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The Art of the Veil

“Snow is falling, the snow is falling,” the quiet refrain slips from beneath earthen walls at the Davis Waldorf School.

Sounds like unusual weather patterns for a Monday morning in May, but if a visitor entered the Golden Poppy preschool classroom on baking day, she might feel as if she were tumbling into a fluffy drift of new fallen snow. If she squinted her eyes, ever so slightly, she might even see the faint outline of a strand of holiday lights twinkling up at her from a distant corner of her mind, as if she were being briefly transported to a wondrous moment from her childhood.

Teacher Mary Nichols with student Hanni Yu

But actually, she’d be sitting on a tiny wooden chair, almost large enough for her adult-sized body, sandwiched between a pair of preschoolers wearing blue aprons and chef’s hats. It is baking day in the preschool classroom at the Davis Waldorf School and teacher Mary Nichols sings her way past each child.

“Snow is falling, the snow is falling,” she repeats the sweet melody, while sprinkling snowy flour rations onto the wooden table in front of the dozen captivated preschoolers, before doling out bits of dough to be shaped and baked for their mid-morning treat.

More than two decades have passed since Nichols entered her first Waldorf schoolroom, but she seems to recall that day like it was yesterday: “When I walked into the classroom with my daughter I just knew this was where we needed to be.”

Nichols has remained a fixture in the Waldorf community ever since, first as a parent, and later as a preschool teacher. Along the way, she uncovered many gifts, including an incredible talent for watercolor veil painting.

One of her paintings, an ethereal depiction of a mother watching over her sleeping child, hangs in the classroom. The painting seems to parallel the loving way in which Nichols tends to the children in her care.

“Teacher Mary is a nurturing soul,” says Melissa Cammarosano, the mother of Sophia, one of Nichols’ preschool students. “She nurtures not only my child, but she nurtures me as a mother. . . I believe, in her womanly wisdom, she calls out the best in all of us. She is gentle and kind, yet there is a certain command in her presence.”

This presence can be felt in her paintings as well. Whether it is the tiny boat on a giant blue sea, being guarded by a pair of angels, or the strong silhouette of a fiery woman, her work has a passion that lies just beneath its watery surface.

“Mary Nichols expressed a wonderful quiet relationship to color in her transparent veils,” recalls Iris Sullivan, a painting teacher and therapist in Fair Oaks, CA and Nichols’ first painting instructor. “She saw the loving protective image of Mother and Child so effortlessly. She painted and explored color with me for many years and developed her own sense of beauty and healing in art.”

Nichols’ early attempts at painting made a strong impression. She recalls how it felt when she attended her first class when her children were still small: “I’d never done any painting before,” recalls Nichols. “When I first experienced that feeling of putting paint on paper, the colors grabbed me. As a mother with young children, one day a week, I had a creative outlet.”

Pamela Whitman, a painting therapist from Grass Valley, CA describes the practice: “Veil painting is a technique where we build up many layers of watercolor. The catch is, each layer has to dry before the next layer goes on so the colors won’t mix and get muddy.”

“Working with diffuse and soft washes allows the colors to eventually build up and creates a color atmosphere,” explains Whitman. “Warm colors appear to come into the foreground, cool ones appear to go into the background, generally.” Once the painter steps back and looks at the painting, a form may begin to suggest itself.

“Bit by bit, we bring the form out of the color,” explains Whitman. “Often, we do not need to do much to coax out this form. And it leaves something creative to the viewer, whether it is left more subtle or more defined.”

Nichols’ paintings suggest a variety of forms: dragons and knights, mother and child. Many of her paintings seem to evoke a sense of protection and love, as if angels were watching over the subjects of the paintings. And somehow, the beauty that shines through Nichols’ paintings exudes from her as well.

“Teacher Mary radiates love and warmth wherever she is and she sees the best essence in everyone,” says Christine Crawford, mother of Aidan, one of Nichols’ preschool students. “She gives so much of herself in creating a safe and loving second home for my son to thrive in. And she is also a wonderful source of knowledge and support to me as a mother.”

Even though much of her energy is focused on teaching, Nichols has had the opportunity to showcase her artwork over the years, by donating pieces for charity auctions and displaying them at local festivals. Nichols hopes to do more in the future: “Being with the children and taking care of everything is taking my time right now,” says Nichols. “I would like to someday combine them both.”

Laura Quayle, a painter and fifth-grade teacher at Cape Ann Waldorf School in Salem, MA, finds that painting really stands out with her students among the other art forms. “There are quiet, reverent moments in the classroom, magical and very therapeutic,” recalls Quayle. “All art, especially painting, is putting your soul out there.”

This is true in the case of Nichols’ paintings, and her work as a teacher. She really seems to put her soul into it.

“There are moments during the day, moments that come over me, when I can see the big picture,” says Nichols, describing how it feels to be immersed in the work she loves. “With the kids in front of me, happy and content, knowing that they’re being taken care of, I feel the importance of the work.”

For more information about Mary Nichols’ paintings, e-mail her at:

To learn more about the Davis Waldorf School, go to: www.daviswaldorf.org

You can visit painting instructor and therapist, Iris Sullivan’s website at: http://movingthesoulwithcolor.com

For more information on Pamela Whitman, go to her website: http://www.lightcoloranddarkness.org

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