Artist pre­serves re­gion’s his­tory through paint­ing

Trout­man paints to pre­serve South­ern Md. his­tory

The Calvert Recorder - - Front Page - By TAY­LOR DEVILLE tdev­[email protected]­news.com Twit­ter: @Tay­lorEn­tNews

In a quiet Dameron culde-sac on a Sun­day morn­ing, Mary Lou Trout­man cleans her stu­dio while her hus­band, Jeff Trout­man, cuts mat­ting to frame her pieces.

Nes­tled on the edge of a tow­er­ing for­est, away from the clamor of shop­ping cen­ters, sirens and base traf­fic, Mary Lou is just where she wants to be — se­cluded in na­ture, cap­tur­ing the his­tory and beauty of South­ern Mary­land through her paint­ings, cel­e­brated through­out the re­gion.

This year is no dif­fer­ent than past years. From Septem­ber to De­cem­ber, the artist and her part­ner work “24 hours a day, seven days a week” to pro­duce art for Jeff to sell at var­i­ous seafood and art fes­ti­vals, Mary Lou said. This is her busi­est sea­son.

Jeff ex­hibits his wife’s work in towns around the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay “al­most ev­ery week­end” year-round, he said. Other than the gar­den flags Mary Lou de­signs, sell­ing her fine art at fes­ti­vals and stores through­out the county is the cou­ple’s main source of in­come.

“That’s how we sur­vive, is the art shows,” Jeff said.

This year, in­clement weather kept the Trout­mans from sell­ing at five shows, cost­ing them their de­posits for booth space and any rev­enue from the un­sold art­work.

“I jok­ingly say I wouldn’t want my worst en­emy to do what we’re do­ing, be­cause it’s hard work and there’s not a lot of money in­volved in it,” Mary Lou said.

Hav­ing grown up in Dameron, Mary Lou, 61, con­sid­ers her­self a “down home coun­try girl.”

She re­mem­bers fish­ing and crab­bing as a young girl on St. Jerome Creek, and re­calls a time when wa­ter­men and their har­vests were plen­ti­ful, when it wasn’t un­com­mon to see skip­jacks dredg­ing oys­ters.

But times have changed. The old coun­try stores have dwin­dled in num­ber. Sub­di­vi­sions have taken the place of what was once sprawl­ing farm­land. As Mary Lou sees it, her acrylic paint­ings are a vis­ual “his­tory book for South­ern Mary- land,” she said.

“I have end­less ideas of what I want to paint, [but] a lot of it is dis­ap­pear­ing,” she added.

Those who have lived in St. Mary’s County for years — es­pe­cially those who fre­quent govern­ment build­ings, var­i­ous art mar­kets or MedS­tar St. Mary’s Hos­pi­tal — have al­most cer­tainly seen her work dis­played.

Younger folks will iden­tify the Tiki Bar in Calvert County and the Gov. Thomas John­son Bridge in some of her paint­ings, or per­haps rec­og­nize the Solomons Is­land bed and break­fast. Those with an ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the county’s his­tory might notice the Black­i­stone Is­land Light­house, or rec­og­nize Buzzy’s Coun­try Store in Scot­land at­tended by 1950s-style Ford trucks and adorned with vin­tage Coca-Cola signs.

But it’s the county’s ag­ing pop­u­la­tion that will most ap­pre­ci­ate those places whose mem­ory Mary Lou is keep­ing alive through her work: the now-closed Pen­nie’s Bar in Leonard­town, for in­stance, or Swann’s Store and Ho­tel, which once ex­isted in Piney Point.

“Ev­ery now and again you sell to some­one who’s young, but they’re usu­ally a water­man, fish­er­man, hunter — you buy art be­cause it re­lates to you,” she said. “This doesn’t re­late to youth any­more. So this isn’t sell­ing like it used to ... some­one mak­ing a liv­ing in art doesn’t do fine art any­more.”

There is some lo­cal his­tory, though, that is rel­e­gated to mem­ory. In 1992, Mary Lou’s stu­dio “burned to the ground” from an elec­tri­cal short in a wall switch, she said.

“We lost ev­ery­thing,” in­clud­ing 65 orig­i­nal pieces and count­less pho­tos she “had taken over the years,” which she uses for ref­er­ence as she paints, she said.

“Boats that aren’t around any­more, barns that are gone. Just the county,” Jeff said.

They also lost their wed­ding pho­tos and many pictures of their two chil­dren, Andy and Shan­non.

Mary Lou re­mem­bers her mother telling her, “You toughen up, girl. Re­mem­ber what sold and what didn’t sell. And don’t paint the s- — that didn’t sell.”

Mary Lou was cre­at­ing “ever since I could hold a crayon,” she said. “I had al­ways done land­scape, I love land­scape. I had done a lot of barns and boats and never re­ally switched over.”

“I don’t think there’s a craft I haven’t done. I ru­ined my mother’s din­ing room ta­ble with nail art,” she said, with the same big, in­fec­tious laugh she shares with her hus­band.

Her mother, Tilly, whom she called “the back­bone of my fam­ily,” was a graphic artist at Naval Air Sta­tion Patux­ent River, and en­cour­aged Mary Lou to pur­sue her art.

Mary Lou grad­u­ated from St. Mary’s Academy in 1975, then an all-girls Catholic school that used to sit at the cur­rent site of the Col­lege of South­ern Mary­land build­ing in Leonard­town be­fore it com­bined with the neigh­bor­ing all-boys school in 1981 to form St. Mary’s Ryken High School.

