Raleigh Through her Eyes

A mother of seven, Mary Ann Hanson nourished a passion for art — and introduced her children to local culture.
by Coleen Smith

Incredible mother. Lifelong learner. Humble, yet unbelievably talented artists. These are just a few of the many phrases you could use to describe my mom. Born in 1936 in upstate New York, Mary Ann Hanson was a remarkable woman, and Raleigh was fortunate to have her.

Along with six (soon to be seven) children, my mother and father moved to Quail Hollow in the early 1970s after living in New York their entire lives. At the time, Mom wasn’t too thrilled with the idea of moving here, but as a career IBM family in a pre-Zoom era, one didn’t question such matters. She accepted her new North Carolina fate with grace and a smile, and agreed to give the Triangle a fair chance.

Mom fell in love with Raleigh quickly. The neighbors she met through Welcome Wagon, the friends she made through church, and the excitement of a modestly growing metropolis brimming with culture were enough to spark her affection.

And all of her children would learn to love Raleigh and the arts through her eyes. On the weekends, my mother and father would take us to hear Pops in the Park at Regency Park in Cary. On my sixth birthday, I saw my first musical, My Fair Lady, at Memorial Auditorium. Mom would drag us to endless craft shows, like the annual A Carolina Christmas at what was then the Civic Center. I remember attending First Friday as a teenager, long before it was a cool thing to do.

But watching the arts from the sidelines wasn’t enough for Mom; she was always an artist at heart, who found inventive ways to incorporate her love for creating into her day-to-day life as her family grew. Oil paint had been her medium of choice before she had children, but she quickly transitioned to working with acrylics, pencil, pen, and chalk — supplies that were safer for tiny hands to get into. Once there were seven of us, she didn’t have much time for drawing, but she made intricate Barbie clothes by hand for her daughters. During the holidays, we sat around the table, making elaborate ornaments and watching her bake pastries into decorative (and delicious!) Christmas trees and wreaths fit for a king. On our milestone birthdays, she would help us redecorate our bedrooms, which she would wallpaper and paint herself, after helping us choose a color palette and theme.

As we grew older, Mom finally had time to get back to her art. She started painting again and joined Wake Visual Arts in the 1980s, excitedly participating in an art show here and there. She even taught herself graphic design in the ‘90s and used those skills to design posters and programs for my high school choir and theater performances.

As the youngest of her seven children, I probably got the most quality time with my mom, and I relished every moment of it. To be honest, I think she enjoyed the freedom, too. By the time I was a “tween,” my siblings were mostly grown and out of the house. So on weekend mornings, Mom and I would head out together, traveling to wherever her artistic inspiration would lead us.

Downtown would often be our destination. We’d stop to look at the beautiful homes in Historic Oakwood, and sometimes she’d plop us down on a picnic blanket and I’d watch her sketch. Other times, we’d pick up pastries, then drive around to snap photos of beautiful landscapes that she’d use later to draw or paint the true-to-life works of art. When we were home, I’d either watch her draw or help her prepare for art shows, doing whatever I could to just spend time with her and share a bit of her contagious, passionate energy.

Somehow, she did all of this while also earning a degree in computer programming in the ‘80s from Wake Technical Community College, which earned her a 15-plus-year career at the North Carolina Electric Cooperative. I am still in complete awe of how she could accomplish so much and stay true to her lifelong passion for art. I’m a mother of three with a full-time career and I can barely manage to keep my kids’ hair cut — but like I said, Mary Ann Hanson was remarkable.

When it came to her art, Mom loved to portray Raleigh’s evolving downtown. Some of her most beloved paintings and drawings featured landmarks such as the old downtown Hudson Belk, the Hillsborough Street Darryl’s restaurant (with the famous red awning and crackers), the Capitol Building, the Capehart House, Briggs Hardware, and Fayetteville Street Mall (when it was a mall), among many others.

One of her favorite scenes to paint was the Raleigh skyline over Western Boulevard. Mom knew it would change and grow taller over the years, and she completed several iterations of it in the ‘90s, one of which I claimed from the moment she painted it. While it was always a fan favorite in her art shows, it was always marked as “Not for Sale,” and today, I’ve got it proudly displayed in my home.

If Mom were here today, she’d be amazed by how the skyline has changed over just the last five years — but she wouldn’t complain. Instead, she’d talk my dad or one of us kids into taking her to the newest fancy restaurant, and then she’d want to grab dessert at some indulgent bakery before heading home.

Many of Mom’s paintings have sold over the years, which my siblings and I often lament. But Mom always loved the idea of her works of art being displayed and enjoyed by people who would appreciate them. While I lost her six years ago to lung disease, the pieces proudly displayed throughout my house keep her in my heart every day.

Mom proclaimed that anyone could be an artist if they invested the time in learning. She truly believed it, since she was taught by her mother. None of us children have followed in her footsteps — I can’t draw to save my life! But I hope to pass on her love of both Raleigh and the arts to my own children, ages 5, 7, and 8.

Since their artistic abilities already exceed my own, I’ve got faith that my mother is sharing her gifts with us from the great beyond.