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Mary Fuller Bearman obituary: Artist, business owner and philanthropist

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 3, 2011 - Mary Bearman, an artist and the co-founder of an interior landscaping business that became one of the most successful female-owned and operated businesses in St. Louis, died Saturday (April 30) at Barnes-Jewish Hospital following a long illness. She was 85 and had lived in Ladue.

Mrs. Bearman was also a painter, whose layered oils moved between the bold, radiant strokes of "Musician," the portrait of a young man, and the quiet pastels of "Ophelia," a young woman in a pensive mood.

Jewels Of Color

"Ophelia was one of her favorite models," said Morton Bearman, her husband of nearly 63 years. "She painted some abstracts, some landscapes and some still life, but mostly, she used live models, because she preferred people."

For more than three decades, Washington University School of Architecture Professor Emeritus Leslie Laskey mentored Mrs. Bearman, taught her, critiqued her work and frequented her art exhibitions.

"Mary was an incredible artist," Laskey said. "Her work had a resonance not to be matched."

Mrs. Bearman also once shared studio space with Laskey. She had a room set up next to her bedroom so she could paint whenever she chose, but she favored working away from home. So did her four dogs, who often accompanied her to the studio.

"She loved dogs; and God knows, they loved her," Morty Bearman said.

A more recent studio partner, Marlene Lewis, said Mrs. Bearman had a passion for every living creature. The two met at a pastel workshop several years ago, and soon began sharing space.

"Her work is absolutely amazing," said Lewis, whose acrylics tend toward figurative expressionism. "Her colors are like jewels, extremely rich; they just glow.

"It reminds me of (Amedeo Clemente) Modigliani," a figurative Italian artist whose work was characterized by sensually elongated forms. "It is definitely colorful and sensual."

Her Father's Daughter

Mary Fuller Bearman was born in St. Louis on June 21, 1925, the third daughter of Leo Charles Fuller and Myrtle Scharff Fuller. She attended Community School, John Burroughs School, Bradford Junior College, and the Washington University School of Fine Arts.

Mrs. Bearman was first and foremost an artist, but merchandising was in her blood. Her father was the son of Aaron Fuller, a co-founder of Stix, Baer and Fuller, a premier St. Louis department store for more for more than 80 years.

She asked her dad, who became a managing partner at Stix, if she could work at the store. He agreed, and she sold young women's dresses when she was home from college.

In the early '70s, she tried her hand at running her own business.

When she and a friend, Carol Salomon, found themselves the unofficial experts at the plant sales at their children's schools, the two decided to go into the interior landscaping business to brighten the surroundings of corporations, shopping centers, restaurants and hotels.

"Mary and I decided to start our own company on a very informal basis," Salomon told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1988. "We had an old, broken-down truck and our kids were dragged to plant nurseries and clients' offices and houses all the time."

With a third partner, Jane Harris, and a $200 investment, Creative Greenery was born. Harris left the company in the first year, but Bearman and Salomon continued to work together for nearly 10 years.

They designed, bought and serviced the plants themselves, until the business grew too big and horticulturists had to be hired.

"Word got around, people liked what they saw, and they built up quite a business," said Morty Bearman.

But the business's success is what made Mrs. Bearman leave; it left less and less time for her to paint, to take care of her family and to dance.

She Could Have Danced All Night

"As a little girl, I always wanted to perform, but when my ballet teacher suggested I try out for the Muny chorus, my father refused to let me, saying no daughter of his was going to be on the stage," Mrs. Bearman told the Post-Dispatch in 2002.

Nevertheless, she danced.

At the time of the interview, Mrs. Bearman was 77 and taking tap and jazz classes from Kari James, who had been her teacher off and on for at least 20 years. She also learned from master dancers: Lane Alexander, director of Chicago's Human Rhythm Program; Mark Goodman of Los Angeles and Germaine Goodson of New York.

Talent and teaching had made her an excellent dancer who performed frequently - on stage - throughout St. Louis.

She appreciated being exposed to the best dance teachers in the nation and she sought to give that experience to young people.

"Mary really wanted our student dance company to have the opportunity to work with high-level dance choreographers from outside St. Louis," said Pam Mandelker, the director of development at COCA. "So she helped us bring in choreographers from around the country."

She also wanted to ensure that a lack of funds would not hinder students from experiencing the arts. She founded and supported the Lee Nolting Scholarship Fund, named for a COCA teacher who has been with the program since its inception 25 years ago. Mrs. Bearman had been Nolting's student.

"She was a fabulous dancer," Nolting said. "And she was an incredibly kind and generous woman who was so excited about the talent of the children at COCA that she became a major donor.

"We should be so lucky to have more Mary Bearmans in this world."

Mrs. Bearman supported many charitable organizations, especially those involving arts and education, including the Community School Association and Springboard to Learning. She was a founding member of the Forest Park Forever Women's Committee.

Mrs. Bearman was also a gifted tennis player, golfer and pianist who enjoyed all genres of music.

She was preceded in death by her parents and one sister, Janet Miller.

In addition to her husband, Mrs. Bearman is survived by her three children, Mary B. (Ladd) Rusk of Shawnee on Delaware, Pa., Morton R. (Marcie) Bearman II, of Highland Park, Ill., and Lee F. (Julie) Bearman of St. Louis; her sister, Frances Weinstock, of Richmond Heights, and seven grandchildren.

A memorial gathering is being planned.

Contributions may be made to COCA, the St. Louis Symphony, Community School or John Burroughs School.

Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter for AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service. 

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.