Carroll College graduate uses talent to raise awareness of homeless population

Mary Larson portrait.jpg
Posted at 6:15 PM, Nov 09, 2023
and last updated 2023-11-10 12:21:31-05

HELENA — Portrait paintings are a powerful and long-standing medium often used to convey someone’s true self. Portrait artist, Mary Larson, has pursued this medium for over 20 years, using her talent to capture the essence of some of our population’s most vulnerable.

“It’s a way to celebrate their special spirits and share the ways that they inspire me, share that with other people,” says Larson.

Larson graduated from Carroll College with a degree in nursing in 1995. And since then, her primary focus throughout her career has been working with the homeless. She now lives in her hometown of Seattle, where she’s spent countless days downtown with the city’s homeless.

“ matter what the difficult times were that they were going through that they still had a sparkle in their eye. They were able to maintain hope and enjoy somehow, no matter how hard things got for them,” says Larson.

Larson began painting portraits of the people she met during her day job. Using a reference photo, Larson will spend anywhere from a few weeks to months working on any particular portrait. She often juxtaposes the portrait with a background of a food label or manufacturer, highlighting the disparity between subject and sustenance or material items. Part of that inspiration came from what she saw play out at work.

“Here we were taking care of men and women who had no place to live. They’d come to the clinic and wait for a visit and there would be a Golf Digest and an Architectural Digest,” says Larson.

Not only is Larson herself moved by her interactions and subsequent paintings, but so are the people she paints.

“They might not have a roof over their head. They don’t know where they’re going to get their next meal. They feel like they’re able to make a difference by lending their face to this project and helping others,” says Larson.

In exchange for her canvases, Larson often asks buyers to pay in bulk quantities of food required by a food bank in the buyer’s community. For example, one of her paintings sold for 1,200 cereal breakfast cups that were donated to Seattle’s Rainier Valley Food Bank.

Larson and her work will be featured at this fall’s art walk this Friday from 4-8 in downtown Helena at Ahmann Brothers Real Estate. Portraits will be on display and available for purchase. Each portrait has a price based on Helena Food Share’s needs. Helena Food Share is also willing to accept a cash equivalent to the requested amount of food.