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Mary McAlister: The Reluctant Artist

Art is a recent entry into Anderson Artists Guild member (and treasurer) Mary McAlister’s evolving life.

Growing up near the Atlanta airport, she spent a lot of time playing outside and making mud pies. She has a bachelor’s degree in English education from Georgia State University (and later a master’s from Clemson University) but after graduation spent 15 years as a homemaker raising three young children.

After moving to Seneca, South Carolina, for her husband’s job in 1967, she took art lessons “under duress” from Sara Waikart. “She kept insisting, and I took a class to prove I couldn’t paint and draw,” said McAlister, whose attitude soon changed. “She taught me how to see, how to narrow down the field of what you’re looking at. She said being an artist is 99 percent effort and 1 percent talent, and I figured I could fake that 1 percent.”

Next came a children’s drawing class with the same instructor. “I was amazed I could do what I could,” said McAlister. “She would point out things you needed to change without making you feel like you were not successful.”

In 1976, McAlister moved to Anderson for a job teaching English at Southwood Junior High School and later transferred to Westside High School, ultimately retiring in 2004. “I loved the spontaneity of the kids,” she said. “They kept me on my toes. I always loved reading and writing, so it was a natural fit for me. I miss the students but see them all over town.”

Her retirement has been full of volunteer work. One of her gigs involves working at New Foundations Home for Children, where she teaches girls how to be young ladies, which involves everything from mock job interviews to artwork. “I want them to be comfortable in their own skin,” said McAlister. “I help them get ready to live in the world.”

She also interviews prospective patients at the Anderson Free Clinic; teaches an acrylic painting class at the South Main Mercy Center, a community center for those who are homeless or down on their luck; and teaches watercolor painting weekly in her kitchen.

And she paints. She prefers watercolor, which she appreciates for its freshness, transparency, and spontaneity. A turning point in her artistic journey came in 2015, when she was invited to exhibit 16 pieces at the Anderson YMCA. “On opening day, 11 of my paintings sold,” she said. “At that point, I decided that instead of being a retired teacher who liked to paint, maybe I was a painter who was a retired English teacher.”

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