“Back then when you were a girl, you went to typ­ing school, you be­came a sec­re­tary,” Mary Lou said.

She at­tended Mary­land In­sti­tute Col­lege of Art for just one year (then later, an­other year at St. Mary’s Col­lege of Mary­land), af­ter meet­ing Jeff in 1977 when she worked as a life­guard at NAS Pax River. He had been at­tend­ing Virginia Tech, driv­ing seven hours to visit Mary Lou on the week­ends, but even­tu­ally dropped out, like his soon-to-be wife.

“We fell to­tally in love and it ru­ined our col­lege ca­reers,” Mary Lou said as her snowflake ear­rings bounced slightly when she laughed, the stu­dio light danc­ing off them.

“He’s the rea­son why I’ve done any­thing. I re­ally never had any faith in my work,” she said. “We’re a team. My mother al­ways said we’re two old mules pulling in the right di­rec­tion.”

Mary Lou de­scribes her­self as “kind of a recluse,” a de­scrip­tion some­what at odds with her warmth and charm. She is con­ver­sa­tional, and in­ter­mit­tently tells sto­ries about the wa­ter­men she knows, her for­mer class­mates at St. Mary’s Academy, and dotes on her chil­dren’s ac­com­plish­ments.

But man­ning the booth at art shows makes her feel like she’s sell­ing her­self, she said, and that leaves her feel­ing anx­ious.

“I know a lot of peo­ple who make their liv­ing in art — they al­ways doubt them­selves,” she said. “I don’t go out in pub­lic a lot. I al­ways think I should be some­thing I’m not. … I don’t want peo­ple to think I’m stuck up. I’m just a coun­try girl who likes to paint.”

For over 40 years, Mary Lou has done the paint­ing, and her hus­band has served as the trav­el­ing mar­keter and sales­man, mat­ter and framer.

De­spite her work be­ing lauded by artists and art con­nois­seurs alike, Mary Lou is ex­ceed­ingly hum­ble. She fawns over the work of Ed­ward Hop­per, Robert Bate­man and Lisa and Peter Egeli, say­ing, “I’m the used VW, they’re the Porsche.

“It’s not that I don’t think I’m good, it’s just — peo­ple drive Lam­borgh­i­nis and peo­ple drive Volk­swa­gens,” she said. “It’s two dif­fer­ent worlds.”

In her world, loom­ing wood­lands, wind­ing creeks and rivers, and scenic marshes lend them­selves eas­ily to her paint brush. She of­ten treks out to these lo­ca­tions — not only in South­ern Mary­land, but in Bal­ti­more, An­napo­lis and the East­ern Shore as well — to snap nu­mer­ous pho­tos she can ref­er­ence as she paints.

In one of her fa­vorite pieces, she por­trays the still­ness of Chin­coteague wet­lands. The yel­low­ing trees line the back­ground be­hind a docked green boat whose re­flec­tion gleams off the wa­ter’s glassy sur­face. A heron sits on the wa­ter’s edge among the tall wheat-col­ored grasses. It is quiet and peace­ful, the qual­i­ties that have al­ways drawn Mary Lou to na­ture, and the wa­ter.

The paint­ing hangs in her home; she’s not sure why it’s her fa­vorite.

“I’ve fallen in love with some of them — you put your heart and soul in it,” she said. “Some things just turn out right … you can never never paint the same pic­ture the same way twice. I guess all the moons lined up right.”

But to Mary Lou, the golden years of sell­ing her work are be­hind her.

“We did make good money, but now it’s dropped off — kids don’t want this. And I get that, it’s not mod­ern — this is an older per­son’s art,” she said.

To con­front a shift­ing art mar­ket, Mary Lou has had to “switch gears,” she said. She started paint­ing gift­ware and cook­ware about five years ago. She joined Etsy. She has added a col­lec­tion of brightly col­ored, mixed-me­dia aquatic paint­ings fea­tur­ing mer­maids and, of course, blue crabs, which she says are well liked among chil­dren. She “sold a ton of” stuffed ham cut­ting boards around Thanks­giv­ing, and her gar­den flag sales usu­ally pay for booth space at art shows.

“My idea of re­tire­ment would be to paint five days a week and not have to worry about com­put­ers. But it’s just not gonna hap­pen, not any­time soon,” she said.

But, re­gard­ing the chang­ing mar­ket, Mary Lou Trout­man said she’s “not bit­ter. I’ve painted my child­hood, my mem­o­ries of the county. In fact, I’d like to put out a ques­tion: Who’s gonna paint the fu­ture? And what are they gonna paint?”

She won­ders if young lo­cal artists who de­pict the county will re­flect its changes — paint­ing a Wawa or Sheetz in­stead of Swann’s Store, for in­stance.

“That’s gonna be the county store 50 years from now. I joke, but it will be in­ter­est­ing,” she said. “Andy Warhol cap­tured the Camp­bell’s soup can — what’s the next gen­er­a­tion of artists gonna show to the com­mu­nity?”

Mary Lou’s great­est artis­tic achieve­ment, she said, was “show­ing the love for com­mu­nity,” and “get­ting the com­mu­nity to rec­og­nize the his­tory” here.

“I re­ally do love St. Mary’s County,” she said.

STAFF PHO­TOS BY TAY­LOR DEVILLE

Lo­cal artist Mary Lou Trout­man points out one of her pieces in her Dameron stu­dio, in front of a wall of her acrylic paint­ings.

Artist Mary Lou Trout­man sits at her desk in her Dameron stu­dio last month.

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