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Arts & Culture

Artist on Artist: Gary Sweeney Interviews Marilyn Lanfear

Photo: Courtesy photo, License: N/A

Courtesy photo

Gary Sweeney (right) and storyteller, lead solderer and wood carver Marilyn Lanfear

Marilyn Lanfear is a local art treasure. For more than 50 years she’s been making bold and beautiful artwork that both documents family history and holds up a mirror to our past. Even though she grew up in Corpus Christi with a family that wasn’t interested in art, “I always knew I wanted to be an artist,” she says. Her dream was on hold while she married and had three children—because that’s the way it worked back there—but she was able to get her degree at the University of Texas and her Master’s at UTSA in the 1970s. She lived in New York City for a while during some very exciting times, then returned to Texas, where she taught and made art. I would love for every young woman studying art to be able to hear her stories: Not that things are equal for women in the art world today, but it’s hard to imagine the struggle women artists in the 1970s had to endure in order to even get the smallest slice of the art-world pie. Marilyn Lanfear was one of the women artists who helped open the door for others, and the fact that she’s still producing fresh and exciting artwork makes us appreciate her even more. Her exhibit “Artifacts of the Familiar” closes this week. 

How would you describe your artwork?

I tell stories. Actually, I come from a long line of storytellers. I always thought that I would be an artist when I grew up, because I could draw. My father could draw, so I thought that I’d taken after him. However, it wasn’t until much later (and too late to tell her) that I figured out that I’d inherited my interest in art from my mother, who could make anything. She could sew and make things and fix things and grow things and figure things out. I think figuring things out is the most important skill, and when I am not clear about what I mean to say (in my artwork), at least I have the skill to present it to an audience.
Do you see your stories and collections as specific to your family, or do you want the viewer to relate to them as universal themes?

I mean to be specific to my experience, and the more specific I am, the more universal my theme.

If I’d just met you, I would have a hard time imagining someone as small and soft-spoken as you bending sheets of lead and carving blocks of wood. How did you arrive at using tough materials in your artwork?

Sometimes this [using new materials] requires research and study. Sometimes I have to learn a new skill. I had to learn to solder and carve wood because the story required it. It was important that I not represent my new skills in a weak or tentative way. I had to carve the wood as if I’d been doing it for years.

Did you have a mentor or role model in your early years?

Sometimes I learn from research and sometimes I learn from somebody. Sometimes I think that if I just practiced painting landscapes, for instance, I could get quite good at that. But instead, if I have something to say, I think, “What is the best way to say it? With handmade paper? With mother-of-pearl buttons?”

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