In Your Midst

Mary Larson:  Art with a Conscience

November 2003


Four of Mary Larson's portraits:  clockwise from top left, Tommie (sold for new, warm hats), Maria (socks for a shelter in Minneapolis), Horace (socks), and Honey (Starbucks gift certificates).

St. James Cathedral Parish is blessed with many talented and caring people: nurses, caregivers, artists, advocates for the poor and the homeless, to name just a few. But we are particularly blessed to have in our parish one person who combines all these characteristics. Mary Larson is, by profession, a nurse who works at Harborview Hospital’s Pioneer Square Clinic, a free clinic which serves homeless and low-income people. Mary is also a self-taught artist who specializes in portrait painting.

Beginning in 1999, Mary combined her work with her passion for art, and began painting portraits of the men and women who came to the clinic for treatment. Soon she was receiving offers to purchase the paintings. Instead of selling them, Mary made the unique decision to get her buyers involved in her ministry by requesting payment in such unusual currency as socks, new underwear, McDonald’s or Starbucks gift certificates. This method of “selling” her art turns the buyer into a sharer in her ministry to the homeless. The paintings cannot, in fact, be bought for cash, though many have tried to do so! Buyers have to be “lending a hand, really part of it.” One painting sold for 250 $5 Starbucks cards; another for 50 pairs of new shoes. Many “in kind” gifts go to the Pioneer Square Clinic where Mary works; sometimes the gifts are designated for a charity in the buyer’s own community.

But the paintings benefit the homeless in much more profound ways than providing them with new underwear, clean socks, or a meal. The portraits restore a sense of self, and of self-worth, to people who have lost it. Mary’s colleagues at the clinic have seen dramatic changes in the people who have had their portraits painted. “These paintings help them remember who they are, aside from their daily struggle,” says Dr. Leslie Grefenson. “They seem to reawaken them.”

Mary Larson is pictured (front and center) with the subjects of her portraits.

Mary has painted more than fifty portraits of patients. “For me,” Mary says, “some people’s faces just tell a story. I’ll see a spark I hadn’t noticed, hadn’t taken the time to appreciate. You see the hard living. You also see the beauty.” It is the beauty and the unique individuality of each face that she brings out in her portraits.

Mary has received national attention not only for her art itself, but for the unique way she uses it to raise awareness of the plight of the homeless and to make a difference in their lives. She has been featured in many local and national publications, including The Seattle Times, The Seattle P-I, The Asahi Shimbun (Japan), People Magazine, ABC News, KOMO TV-4, and World News Tonight with Peter Jennings.

Yet for Mary her art remains truly a labor of love. She expresses amazement at the attention her art has received nationwide. “I’m in awe. We continue to hear from people all over the country on a daily basis.” Unlike other young artists, Mary’s reward does not come in terms of good reviews or gallery commissions, but rather in the confidence that she’s making a huge difference in the lives of the people with whom she ministers. “There’s no day I don’t paint,” says Mary. “It’s just exciting to see it making a difference.”


Patty Bowman is the Cathedral's Pastoral Associate.

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