Thursday, January 30, 2003

A victim, a survivor, an artist
Once left to die, she now draws from life


Mary Vincent Today


STORY BY REGINA HACKETT; PHOTOS BY RON WURZER
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER STAFF


One night when she couldn't sleep, Mary Vincent got out of bed and drew her face. Within an hour, her large, dark eyes were looking back at her, drawn in pencil and accompanied by handsome high cheekbones, firm jaw and generous mouth. She even drew the tiny dent on the tip of her nose.

Considering that she hadn't drawn anything more demanding than a shopping list since childhood, her proficiency was remarkable, but not to her.

  Mary Vincent works on a drawing in her Gig Harbor apartment. She taught herself how to draw in the past few years and has had one show in Seattle.

"I've always been good with my hands," she said.

True -- except she doesn't have hands.

In 1978, when she was a 15-year-old-runaway hitchhiking down the California coast, she hopped into a truck driven by a man old enough to be her grandfather. He was old enough to be safe, she reasoned. She was wrong. After raping her, he hacked off her forearms and left her to die along a Central Valley highway.

Today she's an artist living in Gig Harbor. She has two sons (16-year-old Luke and 14-year-old Alan), a fierce parrot, a couple of dogs and hamsters, a tank of fish and a 21-year-old boyfriend, Kurt Wright, whom she calls Mr. Right.

Happy with Wright, Vincent is still linked in the public mind with Mr. Wrong. Extreme cruelty makes criminals famous, and this one is famous for more than cruelty.

He's also famous for the break he got from the legal system. Convicted of first-degree rape and attempted murder, Vincent's attacker served only eight years of a 14-year sentence before being paroled for "good behavior."

Remembering his threat to finish the job, Vincent lived on fear's edge until he was arrested in Florida in 1997 for carving up another woman. This time he killed somebody, and this time he was sentenced to death. He died in jail last year from cancer at age 74.

The state of Florida flew Vincent down for the trial. She didn't flinch when asked to identify him but didn't dare take a deep look, either. "I wanted to see his eyes," she said. "Eyes are important. When he was on top of me, I was looking at the ax, trying to stay alive. I asked later if I could look him in the eye, but it didn't happen."

Vincent walks her two dogs, Danny, left, and Mikey. Vincent and her two sons also have hamsters, fish and an ill-tempered parrot. 
 

He took her arms, her innocence and cast a large shadow on her life, but one thing Vincent refuses to give him is a name. She never uses it. When he comes up, which isn't often, she calls him "my attacker."

He's the blight she tries to ignore, and that policy carries over into her art.

Now 39, she's entering what she thinks of as her third phase. First she was a victim, then a survivor, and now she's an artist.

As an artist, she focuses on powerfully upbeat women. Using chalk pastels and working in a vein that blends elements of Alberto Vargas' pinups with the decorative intensity of Maxfield Parish, she creates her own version of female action figures. They're delicately made sex symbols that know with absolute assurance how to take care of themselves.

Don't mess with her scantily clad samurai women. Kneeling, one of them looks over her shoulder to cast a cold eye at anybody dumb enough to threaten her. Each hand holds a giant sword. Her grip is light, but her muscles are flexed and ready.

Vincent also draws family portraits on commission, working from photographs. Even when she isn't trying to, she can't help making her subjects look good. Double chins disappear, hair shines and eyes sparkle.

Pointing to a drawing she was finishing on the kitchen table, she said she was proud of the hands. "Hands are where the connection is," she said.

  Mary Vincent lines up her shot while playing pool against her boyfriend, Kurt Wright. "I focus on where I want the ball to go and I do the math, the angles and the ricochet," she said. "The rest comes naturally."

The parrot flew to her shoulder and shrieked. No bigger than a parakeet, its voice is shrill as a police whistle. She reached up and stroked its chest with the metal finger of her prosthesis.

"You're spoiling him," said her son Luke. He likes the two dogs, a white terrier and a black dust-mop mutt, but has reservations about the bird, which he says can bite without warning and doesn't know when to shut up.

Vincent is fond of the bird partly because of its bad temper. What she allows in the parrot she can't allow in herself. "I've never indulged myself in anger and hate. I wouldn't be here if I had."

Her tough times came early. A middle child in a military family of seven children, she left home in a hurry one day when a sister told her that their dad was coming home with one of his migraines and was mad at her. "You better run," said the sister.

"I left home to save my life," Vincent said. "It wasn't to seek wild times. I didn't know anything about the world or the opposite sex."

