essay: Mary L. Garvin-Lovins

by Holly Gilmore, Southern Illinois University
submitted May 2009


Figure 1

Leola Marie Garvin as a toddler.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich memorably once wrote that “Well behaved women rarely make history.” Mary L. Garvin-Lovins should not necessarily be classified as an ill-behaved woman, but she lived her life in her own way. Her history as an artist and author who came of age during the Great Depression in central Illinois, is remarkable. In 1927 she had her first baby, a daughter, Mary Bud. Two years later she gave birth to her second child, Jean Louise. Both of Mary L.’s children were born out of wedlock at a time when such an act was considered a serious social crime. Jean Louise is my grandmother and my best friend—we have been best friends since the day I was born.



As a very young woman my great-grandmother, Mary L. Garvin-Lovins, made mistakes and questionable choices yet always remained true to herself and the family that she loved so dearly. Human lives are certainly unscripted and we all strive to do the best we can with what we have. Mary L. lived in a time when it was not as easy for a woman to dream, seek, and live her own destiny, yet she managed to do so. Her story and her experience as a woman, mother, and artist is a unique one. She was remarkable in that while she was a non-conformist, she conformed successfully enough to bring fine art to her rural town. Born out of her ideas was the Bement, Illinois Art Centre, a women’s study club. It is arguable that without the work she performed in the communities in which she lived, art would not have served one of its primary functions—to uplift and enrich the human experience. Specifically, the club made art accessible to rural people and elevated the status of women’s art practice in central Illinois.



I am attempting to piece together Mary L.’s story by listening to the oral history my grandmother can provide about the life her mother lived. Also, I have formally analyzed Mary L.’s paintings that I have found to still be in existence. I found these paintings all over central Illinois; in basements, attics, shops, and hung on my family’s walls above four-poster beds. This project is important to me because already it has granted me the opportunity to examine some of the values that my grandmother and I share—the importance of the family story, the importance of remembering and recognizing women of strength and substance, and the importance of art as an extension of a person’s search for meaning within the context of our daily lives. I believe that Mary L.’s experiences turned her from being a dabbler in the creative process into a true artist—a true artist in that she lived and breathed art into all of her life’s practices. Art was her passion. In everyday life she saw the opportunity to savor the beauty of the world around her, not only by writing and painting, but also by living differently. Like many semi-professional artists of her time, she was “different” and suffered the consequences of what living on the periphery can bring.


Figure 2

Leola Marie Garvin as an adolescent.


A Humble Beginning

In the fall of 1906, on October 1st, Leola Marie Garvin (a.k.a. Mary L.) was born in the tiny farming town of Assumption on the prairie land of central Illinois. She would be the oldest of eleven siblings, her mother a homemaker, her father an auto mechanic. (Figure 1) The family had little money but made do. Her mother toiled endlessly to keep the family on track. Her primary focus was her family and she worked to instill in her children the importance of an education. It was equally important to her that her children demonstrate the solid moral values that were taught at Sunday school. She brought the lessons home and quoted passages from the bible often. Leola attended Assumption High School and, unlike the rest of her brother and sisters, earned her diploma in 1922. (Figure 2) Leola enjoyed high school and was well liked by her classmates. As a gifted writer and avid reader, she was considered an accelerated student, enabling her to graduate early. (Figure 3) She was also active in her church as a Sunday school teacher. The Garvin family attended the Presbyterian Church in Assumption. In April of 1923 she hosted a party for the Sunday school class, as reported in the Decatur Review newspaper. “Garvin was hostess to ten boys…with an Easter party at her home. Games and outdoor sports interested them, and they ate popcorn, fudge, cake, and lemonade galore. They had just as big a time boys can have.”


Figure 3

Leola Marie Garvin after her high school graduation.


