When Margaret Ward picks up a paint brush, her intention is to produce a work of art that appeals to her audience in much more than just a visual sense. This is especially true as she begins working on one of the many vivid floral scenes she has created over the years. “When I paint a flower, I want you to really feel like you can smell it,” says Margaret. “So I work hard to create that.”
As the aroma of flowering lilacs and blooming magnolia trees began to fill the air throughout Rochester’s Highland Park, a collection of Margaret Ward’s finest works made sure the halls of St. John’s Home emitted a similar fragrance. In early May—just as the neighborhood outside was gearing up for the 118th Edition of the Rochester Lilac Festival—nearly two dozen of Margaret’s pieces were selected to hang in the TR Gallery at St. John’s Home. At 96 years old, this was the first time her work had been featured in a solo gallery exhibit.
For Margaret, the arts have been a way of life for as long as she can remember. The youngest of nine children born to immigrants from Sicily, Margaret spent her early childhood at her home on Rhine Street in Rochester sketching on paper her father was able to track down. Her parents encouraged all of their children to embrace the arts in some way and Margaret chose drawing and painting over taking up a musical instrument.
Margaret continued to develop her skills while taking art classes at Washington High School on Clifford Avenue. She was also an avid tap dancer and often performed during school assemblies. In fact she shared the stage several times with an up-and-coming singer named William Warfield. “He was the star,” says Margaret of Warfield—who would go on to graduate from the Eastman School of Music before gaining critical acclaim as a world-renowned concert vocalist and film star. “He would sing and I would tap dance during intermissions.”
Still, the visual arts were where Margaret’s true passion lied. Fortunately for her she was able to land a job right out of high school where she could share that passion with others. Through President Roosevelt’s “New Deal” initiative, Margaret worked at the Genesee Settlement House. “I had a group of children who put on plays and I also did art with them,” Margaret remembers from the private room on the Sunflower neighborhood at St. John’s Home where she has lived since May 2015.
Funding for her job at the Genesee Settlement House would eventually run out and soon after the United States entered World War II. Margaret and her boyfriend William Ward married before he entered the service, and she soon moved to New York City to stay with her older sister. Following the war Margaret and William moved to Buffalo before moving back to Rochester to raise their family of three children.
Margaret admits that changing priorities during the war and in the years that followed forced her to put aside her paint brushes and sketching pens. However, that itch to create would not go away and Margaret once again began taking the opportunity to ply her craft. Her daughter Patricia remembers that “mom had an easel in the basement and would head downstairs to paint whenever she could.”
It was after her retirement in 1987 when Margaret’s portfolio really began to “blossom.” She enrolled in an advanced watercolors class at the Memorial Art Gallery where she continued to take classes for the next two decades. Margaret’s most prolific period as an artist saw her produce dozens of works—many of them floral arrangements and scenes depicting groves of flowers. When she moved to St. John’s Home she displayed several of them throughout her room, but because of the sheer volume of pieces, many of her works were kept unframed in a storage container.
Enter Mimi DeVinney, Quality of Life Specialist at St. John’s and facilitator of a group of creatives who meet in the art studio at St. John’s Home. While there are a handful of lifelong artists who participate in the group, Margaret’s abilities stood out immediately. “Her talent was obvious,” says Mimi. “She wasted no time cranking out new pieces and then taking supplies back to her room to work on her own.” Eventually Mimi approached Margaret about sharing her work in the gallery space. Margaret was skeptical at first, but Mimi was able to assist with the daunting tasks of choosing which works to display and having them matted for the show.
Margaret’s gallery reception was a huge success, with dozens of family members, friends, and St. John’s elders and employees stopping in to share in her moment. She has also enjoyed very positive feedback from those who have viewed her exhibit. “I’m so happy when people go down and say they enjoy the paintings. The first thing they ask is whether they can buy one.” While Margaret’s work is not for sale, she has taken to sketching portraits of many St. John’s employees who are interested. That number continues to grow.
Margaret—who will turn 97 years old in August—believes her work as an artist has played no small role in her longevity. Her words serve as inspiration for anyone who is considering whether or not to follow through with something they are passionate about. “I didn’t want to be idle. Painting has kept my mind busy. You have to think and measure when you paint. It has been my life, really.”