In a 1936 Providence Journal exhibition review, the work of college student Mary Howard (1908-2011) fascinated art critic Robert Wheeler. He wrote, “It will be a strange thing if this young artist doesn’t go on a long journey. There is a rough vigor in everything she paints.” With a life spanning 102 years and an artistic career of abundance, Wheeler’s words were something of a prophecy. While Mary Howard experienced a gap in her creative productivity due to the demands of caring for her family, her “rough vigor” would sustain her artistic spirit throughout her life.
Born in 1908, Mary Cupit Howard was raised in a home on Thayer Street. In her youth, Howard developed a passion for art and found ways to finance her education during the Great Depression. After graduating from Hope High School, her skill proved strong enough to land a scholarship to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). She attended RISD from 1927 to 1933 and gained valuable lessons from her painting professor, John F. Frazier. Following her success at RISD, Howard’s family sold some property, which funded her studies at Yale University. She earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Yale in 1935.
During her formative college and early career years, Howard produced acclaimed art and received many awards. Howard drew praise for her moody landscapes, her strongly-composed still lifes, and her exquisite portraits. In a studio on Eddy Street, Howard made prints and paintings. Her painting “Portrait of a Girl” won the prestigious Ives Award at RISD. It was displayed with the work of other RISD students in a young artists exhibition in 1932.
In 1936, Howard was the only woman in the state chosen to work on the RI Federal Art Project (FAP) of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the agency created to fund and oversee public works projects and that provided income during the financially challenging 1930s. In November 1936, an exhibition was held at 30 Benefit Street featuring work by the young artists of the FAP-WPA. Among these artists was Mary Howard, who, in the words of Wheeler, evoked a “tonic sadness” through her atmospheric and memorably dark landscapes. Howard’s other works for the FAP-WPA included small prints of fishermen’s shacks, old houses on Benefit Street, and a large mural for the State House cafeteria depicting a family enjoying a picnic, described as “a delicately colored pastoral scene symbolizing the production and consumption of foodstuffs.” During the WPA years, Howard also painted a portrait of RI Governor Theodore Francis Greene, displayed in the Library at the University of Rhode Island until at least the 1960s.
After her marriage to Atlanta-born artist Wilmer Jennings, Mary Howard (now Jennings) was busy running a household and participating in social and civic clubs. She had three children, Corrine, Wilmar, and Laurel. Later, Howard put her vigor into teaching; She earned a Master’s degree in Education from Rhode Island College in 1969 and, for 17 years, worked in the Providence public schools as a third grade teacher. After retiring, Jennings began painting again and joined the Providence Art Club, Wickford Art Association, and RI Watercolor Society. With her lifelong talent and artistic spirit, Mary Howard Jennings created atmospheric paintings and lasting public works. She died on February 12, 2011.