After high school graduation Leola attended Browns Business College, a secretarial school in nearby Decatur, the urban area nearest to Assumption. Leola would travel by train from Assumption to Decatur where she rode the “interurban”, a sort of public transportation trolley, to get to her classes. At this time Leola had a serious boyfriend, her high school sweetheart, Cecil ‘Bud’ Miller. (Figure 4) Cecil was the son of Dr. Charles Miller, a wealthy Macon County physician. The young couple was apparently very much in love. Cecil’s father, Dr. Miller, disapproved of the pair mainly due to Leola’s lower socio-economic status and because he thought the relationship would interfere with Cecil obtaining his college degree at Southern Illinois Normal University, a teacher’s college in Carbondale, Illinois. In 1927, Leola and Cecil found that they were expecting a child. On November 8th, their daughter Mary Bud Miller was born. Her birth was the climax in what was an ongoing Assumption scandal regarding Leola’s pregnancy out of wedlock. Although unmarried, Cecil and Leola were still maintaining a close relationship at the time.


As a result of the family scandal and shame, the Garvin family left Assumption and moved to an apartment in Decatur sometime in 1928. Leola and Mary Bud remained in the household with her parents and siblings. Shortly after Mary Bud’s birth Leola began seriously pursuing her creative writing, which included short stories, essays, and poetry. Within the year, Leola became pregnant again with hers and Cecil’s second child. On September 4, 1929 Jean Louise was born at home in Decatur. A few months later, on November 2nd an article was printed in the Decatur Review newspaper exposing Cecil and Leola’s secret wedding that had taken place the previous Saturday in Champaign, Illinois. According to the article, “They had kept their marriage plans a secret, telling their friends that they were going to the football game in Champaign.”


Figure 4

Leola Marie Garvin and boyfriend Cecil ‘Bud’ Miller.


In late August of 1930, an article printed in the Decatur Review newspaper reported that “Miss Leola Garvin, 24, bookkeeper, was arrested Friday evening in her home…charged with the embezzlement of $3,147 from the Macon County Supply Company, farmer’s cooperative institution.” That Friday evening, Leola was arrested and sent to the Macon county jail, where she remained because she had no way of posting bond money. Apparently, Cecil and Leola, after learning that their marriage had not been documented, concocted an embezzlement scheme to collect enough money so that they could leave Illinois together with their daughters to start a new life. The scheme went astray after Leola left the position at the company and an audit was conducted revealing the losses, which led to her arrest. According to the September 2, 1930 Decatur Review article, Leola wrote out a confession that implicated Cecil Miller as the crime’s mastermind. The same article also states that a warrant was issued for Cecil Miller for his involvement in the crime. Cecil Miller emphatically denied any wrongdoing. The article quotes Cecil’s father, Dr. Miller, as saying, “Cecil has been notified that a warrant has been issued…Miss Garvin visited my home six or seven years ago…she and my son became friends. Later she moved to Decatur. She taught a Sunday school class and was prominent in church work. Miss Garvin once found Cecil in the company of a young woman and had fired at him with an automatic pistol. One bone of his hand was shattered and the bandages are still necessary.” As the oral history of this story has been passed down throughout the generations of our family, it is believed that Leola was bailed out of jail by Dr. Miller only after Cecil agreed to his father’s terms that Cecil would abandon Leola and his daughters for good. Cecil complied. Leola was bailed out of the county jail but was left in a desperate state of affairs, with a broken heart and two babies. In early 1931 Leola was still facing charges for forgery and embezzlement but was not incarcerated. Her case was continued to May but never went to trial. Later that year Leola Marie Garvin changed her name to Mary L. Garvin, presumably in an attempt to leave the entire debacle behind her.


In the next few years Mary L. (a.k.a. Leola) would continue her life as a single mother in Decatur. She and her daughters continued to reside in the Garvin household. She spent her time working odd jobs and doing free-lance writing for women’s publications. Mary L.’s mother helped her by looking after Mary Bud and Jean Louise while Mary L. worked.


Figure 5

Interior of Decatur WPA Workshop, Decatur Historical Society.


