Remembering Mary Tuck Echols, Professor Emerita of Art and Staunton Arts Leader

January 9, 2021

Professor Emerita of Art Mary Tuck Echols died on December 28 in Staunton, her hometown for more than 50 years. (Photo credit: Frances Dowdy)

Mary Baldwin University honors the life of Mary Tuck Echols, professor emerita of art. During her tenure, she built art history into a fully fledged program and created Mary Baldwin’s study abroad experience for Italian Renaissance art that ran for nearly 40 years. She also served as the art department head from 1975 until her retirement in 1991. 

Echols died on December 28 in Staunton, her hometown for more than 50 years. She is remembered as an inspiring teacher and accomplished artist, a community arts leader, and a positive, energetic, and supportive person. 

Professor Emerita of Art Mary Tuck Echols died on December 28 in Staunton, her hometown for more than 50 years. (Photo credit: Frances Dowdy)

A trailblazer in her field, Echols pursued her doctoral degree at the University of Virginia (UVA) at the same time she started her teaching career at Mary Baldwin in 1968. She became the first woman to earn a PhD in art history from UVA, with a specialty in the Italian Renaissance, while she developed Mary Baldwin’s program, which was previously more of a sidebar to studio art.

In the 1970s, she created the Renaissance Studies in Italy program for May Term, which for years saw her leading students with great energy, waking up early to get to churches when they opened and not leaving museums until they closed, all to experience as much art as possible. 

“In the atmosphere of the actual object, Mary gave us insights that were impossible to understand in the classroom,” said Sara Nair James ’69, professor emerita of art history, who took all the classes Echols offered during the first year she taught at Mary Baldwin, including a trip to museums in New York City. “She knew how to draw out student responses, which built confidence: we suddenly realized how much we had learned.”

When Echols retired, James assumed her mentor’s teaching position and Italian Renaissance study abroad program, inspiring her own students to experience the wonders of art and culture both inside and outside the classroom.

Another alumna in the field who studied with Echols also remembers how her professor was able to make ancient and early Renaissance cultures come alive. 

“Through Mary, I had become aware that art history was a complex and fascinating web of artistic works and characters, historical events, mathematical equations, scientific discoveries, and literary works and that it was a means — my means, anyway — to understanding the world,” said Patricia Piorkowski Hobbs ’75, senior curator of art for the museums at Washington and Lee University. “I was hooked for life, and I know that I was not alone.”  

In addition to inspiring students through her academic expertise, Echols was also a generous mentor and advocate.

“She believed in a person’s integral goodness and capacity to succeed, even if you didn’t believe in yourself,” Hobbs said. “My own work in the museum field and as an artist is due much to her, in part because she was so confident in me as an art historian, a museum professional, a teacher, and an artist. She was my perpetual cheerleader.” 

Mary Echols pictured in the 1969 Bluestocking, Mary Baldwin's yearbook

Teaching art did not stop for Echols at her retirement from Mary Baldwin. An accomplished artist herself, she turned to co-founding and supporting Staunton’s Beverley Street Studio School (BSSS) where she taught both studio art and art history classes, dubbed “Mondays with Mary.” 

She also continued to travel and share her passion for experiencing art in person.

“If there was a Mary Baldwin or Beverley Street Studio School bus going to the National Gallery in Washington, she was on it,” James said. “Once there, she never stopped until it was time to load again. In the spring of 2019, she made her last trip to the National Gallery, this time by wheelchair, on the occasion of the big Tintoretto exhibition, which her son art historian Robert Echols co-curated.” 

Echols helped create the BSSS study abroad program, taking joint painting and art history classes to Italy. Hobbs remembers a moment on one of those trips when Echols brought together her many talents.

“There, I saw Mary teach a college student art history — literally sitting near her feet — while she herself painted what became a very lovely work,” said Hobbs. “Mary was remarkable, and always at least ten steps ahead of the group as she guided us through the streets of Perugia.”

Hobbs developed a lifelong personal friendship with Echols and curated “Mary Tuck Echols and the BSSS: A Retrospective” in 2010, which ran at the same time as a group show by former students of Echols, “The Echols Connection: 14 Mary Baldwin Alumnae” at the Staunton Augusta Art Center.

The Beverley Street Studio School is collecting written tributes to Echols, and members of the Mary Baldwin community who would like to share their memories can email a short write-up to Janly Jaggard at janlyj@gmail.com. They will be installed surrounding the portrait of Echols from photographer Frances Dowdy in the BSSS/CoArt Gallery. 

BSSS is also planning a retrospective exhibition of Echols and her close friend and studio partner Virginia Deane, who passed away in October 2020, planned to run April 30 through May 30.

A celebration of Echols’ life will be held in Staunton when the COVID-19 pandemic has ended. To learn more, please see the feature article in the Staunton News Leader.