Mary Shaw Tells Solano Water Stories

“Water has become a commodity that’s bought and sold, much like gold or oil. It’s like that everywhere, but particularly obvious in California,” begins Mary Shaw, reflecting on the research she has done in preparation for curating an educational and artistic exhibition on display this month at Arts Benicia, titled Solano Water Stories. “Benicia doesn’t get water from the Solano County Water Project. Our water comes from the North Bay Aqueduct and the State Water Project, but we also buy water from Vallejo. People started to understand more about the sources of our water when the North Bay Aqueduct pipe broke, but it’s a very complicated system.”

Art by Akiko Suzuki titled "Dark Water"

Akiko Suzuki, “Dark Water”

Shaw’s exhibition is part of a larger Arts Benicia grant project called Stewarding our Resources: Solano Artists Create, Collaborate, and Educate.

The grant is funded by the California Creative Corps, a program of the California Arts Council. The project is engaging artists in creating original material to be used to educate Californians about water conservation and climate mitigation.

Accessible for all ages, Solano Water Stories includes two video stations, one focusing on water-conscious landscaping, while the other features publicly accessible water education programs. An “idea library” of reading materials accompanies an interactive Haiku poetry station. Visual materials include water cycle, online flood zone maps, and watershed infrastructure maps, and images of protected open space and endangered animals in Solano County. Original works by regional artists Akiko Suzuki, Janet Barnes, Lawrence Buford, Mark Brest Van Kempen, and Jean Purnell are displayed.

Art by Jean Purnell titled "Wetlands, No. 1"

Jean Purnell, “Wetlands, No. 1”

Originally from Atlanta, Mary remembers drawing from the age of three.

“I think I started by drawing on my parents’ furniture, and I just kept going,” she laughs. A western civilization tour to Europe during high school created a strong passion for art, which she studied at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. “I took a lot of science classes and was interested in Zoology or ecology.  I visited Copper Hill, Tennessee, the site of an old copper mine, and saw the ravages of strip mining, the devastation of the land, and the destruction of local biodiversity. That pushed me toward an environmental focus. But UTK was not accepting new applicants in zoology, so I went to the art school and got involved there.”

Shaw graduated from Tennessee’s School of Art and Architecture with a major in drawing and painting. She studied figure drawing with F. Clark Stewart, reductive charcoal drawing with Thomas Riesing, took printmaking with Beauvais Lyons, and photography with Baldwin Lee. “Both Lyons and Lee taught me about process. I have always loved figure drawing but realize it’s not the end product that matters to me. It’s about exploring the medium and pushing it, whether it’s drawing, charcoal, or painting. Process gives you building blocks.”

Mary Shaw sits in front of her artwork while wearing a blue sweater, jeans, and glasses.

Mary Shaw

In 1994, she and husband Andy moved to Benicia when he was recruited by Bio-Rad.

California presented an entirely new ecosystem for Mary to explore. She was certified by the UC Cooperative Extension Master Gardener program with a specialty in California Native Plants. While raising her family, she was an active volunteer in the public schools and with the Native Plant Society. She helped to create a mostly native plant garden at Robert Semple School and was a founding member of the Forrest Deaner Native Plant Botanic Garden in the Benicia State Recreation Area. 

She worked at Bookshop Benicia for about 12 years. “The owner, Christine Mayall, used to be a neighbor. I started working for her when she was in Southampton Shopping Center. I love reading and I read multiple books at once. The bookstore supported my habit. It still does.

Art by Lawrence Buford titled "Wetlands"

Lawrence Buford, “Wetlands”

She joined the staff of Arts Benicia in 2012, doing exhibition installations and later, managing the exhibition and education programs. “I’ve been doing installation work since I was in college. It was always the art that pulled me in. The act of installing work is its own thing. You create alternative conversations between the artworks. Each work expresses something on its own but together as part of an installation, it becomes something more powerful.” In 2019 she moved on to focus on her own art and exhibition services. She continues to design and install exhibitions for Arts Benicia and other galleries as an independent contractor. 

Art by Janet Barnes titled Family Love from her Dinner Series

Janet Barnes, “Family Love” from Dinner Series

Solano Water Stories brings together Shaw’s passions for the environment, art, and the community.

“It’s about caring enough to make a difference, doing something as simple as changing the landscaping in your yard to use less water. Climate change is going to be the major problem for the next generation. We’ve got to work together to find solutions.”

Arts Benicia is located at 1 Commandant’s Lane, Benicia, in the Commanding Officer’s Quarters. Exhibition hours are 1 to 5 pm, Thursday through Sunday, through December 17. For more information, visit and

Photograph by Tom Muehleisen titled "Otter at Rush Ranch"

Tom Muehleisen, “Otter at Rush Ranch”

Feature image: Mark Brest Van Kempen, “Boat”