Working with the Illinois Federal Art Project

Around 1936, at age 30, Mary L. became involved in the Federal Art Project, which operated under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration in Decatur, Illinois. In response to the economic and social disaster of the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created government sponsored relief programs to provide jobs for the American worker. American artists felt the need to return to the workforce as well. Out of the Works Progress Administration, or WPA, was born the Federal Art Project, or FAP, which was specifically designed to put artists to work completing projects that lent themselves to the greater good of the communities they reached, and also granted artists the opportunity to earn a much-needed paycheck: As outlined in its manual of organization, the FAP operated in four general areas of artistic activity: the creative arts, art education and recreation, art applied to community service, and historical/archaeological research. The aim of the project was to work toward an integration of the arts with the daily life of the community, and an integrating of the fine arts and the practical arts. Artists were accepted into the work program based on their artistic ability and financial need. The project was obviously important to the artists who participated and earned income, but also to the public at large. The FAP served the American people by boosting morale and celebrating and supporting fine arts by bringing its multiple forms to small communities that would have otherwise gone without. Citizens of rural areas did not have exposure to museums and galleries, yet the program made art accessible to all.


Figure 6

Decatur WPA Toy Manufacturing Workshop.


Within the FAP the Illinois Art and Craft Project, or IACP, was the statewide project to facilitate community service projects. The goal of the IACP was to plan and carry out art and craft production and programs across Illinois. Up until 1939, nine craft shops were operating in Illinois, bringing eight to ten thousand people the chance at livelihood. Mary L. was employed by the local Decatur workshop that specialized in handcrafting toys. This workshop and the projects completed within it were collectively referred to as the Macon County Toy Project. (Figure 5 and 6) Toys and puppets were carved out of wood, metal, and plastics and were painted at the workshop. “For example, it [the Decatur workshop] produced a toy lamb from a Plexiglas model. The plastic was transparent and could be shaped with wood-working tools; the eyes were made from a mahogany dowel.” Doll and puppets bodies were carved from wood, then painted and dressed in sewn cloth doll clothes. (Figure 7) In conjunction with crafting the toys, Mary L. also worked to organize children’s puppet shows that were held in Decatur’s Central Park to entertain local children, including her own, according to Jean Louise’s memory.


Figure 7

WPA Puppet Image, Decatur Historical Society.


Mary L. made lasting friendships with the peers with whom she worked side by side. Also at this time, she took up painting, which would end up becoming a lifelong focus. She had no formal training to speak of, but studied art books of the Old Masters for inspiration. Her first paintings were oil on canvas still lives. Her earliest extant painting that I have found is dated 1943. The composition of this early work contains a platter of fruit placed upon a table top. (Figure 8) The platter, the focal point, is set slightly right of center. The platter holds a whole pineapple, the greenery of pineapple tops, as well as apples and pears. The pieces of fruit are depicted in complementary tones of reds and greens that mimic the color scheme of the dark green drapery that comprises the background and that of the light pink table cloth of the foreground. The colors are heavy and opaque. While completely rendered, the work does not demonstrate the maturity present in the pieces of her later art production. However, the platter of fruit is a blatant nod to feminine art practices, conjuring the ideas of nature and fertility.


Figure 8

Mary L. Garvin-Lovins, Fruit, 1943, oil on canvas, Collection of Heidi Meyer, Tuscola, Illinois.


Another unexpected blessing of Mary L.’s tenure with the Macon County Toy Project was a personal one. In 1939 Mary L. met a wonderful man, thirteen years her junior, named George Lovins. George was also involved with the WPA FAP organization in Decatur, leading to their meeting. They began dating seriously shortly thereafter. In 1941 Mary L. married George Lovins in a small ceremony at the Macon County courthouse. George moved Mary L. and the girls out of the Garvin’s and into their own apartment. Mary L. continued her artistic endeavors there, which included the oil on canvas piece that depicts two pots of blue hydrangeas. (Figure 9) Again, there are references to nature and fertility present, but this composition is more light hearted and tender than the previous still life, possibly commenting on the happiness of her life, now spent with her partner and children under one roof. The colors are lighter and brighter blues and yellows. The blooms of the flowers look as though they have been kissed by the sun. A tiny orange insect dances upon an azure blossom. Her brush stroke is delicate and hazy.


