Mercy Center



Marie Wagner: Mission to Create Murals



Burlingame artist Marie Wagner has spent months in her printed smock and tennis shoes, paint in hand with a small brush poised to address a stairway wall with color. Thanks to Marie, murals of the California missions now enliven the echoing stairways that connect the four floors of Mercy Center. She's a grandmother, but she's still painting.

"I love to have a brush in my hand," she says.

One day last spring, Sr Suzanne Toolan and Catherine Wilkinson, who have placed art throughout Mercy Center, were discussing a way to beautify the boxy stairways. In the 1960s the Mercy novices climbed between floors in their flowing habits, and today visitors are using the stairs more frequently in an effort to be "green."

Marie, overhearing the two, said in a small voice, "There are my missions." They pounced with, "Yes! Wonderful!" before Marie could change her mind. She had done watercolor cards of all 21 missions, full of sunny charm. How hard could it be to recreate the small note cards as murals?

Not that easy. She and Catherine, who became her project manager, began the project in April, a painstaking process of sketching the enlarged buildings onto brown paper, taping the sketches onto the concrete walls, and punching holes to trace the design. Marie discovered that house paint was the best medium.

"But house paint is not transparent like water color," she said. "I had to find out how to get the same effect. I stumbled along. The easy part was opening a can and painting the sky a flat blue with no clouds. They all have the same sky."

A cradle Catholic, Marie had attended Shared Scripture classes which have met once a week at Mercy Center for 31 years. Her art, squeezed into her life when she was a wife and mother of four children, now fills her days. Her own mother never encouraged such an impractical pastime.

A largely self-taught artist who took classes at the College of San Mateo and the Burlingame Recreation Department, Marie found her way to painting simply because she loved to do it. She painted pictures of people's homes. Giving cards of her water colors as gifts became a delightful habit. Ten years ago, the Cline Winery in Sonoma found her portrait of Mission Dolores a perfect complement to their California missions exhibit for their gift store. They asked her to draw all 21 of them and she complied.

For months Marie came to Mercy Center several days a week to work with Catherine, sketching and painting the simple adobe beauty of the buildings, all now restored. Palm trees, cypresses, and brown hills fill the backgrounds of the sunlit scenes—quintessential California. Self-effacing, Marie voices amazement at the success of her work and perhaps at her own energy. "I didn't seek out these things. They fell on me! They happen in spite of me! I was just an instrument. I was given the idea."

Her subjects may be architecturally simple, but their stories are complex. Some of the missions' history is undeniably dark. What took place there? Were the Indians better off to have been brought under the control of the mission fathers? Or were they slaves who suffered from the harsh discipline of a frontier mentality faith?

In a pamphlet she has written for retreatants to accompany their stair climbing, Sister Suzanne Toolan suggests, "Let us come simply to each site, admire what was built, and reverence the men and women who made these little cities that became so important in California history." She suggests thinking about the saints for whom the missions were named.

"I think my art does impact my faith," reflects Marie. "With more time and more freedom to do what you like to do, it opens your soul. What am I doing here is what am I supposed to be doing. Sharing my talents is the best part. That is probably is the spiritual quality. I'm not making magnificent paintings. I'm doing them to share."