Thursday, October 7, 2021

American Indian Picture Study: Mary Sully

My friend Amber at Heritage Mom has been such a wonderful resource for me as I seek to create a more inclusive and diverse curriculum for my children. One thing that I love and have used are her African American picture studies. She gathers information and pictures and puts it into one spot, and wow am I thankful! 

This year, one of the artists we are studying is Mary Sully. She is an Indigenous female artist from the 20th century. Her artwork is incredible, and I was inspired by Amber to put the information and pictures I have gathered into a blog post so others can study her as well!


Short Bio on Mary Sully

Mary Sully (1896-1963) was born on the Standing Rock reservation in South Dakota. She was given the name Susan Mabel Deloria and later chose to take her mother’s name, Mary, in the 1920s. Mary was from a prominent family. She was the great-granddaughter of Thomas Sully, whose painting is the source of Andrew Jackson’s image on the $20 bill.She was a shy and reclusive girl. She received a good education from St. Elizabeth’s Mission School but didn’t flourish there.

Mary’s work was largely unknown until the 21st century, after her passing. She is best known today for colored-pencil triptychs and “personality portraits” which often depicted celebrities or high profile figures. She used abstract forms and and symbols coupled with rich and mesmerizing colors and symmetry. Her designs draw from and incorporate classic Native American designs.

Her triptychs included three stacked panels of different dimensions. While these panels contained one idea or theme, the sizes of the panels and the artwork itself differed from the top panel to the bottom. The top panel was most parsable, the middle expands metaphor into patterned geometry, and the bottom panel distills image and theme into an abstract that carries the influences of Plains Indian women’s art, especially quill and beadwork.

By the time we get to the bottom panel, something dramatic has happened. Philip Deloria, Mary’s great-nephew, puts it this way: “The triptychs begin in the contemporary moment, Mary Sully’s now, and look forward, beyond modern abstraction to something else, something new that emerges from the Indigenous cosmopolitanism of the bottom panels.” Another way of expressing this might be to consider how the personality prints reverse the flow of the reclusive artist’s estrangement, pulling her into the other America and then liberating her to take this America into an indigenous future. 

PDF for Picture Study:

To download a collection of Mary Sully's artwork to do your own study, click here.

Biography Resources

Becoming Mary Sully: Toward an American Indian Abstract by Philip J. Deloria

The Gifts of Fringe Lecture Series: Philip Deloria | Becoming Mary Sully (Vimeo)

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