An Emerging Artist

Mary L. enjoyed a more comfortable married life. In the early 1950’s the couple moved out of the city and into the small farming community of Bement, Illinois, where George worked as an insurance agent. Mary L. created her own artistic opportunities there by networking with other women who wanted to be active in the arts. While living in Bement, Mary L., along with her friend Mrs. Dr. Scott, founded the Bement Art Centre, a club consisting of a group of lady painters that would meet weekly in the Scott home to paint, discuss their art work, and otherwise socialize. Her daughters, Mary Bud and Jean Louise, were also members of the group. Mary L. continued to paint, now producing more complicated still lifes as seen with her oil on canvas that is untitled, but that our family refers to as Floating Spoon. (Figure 10) This work shows another table top, this one wooden with a white table cloth, edged in blue embroidery. The composition is comprised of a tea service for one that includes a copper tea kettle with white ceramic handle parts, a teacup and saucer, a spoon, a sugar dish and a creamer. On the left side of the canvas Mary L. painted a dish of tiny white daisies with yellow centers and again a platter of fruit that proudly displays firm peaches and plump purple plums. The theme of the daisies is daintily mimicked on the sugar and creamer dishes. She was careful to include accurate highlights and shadowing; save for the case of the spoon, which appears to be floating, mid-air on its end, thus Floating Spoon. This painting, like the ones that came before it, reference the natural world by depicting fruit and floral imagery, seemingly commenting on the joy she experienced from constructing the nuclear family life she so longed for—her, George, and the girls—all under one serene roof. However, at the conclusion of 1952, George Lovins was diagnosed with lung cancer. Mary L., Mary Bud, and Jean Louise worked in shifts to take care of him. He succumbed to the disease two short months after his diagnosis.


Figure 9

Mary L. Garvin-Lovins, Blue Potted Hydrangeas, oil on canvas, Collection of Heidi Meyer, Tuscola, Illinois.


Figure 10

Mary L. Garvin-Lovins, Floating Spoon, oil on canvas, Collection of Jean Louise Miller-Harned, Villa Gove, Illinois.


Following husband George’s death, Mary L. worked as a painter and community organizer. In its early incarnation, the Bement Art Centre was casual, but soon became more formal. Its members organized an annual juried regional art show at the Bement Community School’s gymnasium in preparation for a larger annual show sponsored by the University of Illinois. The University of Illinois would select a fine arts professor to judge the art pieces and award ribbons and purchase awards. During Mary L.’s era, E. H. Regnier, research director and professor of rural recreation and agriculture economics, served as the Town and Country Art Shows’ lead director. Works would be purchased to become part of a yearly traveling collection of the best art work central Illinois had to offer as part of the U of I Farm and Home Festival. The festival’s art exhibit was shown statewide. Show programs list Mary L.’s Autumn Interlude as included in the third annual Town and Country exhibit during 1958 and the painting was purchased for a price of $75.00. In 1960, the 5th year of the show, she participated with her oil painting, Marble Bowl, which was bought for $65. Additionally, in 1961, the exhibit’s sixth annual program, lists the work of Mary L., her oil It Could Be Paris which sold for $75. This art show continues to be an annual tradition to this day. Mary L. exhibited at shows all over Illinois, in St. Louis, and in Indianapolis. She threw herself into her work as a way to escape the pain and loneliness she felt after losing her husband. Her work always sold rapidly. The paintings were reasonably priced; she charged between $25 and $75 per piece. Her work was affordable and thus accessible to many purchasers.


