Painting a Life in Retirement

Since moving to Egg Harbor from Mequon in 2019, Mary K. Braza has completed more than 350 paintings.

“I paint about four days a week,” said the retired attorney. “I do whatever needs to be done around the house and then start painting around 10:30 or 11, take a break, paint until 4, then have a cocktail, and I am over for the day. I can paint even a fairly large painting in two or three days if I keep to that schedule.”

She calls this retirement.

“I came out of an active work life, so I like having that sort of schedule and the discipline that goes with it,” she said.

As they planned for retirement, she and her husband, Jim, who was also an attorney, had looked forward to traveling in Europe and Asia.

“Then the COVID pandemic came along and altered our decisions,” she said. “No Europe for a while, so we visited and hiked National Parks, instead. And we hunkered down in Door County.” 

And she got down to painting.

Before retiring, she and a friend took a painting class at a community center. She wanted to see if it was something she’d enjoy in retirement. Turned out, it was – and she’s been prolific.

As a founder and co-chair of the Sports Industry Team at Foley & Lardner, a law firm in Milwaukee, she worked with 40 attorneys in high-profile acquisitions, litigations, media deals, antitrust cases and development of new ballparks, she wrote on her LinkedIn profile.

Now she has brought that energy to her art.

“Last year my aim was to paint big, I painted large, a lot of things about 4 feet by 3 feet,” she said.

One reason for that, she said, was her tendency to paint tight and detailed. With a large canvas before her, she learned to paint more loosely. 

“Now I want to carry over some of the looser expressions I got, but do it small,” she said.

The motivation to go small came after participating in the Peninsula School of Art’s (PenArt) small works show, where nothing could be more than 12 inches in any dimension. Braza said she found she enjoyed painting small and has now applied that challenge to her goal of creating one painting a day, usually small watercolors.

It wasn’t the first time PenArt has inspired her development as a painter.

“I decided when I retired I would set aside some money and take classes for two years,” she said. “PenArt has been great for me because it offers such a range of classes at a very high level. The Milwaukee area was great for a beginner, but I couldn’t find a higher level of instruction unless I enrolled in an art school and I didn’t want that level of commitment. I like PenArt’s workshops that are three or four days at a shot.”

She also made friends with other artists and instructors through the classes, and has joined the art school’s board. 

“I am very excited about that, becoming a part of that community,” she said. “I have always kind of done that professionally, joined a board or organization, and gotten really involved with it.”

Her website shows Door County scenes, work mostly done in oils – landscapes, barns, fields, parks, golfers, bikeriders and kids playing in the bay. 

“Lately, I felt more confidence in putting people in some of the things I am painting,” she said. “If I can paint a landscape with people, it feels more connected. But I’m not always successful – I have had cases where I had [painted] people, but they got painted out and became a tree or something.”

She and her husband enjoy visiting national parks so she also has paintings of sequoias, autumn aspens in the Tetons, including some oil and cold wax works depicting Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska and waterscapes in Acadia National Park in Maine.

They find several of the scenes that appear in her painting through hiking together. He waits patiently while she takes pictures to use in her work.

He has taken up writing – short stories, a self-published book about growing up in Milwaukee – and is working on a novel.

“So on a typical weekday, Jim goes to his office on the first floor and I climb the stairs at the opposite end of our house and go to my studio above the garage,” she said.

Education continues, for both of them. Jim has been taking classes at Write On, Door County, and she has found three drawing classes to take, plus a few one-day workshops that just look like fun. 

Her favorite classes at PenArt to date have been with Door County watercolorist, Kari Anderson. 

“Her classes are fun, they are short, they go step-by-step,” Braza said. “She shows you how to do things and you come out with something worthwhile at the end, plus some techniques and ideas.”

One of her favorite instructors is the highly regarded Tom Nachreiner of Waukesha, who shows at Edgewood Orchard and teaches at the school occasionally.

“I really like his approach,” Braza said. “He is a really good artist, but he is also a very kind teacher. He gives you good ideas and he teaches at every level. I have taken four classes with him and every time I get more out of it.”

She also took an abstract class with Emmett Johns, a versatile artist who splits his time between New Mexico and Fish Creek, Wisconsin, and does everything from portraits to landscapes to large abstract works.

“He encouraged the class to be very productive,” Braza said. “We would do, in a day, maybe 30 little sketches, which was fun. He said some of it might not be any good, but out of 30 you will find one or two you like and you can develop further.”