She lived in the streets, spending nights behind garbage cans and inside unlocked cars. "It was safe to do that back then," she said, without irony. When she hitched the ride that nearly killed her, she was in a tentative, general way, beginning to head home.
 
Pausing while working on a commissioned family portrait, Vincent wipes her brow.
 

"He threw me off a cliff," she said. "I should have broken bones. I should have bled to death. I didn't, and I never passed out. I remember everything. I wanted to give up and go to sleep, but I felt someone there with me, a presence who wanted me to survive. A voice told me to get up and get help, or someone else would die."

Afterward, her parents came to get her but were, in her opinion, never much help. "They couldn't handle it," she said. "They took it harder than me. I'm telling them, 'I need you,' but they couldn't do it. They were more interested in what they felt about what happened to me than what I felt."

After finishing high school in Las Vegas, Vincent traveled around looking for a place to create her own life. She found it in Gig Harbor. She likes the people, working-class like herself, and she likes the view of the wide water, the ever-changing gray of the sky and the sense of forest creeping in around the edges of the town.

"I didn't have a family, so I wanted to make one," she said. "I remember being 4 years old and somebody asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I said, 'I want to be mother to the world.' When I became a mother, I really had something big to live for."

The weight of lifting her prosthetic arms makes Vincent's shoulders and neck sore while she draws, so her 16-year-old son, Luke, helps relieve it by rubbing them for her.

She didn't get to enjoy it for long. After her attacker got out of jail, she froze up inside. Afraid to stay in one place too long, she went through a series of bodyguards and ended up living in a deserted gas station.

Although she mourns for the woman who died, the arrest and death of the man responsible has given her a "tremendous feeling of freedom."

The nightmares are still there. She's still afraid to go to sleep and can't sleep long. "I've broken bones thanks to my nightmares. I've jumped up and dislocated my shoulder, just trying to get out of bed. I've cracked ribs and smashed my nose. Every day I pray to God to make a space I can breathe in, and every day God gives it to me."

Here's what she gave herself: Her prosthesis arms are the cheap kind, with metal fingers that moved stiffly in one direction and not side to side. Using spare parts from broken-down refrigerators and old stereo systems, she modified them into the up-to-date model she wears today. Her new fingers turn in all directions.

"I like to tinker," she said. "So did my grandfather. He was an artist, too. I guess I get it from him."

Mary Vincent draws intricate flowers using a pencil gripped in her hook. "I like to tinker," she said of modifying her cheap prosthesis arms to suit her purposes.  

He was not a pool shark. She surprises people when she takes out the cue and lines up the ball. Under 5-foot-4 and barely 100 pounds, she doesn't look as if she'd be competitive in the sport Minnesota Fats made famous, but she is. Friends who can't bear to lose don't play her.

"I focus on where I want the ball to go and I do the math, the angles and the ricochet," she said. "The rest comes naturally."

Bowling comes naturally too, after she designed her own system of holding the ball.

In Gig Harbor, nobody gawks when they see her at the lanes unscrewing her metal hand and replacing it with one that has a form core. They're used to her. She presses down and the core expands inside the ball, giving her a good grip with a coil spring that assures a quick release. When the strikes pile up, it's nothing special.

"There's all this stuff in the world that's been discarded," she said. "If you keep working with it, it will work with you."

Another thing she gave herself is a mom. She divorced her first husband but hung onto his mom.

  Mary Vincent's version of female action figures know with absolute assurance how to take care of themselves.
"I needed a mom, and I found one. It's my mother-in-law, Pat Platt, who lives nearby. When anyone asks me if I'm close to my mom, I say yes, because Pat's my mom now."

Although she's scraping by on a meager and recently reduced combination of disability and welfare payments (about $600 a month) and a small trickle that comes in from her art commissions, she's hoping eventually to be able to support herself and her boys by art alone.

Right now she's looking for a job, as she's behind on rent and has medical debt from a son's illness. She's also working on designing a card to advertise her services as portrait illustrator. (Single-person illustrations in pencil start at $300, and her framed paintings of power-figure women in chalk pastel start at $1,800. To contact her about the art, call 253-858-1105.)

By midafternoon, the dogs are barking at the front door, demanding a walk. Wright gets her a cape and wraps it around her shoulders. She holds up each of her shapely feet, covered in fishnet stockings, so that he, on his knees, can strap on fancy black pumps, which clasp at the ankle and cost $7.50 "on sale," she said, with triumph.

Down the driveway they run in a light rain, dogs yapping in the lead. She holds the cape over her head with her metal fingers and laughs at the cold.

Art critic Regina Hackett can be reached at 206-448-8332 or reginahackett@seattlepi.com


Mary Vincent's Story

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