One of Mary L.’s landscapes, titled Fantasy, is especially notable in that it demonstrates her progress as a painter (Figure 10). It is mature and graceful. For this work there are no brush strokes to speak of; she worked the paint using only a palette knife, so the pigments lie in heavy daubs. This technique lent itself to the Impressionistic quality of the painting. The color scheme plays again on complementary colors of pastel greens and pinks accented with light umbers. The composition leads the viewer’s eye down and around the bend of a calmly flowing river way. Rocks, shrubbery, and foliage align the border where the water meets the land. Both banks are rich with tree trunks topped with the fluff of leafy tops. The detail was not created using the palette knife, but by turning over a paintbrush using the end of the handle as a scraping tool to carve in the bark of the trees. The reflection of the earth is expertly painted in the river offering an earthly, enchanting feeling. The feeling is simple and serene. The viewer can sense the quiet.


Figure 11

Mary L. Garvin-Lovins, Fantasy, oil on masonite, Collection of Holly Gilmore, Carbondale, Illinois.


Rarely, but notably, Mary L. also painted portraits of friends and family for gifts, as seen in the image of Mary L.’s Uncle Evert smiling, holding the portrait of himself by Mary L.


Figure 12

Mary L. Garvin-Lovins, Portrait of Uncle Evert, held by Uncle Evert. Photo from the Collection of Jean Louise Miller-Harned.


Women’s Study Clubs

One could argue that Mary L.’s experience with the Illinois WPA FAP groomed her for hardship in that it played a significant role in her life by sparking her interest in fine art and providing her with the skills and resources needed to sell works as a widow. Additionally, her personal success can be attributed to her networking with other artists and craftspeople within the setting of an organization. She was lauded in her community for the creation of the Bement Art Centre. While women have been congregating for centuries, the formation of study clubs for the American woman was a grassroots movement that began in the late 19th century. A predecessor to Mary L.’s central Illinois art club was founded in 1880 in Decatur, Illinois: The Decatur Art Class. Women’s clubs evolved into a format that celebrated more than the woman’s domestic realm of wife and mother. The clubs fostered women’s dreams and aspirations outside of the home including those pertaining to personal development in subjects such as the visual arts, music, dance, drama, and literature.


Daughter Jean Louise had since married a farmer named Thaddeus Clifford Harned. To supplement the couple’s income, Cliff built Jean Louise an art studio in the basement of their farmhouse. Mother, Mary L., and daughter, Jean Louise, spent many hours in the makeshift studio, laughing, talking, listening to the radio, and painting. The women worked together and traveled to art shows together to sell their work.


Figure 13

Mary L. and Jean Louise pictured in their booth at an art sale.


Also during this time, Mary L. and her daughters collaborated with some like-minded women in the community of Monticello, Illinois, north of Bement, forming the Dauber’s Club. The Dauber’s Club was modeled after the Bement Art Centre that Mary L. had previously founded. Members of the club met to paint and mostly concerned themselves with having the work they produced become part of the aforementioned Town and County traveling exhibit. Ultimately, like the Bement Art Centre group, the members aspired to take honors at the annual State Fair Competition.


State Fair Success

In 1960, Mary L. submitted her oil on canvas The Sea Witch in the Illinois State Fair Arts contest. In that competition she was awarded the Governor Stratton Award for Best Amateur Oil Painting. (Figure 13) As fate would have it, that same year, same State Fair contest, her daughter Jean Louise won Best of Show for her submission. (Figure 16) Mary L. and Jean Louise were not the only big winners that day. An article in the Decatur Herald noted that, “Bement, as well as Art Centre members, may well be proud of these talented women, particularly since they won 32 of the 60 prizes offered at the state exhibit as well as the coveted trophies.” The Bement Art Centre’s members walked away with over one-third of the State Fair’s awards, thus gaining some well-deserved recognition.


