Artist. Teacher. Mentor. Pioneer.

These are words used by former students to describe Mary Visser, professor of art at Southwestern University. Mary has taught art classes at SU since 1979, guiding thousands of students over the decades and making a lasting impact on many.

One such student is Tom Morin ’94. Tom majored in studio art with a concentration in photography, and describes Mary as “a pioneer both academically and socially.” He credits her guidance and mentorship with helping him find and pursue his passion. She was “instrumental in giving me the confidence to major in art. I would not be where I am today without her guidance and support.”

Recently, Tom and his wife Julie pledged $125,000 to establish the Mary Visser High Impact Experiences Endowed Fund. This permanent endowment will enable the the Sarofim School of Fine Arts to continue Mary’s legacy by helping art students pursue their passion in the form of internships or other high impact experiences. According to Tom, ‘“It’s all about helping people and honoring Mary.”

Mary’s first “real” exposure to art was in college. She entered Ohio State with her sights set on becoming a veterinarian (which at the time was considered a “man’s job.)” She didn’t personally know anyone who was an artist, and although she enjoyed working with paper mache and the Georgia red clay as a child, she had never considered art as a career. While at Ohio State,  she took a clay ceramics course and  “immediately fell in love with the medium, the material, the look —everything.” She had found her passion.

Fast forward to today—Mary’s artwork has appeared in over 125 juried exhibitions including the touring e-Form Cybersculpture exhibition for the 2008 Olympic events in China. She has received numerous awards including the “Design Excellence Award” from the City of Austin Design Commission, a Mellon Technology Fellowship, and a Munday Fellowship for her research in rapid prototyping sculptural forms.

Mary is one of the first international artists to pioneer the use of 3D modeling and rapid prototyping in sculpture. She is currently Vice President of Ars Mathematica of Paris, France, an international non-profit organization devoted to promoting digital sculpture. She also teaches sculpture and computer modeling at Southwestern, where she has taught for over 38 years.

When Mary reflects back on her students over the years, she describes the light in their eyes when they first come to college. She believes it his her job “to guide them and give them the tools to explore and take risks.” She encourages her students “to dig deeper and challenge themselves.”

When she thinks of Tom Morin, she recalls a joyful, curious, and highly intelligent student. “Tom had an excellent eye for art—the details, lighting, subject placement, everything. He had a passion for photography, but when he first arrived at SU he didn’t know it yet.”

Tom agrees. In fact, he entered college intending to study pre-law. But “the beauty of a liberal arts school like Southwestern is that you take classes in all subject matters. I took a photography class taught by Mary, and I’m not exaggerating when I say she changed my life.”

“Mary is a wonderful supporter and mentor. She is not easy—she expects excellence and encourages her students to push themselves out of their comfort zone. But she is caring and thoughtful and open to her students’ thoughts and processes. She makes you a better artist and a better person.”

Tom recalls how Mary stood up for him during his time at SU and beyond. In one instance, there was a reluctance to hang a piece of Tom’s artwork inside the fine arts building. Mary describes the particular nude photo as tasteful and “absolutely stunning,” but at the time some people thought it was too risque. Mary fought for it. “It was art. It was a beautiful image of the human body and it deserved to be appreciated.”

This made a lasting impression on Tom. “She fights for what she believes in and stands up for her students. At the time, I don’t think I even realized the extent to which she stuck her neck out to help me. I was a college kid. But looking back, I can see how much she put on the line to stand up for something—and someone—she believed in.” Clearly, he never forgot.

Tom graduated from Southwestern in 1994 and went on to a successful photography career. He worked in New York for several years before receiving his MFA in 2004 at Rochester Institute of Technology. He then returned to Houston, where he is currently the Publisher and President of the Daily Court Review, a family business that his great-grandfather started in 1889. He is a strong supporter of arts and education because he believes that art plays an important role in education. He wants others to have exposure and access to different types of art.

Mary and Tom have an obvious mutual respect for each other. Even after Tom graduated, they kept in touch, writing letters back and forth for years. Mary traveled to Tom’s wedding, and although they don’t get to see each other in person as often as they would like, the solid foundation means that they can pick right back up where they left off. “Some teachers connect with you and truly change your life. For me, that was Mary.”

In addition to their mutual love and talent for art, Tom and Mary have another thing in common —their love for Southwestern. Mary believes that “It’s the one place that you can pursue your interests and be all that you can be. Southwestern allows you to grow your ideas.”  She gives examples such as the Brown Symposium, which she chaired in 2015, and her opportunity to pursue 3D printing and bring it to campus. She doesn’t think she would have had those same opportunities anywhere else.

For Tom, honoring Mary and her legacy with the endowment was important to him and his family. “Often art educators such as Mary don’t get the recognition they deserve. They have a calling and choose to teach others to create art. They sort of put their own art careers on the side burner while they dedicate the bulk of their career to teaching. I want to honor Mary and her devotion to art education.”

The Mary Visser High Impact Experiences Endowed Fund will allow her legacy to continue to make a difference. The fund will support high-impact student experiences for studio art majors who demonstrate particular promise. Selected students will participate in activities that deepen their mastery of artistic craft such as faculty-student research, internships, study abroad, study away, or other important experiences.