as we discuss the modulation of color that creates mood and structure in her style of painting.
To fully appreciate Mary Helen’s transition from sculpture to painting, it is necessary to consider early influences. In her words, “the likelihood is that a few artistic genes have filtered down through several generations.” Her family history dates to 1600-
1700 in Northern England, Scotland and Ireland. Her ancestors came to Georgia, acquiring property and establishing themselves as plantation owners near Savannah before the Civil War. At the time, record keeping of business transactions and personal histories describing everyday life was a common practice. Many such records were destroyed in the Savannah Military Campaign that began with the burning of Atlanta and continued as Union General Sherman marched to the sea. Among the surviving records were letters documenting Mary Helen’s family before, during and after the Civil War, approximately a 5-to-6 year period. They are preserved today in historical collections at the University of Georgia and Tulane University. A family friend compiled the letters in The Children of Pride: A True Story of Georgia and the Civil War edited by Robert Manson Myers. It took him 10 years to complete the book, which received the National Book Award in History in 1973. Later, these documents became part of an epistolary novel published in the 1980s.
Mary Helen’s recounting of details relating to her family history at the time illustrates her abilities as a true Southern storyteller, “My father’s mother was born on the plantation right after the war. Sherman was raiding and burning anything in his way. He spared the plantation at that time because he received a dispatch that a baby, who later became my grandmother, was being born. Later, he returned and burned the plantation down. That is when the family left for New Orleans.”
Mary Helen’s interest in the arts apparently springs from strong roots. British painter and watercolorist, Edward Brian Seago (1910-1974), a cousin of Mary Helen’s father, was well known throughout Europe. His atmospheric landscapes and scenic water scenes were painted in the Late Impressionist Style and highly regarded by collectors. The Queen of England acquired one of his paintings for the Royal Collection. Mary Helen’s brother Robert Seago is a recognized painter and musician. Her brother John Seago “is a lawyer turned vintner. John loved science, and the challenge of growing grapes in Louisiana resulted in the founding of Pontchartrain Vineyards.” All three siblings now live on the northshore.
Leaving the “way back” influences of ancestry behind, Mary Helen relates her journey to the arts. “I graduated from St. Martin’s before heading to Newcomb College. I worked hard, completed a full curriculum of classes, carrying 21 hours each semester. When I saw an opportunity to study with Jules Strubeck, head of the fine arts sculpture program, I immediately enrolled in his class and became the first fine arts sculpture major in the department.”
After graduation, Mary Helen moved to New York and landed a job in a large advertising agency. She met and married her husband. “By the time we moved to Arizona in 1969, I had small children ages 4, 2, and a newborn. These were not easy years and included major changes in my family life. The responsibility of small children in an environment that was unlike New York, and even more unlike my home in New Orleans, left me with little time for myself. Nevertheless, I had pursued the arts at Newcomb, and I continued to practice my skills in unexpected ways. I was always a good observer, so I became particularly attentive to the desert landscape. I visited the Desert Botanical Gardens in Phoenix and absorbed as much as I could in the hope that these observations would inform my art making. I considered the contrast between desert and tropical flowers to be much more interesting than the study of cactus alone. I learned that there is no gentleness about the desert. It is nothing like the luscious tropical atmosphere of New Orleans, so while living in the desert, I found myself creating gardens. In 1982, I had my first public art show.”
Mary Helen traveled throughout her life. She returned to Savannah from time to time, visiting friends and painting gardens by the seashore. She also visited New York, where she lived in her early career, and added a twist to my question concerning artists whose work influenced her own. “While in New York, I took a side trip to Newport with my friends who had family there. We were invited to lunch in a lovely home surrounded by paintings of flowers. Upon closer examination, I realized that I was surrounded by an amazing number of paintings by Georgia O’Keefe from the collection of her sister. It was like dining in a museum.”
The subject of influences brings us to Mary Helen’s thoughts on spirituality. She is a devout Christian. Her spirituality seems to be non- denominational, with a strong connection to Christ. “There was a very stressful period of my life when I was riddled with fear about the future. It took about seven years for me to begin to feel at peace. At my age now, I see more clearly that life is a journey. One of the great sustaining influences on me has been the spiritual approach to life encouraging me to find peace within myself. We attach ourselves to certain things. The earth gives us energy, and we are connected to the earth because of it. Spirituality gives us peace, and we are connected to the spiritual life because of it. Each day, I am mindful of the gift of art and the making of it.”
Mary Helen’s latest paintings may be described as lyrical abstractions. The compositions she brings to this style evolved after years of painting floral subjects, most often a single flower in a powerful reference to nature. These earlier paintings are grounded, usually in contact with the edge of the canvas, to achieve a feeling of being rooted to the earth. An example from this period is the centerpiece of the permanent collection on display in the Atrium Gallery at the Christwood Retirement Community in Covington.
The process that Mary Helen prefers in her practice involves reference materials such as photographs as points of origin for developing her subjects. She makes preliminary studies of these images, usually drawing in black and white before going forward in her preferred medium of oil paint. “Oil requires more technical considerations for layering color but yields the kind of luminous surfaces I prefer. Over the years, I have continued to open myself to new ideas and experiences in the arts. I have taken classes and workshops with many notable artists, most recently with abstract painter Nell Tilton. I discovered how difficult it is to release the composition from the edge of the canvas and retain only the essence of the subject without explicit representation. In this process of exploration, I find myself alluding to botanical subjects in a more subtle application of overall muted layers of paint with passages of intense color breaking through.”
When Mary Helen returned to Louisiana about seven years ago, she had already had several exhibitions of her work. In recent years, she began to explore the New Orleans gallery scene and exhibiting in galleries on Magazine Street; she is currently showing at Degas Gallery through early April. Her work found an audience when she became reacquainted with an artist she greatly admired, Gretchen Armbruster. Gretchen was in the process of relocating her gallery in Covington to Columbia Street when she saw Mary Helen’s breakthrough works of abstract gardens and invited her to show. Armbruster describes the popular response to Seago’s paintings: “Clients are drawn to Mary Helen’s use of light, airy colors that go with any décor. I think I have a favorite until she brings her next painting in, and then that one is my favorite. I am delighted to have her paintings in my gallery.”
Mary Helen has worked with art consultants who successfully introduced her paintings to a wider audience in Louisiana, along the Gulf Coast and the southern region of the United States.
As our interview concludes, Mary Helen shares a question that she often asks herself, “Why do we attach ourselves to certain things? As an artist, something inside draws me to my subject. It becomes a love affair—a journey of peace, beauty, and love.”