Figure 14

Governor William G. Stratton Trophy, 1960 Illinois State Fair Amateur Art Contest, Best Oil Painting, awarded to Mary L. Garvin-Lovins, Collection of Heidi Meyer, Tuscola, Illinois. Photo by Holly Gilmore, 2008.


Figure 15

1960 Governor William G. Stratton Trophy detail. Collection of Heidi Meyer, Tuscola, Illinois. Photo by Holly Gilmore, 2008.


The Sea Witch was one piece out of a suite of seascapes that Mary L. produced. (Figure 17) The drama of the canvas is evident. This particular canvas was done in tones of blue. The Sea Witch is an ancient piece of driftwood that came to rest upon the shore. Its fingering branches reach up into an angry sky in the peace after the storm. In the background of the composition, rough surf crashes into land. Another work that was part of the suite she titled And Angels Wept. The work was first finished in tones of green, but she did not like the finished product so she continued working the canvas by applying several layers of thin, red glaze. The result gave the painting an Armageddon feeling; it was what she imagined the end of the world would look like. Because of this she titled the piece And Angels Wept.


Figure 16

Mary L. Garvin-Lovins and Jean Louise Miller-Harned accepting their trophies from the Governor, 1960 Illinois State Fair Amateur Art Contest, Springfield, Illinois.


Figure 17

Mary L. Garvin-Lovins accepting her trophy from the Governor for I, 1960 Illinois State Fair Amateur Art Contest, Springfield, Illinois.


In Conclusion

Not long after their success at the State Fair, Mary L. found herself not feeling very well. She saw a doctor who instructed her to rest. In 1961, unaware of how sick Mary L. was, her daughters Mary Bud and Jean Louise packed up her work to take to another art show. As they were packing a particularly large canvas Mary L. asked them to leave it behind because she was not yet finished with it. The show sold successfully as per usual. After the weekend, the daughters returned to their sick mother who had taken a turn for the worse. Eleven days later, on November 22nd, Mary L. died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 55.


Mary L.’s final canvas, another landscape, is larger than the rest of her previous production. (Figure 18) Here the viewer is exposed to a tranquil scene of agriculture and industry—a subject that was a staple of WPA/FAP Social Realism . The painting is of a mill on a fall day. The mill represents the livelihoods of rural people. Farmers would harvest their grain and take it to the mill to be processed into flour to be made into food that fed the farmer’s family. The colors are rich and warm. Again, the reflection in the river is expertly made. The piece transports the viewer to an older, quieter time and one wonders what else Mary L. had in store that prompted her to ask her daughters to leave it behind.


Figure 18

Mary L. Garvin-Lovins, Unfinished, Final Painting, 1961, oil on Masonite. Collection of Melody Meyer, Tuscola, Illinois.


Mary L. Garvin-Lovins’ work reflected a feminine style, always incorporating elements of fertility in nature: fruit, flowers, trees, and living waters. I believe this speaks to a common theme of her personal joys as a woman. Her legacy was the gift she gave to central Illinois in founding the Bement Art Centre and getting the Dauber’s Club off the ground. Following her passing, the Bement Art Centre would award an eponymous prize in her honor. The clubs provided women artists with an outlet to express themselves and display their talents. Much like the WPA/FAP made art accessible to the public, Mary L.’s Bement Art Centre and the like brought art and fellowship to her rural community and its inhabitants.


Figure 19

Mary L. Garvin-Lovins, pictured with her dog.


And this is the way she was: she embraced interesting, sometimes unconventional human beings who challenged her. She kept odd hours, staying up late into the night and sleeping in during the day. She mastered skills and would often abandon them quickly for new ones. She did not cook meals; she prepared gourmet suppers complete with professionally dressed table settings. She did not clean house; she redecorated, rearranging furniture and whipping up slip covers on her sewing machine. She did not make clothes; she would design whole looks and created them as a seamstress would, tailored to perfection. She was brave. She was an artist. Her world was her art shop, no matter where she was or what she was, she found a way to express herself productively and in a way that benefited herself and the others fortunate enough to be near her.