Alumni Spotlight - Mary Welborn

Mary Welborn's art inspired by native flora's importance to the environment

Artist and Lamar University alumna Mary Welborn conquered dyslexia, survived single parenthood, and experienced tragedy to launch her "New Botanicals" lyrical watercolors series, featuring the importance of native flora to the environment.

After earning a Graphic Design degree at Lamar State College of Technology in 1970, Welborn entered the advertising business before following her passion for painting. "I was a single parent, and that industry was one of the only industries at that time to offer equal pay and opportunity for women. I sold a lot of products for many different companies and created a lot of jobs for people. I worked in several major advertising agencies and freelanced until 1995 when I devoted my time to full-time painting. The decorative arts business requires the same set of skills that advertising does, so that transition was easier than it sounds. I had a lot of luck that was brought about by extremely hard work," Welborn said.

Tragedy struck Welborn's life shortly after her career shift, taking her work down a new course. Her husband's granddaughter developed leukemia at the age of 10 and she fought for four years before passing away. Affected by her death, Welborn wanted to communicate the value of life and the importance of a safe environment through art so she launched "New Botanicals."

"For years I painted abstracts. [They] were successful and fun. Then cancer invaded our family. I began researching on what horror could have caused this total nightmare. My family and I spent four years with this battle in the Children's Cancer Ward. That experience changed my perspective on life. I kept searching for some way to draw that thin thread that connects us all to this planet. The need to communicate how to make our immediate surroundings safer began to come into focus. Then I noticed an Eryngo wildflower on a morning jog. It was purple, iridescent and shaped like a Buck Roger's space ship. There were hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies orbiting around it. The field guide explained this plant in boring, scientific terms. The description was nothing like what I had just witnessed. Nowhere could I find anything that communicated the beauty of that plant. A whole new world had just opened up unexpectedly. Through research I discovered uses for plants that I had never even noticed. Pesticides and weed killers began to link into causes of cancer. That research lead me to a new form of botanical art designed to communicate the value of native plants that would reduce the need for those harmful chemicals," Welborn said.

Welborn's lyrical watercolor series has been featured in articles and her work displayed in prominent settings. She has opened a discussion about ways to prevent carcinogens from entering the environment. "It took a while to write this descriptive line for the collection of paintings: 'The 'New Botanicals' series is a reflection of the reverence for life that will guarantee quality of life for our planet and children.' [It] explores the value of flora, primarily native flora. It explores the secrets hidden in each bloom, spiritual significance, food sources, medicinal uses, and folklore. This series is my own private war against cancer. Native flora removes the need for pesticides, a major contributor to cancer. Over one third of all medicines are derived from plants. There are many species of plants that will go extinct before their benefits can be discovered. Plants are the structural foundation for all life," Welborn said.

Watercolor, known as one of the toughest mediums to use, shows the delicate nature of flora, and native flora was singled out because it does not need pesticides to help it grow. "New Botanicals" has been Welborn's "baby". "As far as I know, 'New Botanicals' is the only art of its kind. These pieces take a lot of detective work, research, and time to produce. Watercolor is very difficult to do, and the lyrical part is a challenge for my dyslexia. meeting challenges has always been part of my life, and challenges keep me going. So, having a career full of that has been a blessing," Welborn said.

Welborn's inspiring career got its start through her attendance at Lamar State College of Technology. She attended Lamar for a multitude of reasons and fell in love with it for many more. "I am from a blue-collar, working family. I am the first college graduate from either side of my family, ever. Lamar helped me and my family by being a very good college and, mostly, by being affordable. Lamar has a good reputation in the real world, and the human resources people I have come into contact with respect a degree from Lamar. That degree helped me survive and stand out as a good candidate for hire," Welborn said.

Welborn's advice for current art students is that "everything is important" in the journey. "Pour your heart and soul into every assignment. There is a magical journey in this life and every stroke of the brush counts. Learn from successes and from what you might perceive as failures. Be kind to yourself and look around you at the positive space and also the negative space. Develop your ability to see things from a different perspective. That will help in developing your craft. Be inspiring. The world needs you," Welborn said.

Welborn is one of only two painters to win the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center's poster contest twice in its 25 years. She has worked in Austin, Virginia Beach, Venice Beach, Dallas, and Houston, settling in Silsbee. She has painted over 200 pieces in her "New Botanicals" series, and she continues to inspire people to plant native flora. She will go to Austin this month for signings of her second contest-winning poster at the LBJ Wildflower Center.

"On April 22, Earth Day, I will go to the LBJ Wildflower Center to sign posters I created for their Wildflower Days' celebration. The Center is one of my favorite places on the planet. I have helped them grow since Mrs. Johnson created it. Their conservation work has grown into one of the most important resources for improving the environment. It is my understanding that Lamar University has programs that focus on environmental efforts such as the LU Green Squad, LU Rotaract, and the Community Garden. All of these efforts are cause for real celebration of the heightened awareness of the need for healthy environments. You know, people are basically good. Armed with knowledge, we all will make better choices," Welborn said. The Art Studio, Inc., located at 720 Franklin in Beaumont, currently has two of Welborn's paintings on display until April 25.

Welborn has much to be proud of, but inspiring people to support native flora is her greatest source of pride. "Having people say they revised their gardens to include native plants because of my work makes everything worthwhile. I am proud of having a small way to be a part of the solution, not the problem," Welborn said.


Interview by: Kaylie Smith, Public Relations Intern, LU Office of Alumni Affairs