Studio Cruise: Peterson focuses on fabric art

Mary Therese Peterson has always been an artist. She had two sisters who were painters and she took lessons from them back home in Herman, Pa. Peterson is one of 11 children, and their mother was a seamstress who also built theater costumes.

Artist to showcase work
Mary Therese Peterson will showcase her fabric art in the Bemidij First City of Arts Studio Cruise later this month. Pioneer Photo/Patt Rall

Mary Therese Peterson has always been an artist. She had two sisters who were painters and she took lessons from them back home in Herman, Pa. Peterson is one of 11 children, and their mother was a seamstress who also built theater costumes.

"When I hit second grade, I was identified as the class artist," she said. "I did portraits of famous people for class projects. I started taking my first formal painting classes at a local college while I was in high school."

After high school she went to college and got her bachelor of fine arts degree in painting and print making from Virginia Commonwealth University. Then she went back and got another BFA in art education.

Peterson will showcase her work in her studio south of Bemidji during the third annual First City of Arts Studio Cruise Oct. 22-24.

After Peterson moved to Bemidji about 20 years ago, she started painting full time and was invited to be a board member at the Headwaters School of Music. Peterson stepped down from the board to become arts program director when the school incorporated fine arts into its mission statement.


Ann Hayes and Peterson were the original representatives from Headwaters School to the fledgling Bemidji Area Arts Endowment. A component fund of the Northwest Minnesota Foundation, BAAE is dedicated to sustaining the long-range financial viability of the Bemidji arts community.

As director of the arts program at HSMA, Peterson designed the classes and administered the overall operation at the school. Peterson taught classes in drawing and painting to all age groups. She continues with her own career as an artist/teacher to this day by giving private lessons at her studio. Peterson's work is seen throughout Bemidji and surrounding areas in her large murals and installations.

"I love the immediacy of watercolor, the flow and intensity of color," said Peterson. "One of the first projects I did was a series of 4 by 5 foot watercolors of large animals on a grant from Region 2 Arts Board and which were installed at the art center. Even in college I painted large formats with oils."

Another project in Bemidji is the Harmony Garden on the outside wall of Harmony Food Co-op. This was a Blandin Foundation grant to create public art which would involve members of the community.

Peterson painted all the figures, featuring Ann Hayes, Sara Breeze, Steve Saari, Greg Gasman, Fred Marshall, Sheila Ryan, Laddie Atwell, Peterson's daughter Nora, a young Mitch Blessing, Karen Filardo, and Peterson and herself as the black dancer with Filardo. Chief Bemidji is in the boat at the forefront of the mural. Community members and artists painted the vegetation.

Another project Peterson completed was with a senior advanced painting class at Bemidji High School. The surrealistic (pushing real life images into a dream-like state) mural is located in the stairwell close to the art room, and the theme was a way to show the life-changing event of graduation from high school in the journey to adulthood.

The Bemidji Public Library's "Native Portal" was fun, Peterson said, because she got to talk with library patrons while she worked on the piece. The mural has all the colors of a sunny fall day in northern Minnesota with native animals, and Ojibwa and Norwegian designs incorporated into the piece.

Peterson admits she enjoys painting large projects like the background for Bemidji Community Theater's "Kiss Me, Kate" and Gilbert and Sullivan's "Gondoliers," both on the stage at Bangsberg Fine and Performing Arts Complex on the campus of Bemidji State University.


It was after the completion of a mural for a private customer that her artistic endeavors shifted into fabric art. Peterson was asked if she could construct painted Roman shades to go with the mural.

"About six years ago I shifted into fabric art and I am still finding my way with the craft," said Peterson. "I have been studying dying fabrics for six years now and one needs to get the craft right before you can bring all your knowledge of drawing and painting into play."

While learning fabric art such as Batik, an ancient Indonesian fabric art form using waxes and dyes, one needs to know the color palate. It takes time and practice to get the right consistency of the dyes and how to work with different mediums. Peterson talks about the time when she will make great art with the dyes; when she will bring all her skills and techniques together for that moment.

"Great art happens when there is an element of spontaneity; when you can watch something happen that is not totally under your control," said Peterson. "There are these magical moments when great art happens and you get to witness it. I want to be a great artist, but I'm not there yet; great painters worked over and over again to perfect their work."

Peterson's fabric art can also be wearable art. Her scarves and wall hangings are popular throughout the area and there is an exhibit that will be up until the end of October at the Headwaters Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship at 522 America Ave. N.W.

"Ultimately I want to do some great big banners with figures dancing and playing musical instruments," said Peterson. "They would hang in back of the Bemidji Symphony Orchestra during concerts for a season and then I would like to take the banners on tour to different venues. I like doing public art and sharing art with people who don't usually have the chance to enjoy art or can afford to buy it."

This year the Studio Cruise tours are color coded in the brochure for easy traveling and planning. The purple tour includes the Towley Studio, potter Josh Boock, fabric artist Mary Therese Peterson, fine art photographer Vivienne Morgan, contemporary artist Paula Swenson, metal worker Paula Jensen and glass and jewelry artist Sandra Fynboh.


Blue heron on silk
Mary Therese Peterson applies color to a blue heron's beak, using fiber-reactive dye on silk. Pioneer Photo/Patt Rall

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