Thursday, May 19, 2022

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Iowa Artist

Mary Muller


The artwork of Mary Muller hangs in the Iowa State Historical Building, the Drake Law Department, Iowa State University’s Ag Building and various other public places.

For 50 years, pastel portrait and landscape artist Mary Muller has taught art lessons and insists art remains unchanged in the last half century. 

“Art hasn’t changed. Sometimes an artist might look for something different. I haven’t had to. My subject is light. I like the way light hits the form,” says Muller.

Working with light and shadows on canvas has been a successful career for Muller. She’s taught art lessons at the Des Moines Art Center, and her art has appeared in numerous galleries. She was juried and awarded into the Portrait Society of America and was a finalist in the Portrait Institute. 

She painted Iowa Governor Terry Branstad’s portrait, which hangs in the Iowa State Historical Building. Her portraits appear in the Drake Law Department, Iowa State University’s Ag Building and various other public places in the U.S. 

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She began painting as a child, and her fifth-grade teacher told her mother to encourage art in a young Mary; however, the art lessons went to her brother instead. She majored in art in college and currently teaches seven art classes out of her home. She’s painted hundreds of commissioned portraits and painted in the mall. 

“I did charcoal drawings,” she says. “I’m a pretty fast painter. I have to learn to slow down sometimes.”

A painting-a-week project netted 52 paintings of Iowa landscapes, one of her favorite subjects. 

“It’s a beautiful sky, and seeing it displayed at the Heritage Gallery — I didn’t realize how the landscapes changed without me knowing it,” she reflects.

Over the years, she’s witnessed students’ talents develop. 

“In 50 years of teaching, the most interesting is watching what they do. I teach the basics, and they go off in different places,” she says. “Some are free and loose. Others are detail oriented.”

Muller encourages art students to let go of fear to “follow their inclinations.” 

“I think you have to be who you are. We all have something to give and a place to give it. You have to paint from the heart,” she suggests.

Her passion is people, and she estimates she’s painted hundreds, maybe thousands, of portraits. 

“I love doing children. Kids are usually happy, and they don’t hide their emotions,” she says. “You really have to love people to do portraits.” 

She recalls one portrait she had to paint over. 

“One lady told me I didn’t put her wrinkles on the portrait. She said, ‘I worked hard to get those wrinkles,’ so I corrected it,” she explains.

The most important part of the portrait always comes last. 

“One lesson I recall from a teacher said to keep the most exciting part of the painting until the last. The eyes are the most important, and it’s the last to finish,” she says. 

While giving artistic advice, she says learning to draw first is essential; next is knowing how to use light. 

“Painting is just an extension of that. If you have talent and drive    there are many artists with talent, some with drive and few with both. Those with both are the most successful,” she says. ♦

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