New Gallery Exhibition Portrays the Emotional Burden of Caregiving


Julian Perez

Sophomore Natalie Salinas admires paintings by Mary Porterfield in the Ferguson Art Gallery on Jan. 29.

Rafael Gonzalez Jr

Concordia University Chicago’s Ferguson Art Gallery hosted a reception on January 29 to celebrate a new exhibition by artist Mary Porterfield called Pushing Back the Sea.

Porterfield paints primarily on transparent paper to portray her experiences as an occupational therapist at Ascension-Resurrection Medical Center, helping her patients rehabilitate in hopes of returning to a more active day-to-day lifestyle.

The paintings exhibited in Pushing Back the Sea are inspired by Porterfield’s mother, Jeanie, who was a caregiver for Porterfield’s father, Jerry, until he passed away from Parkinson’s disease in December 2021. Because of the risk of COVID-19 infection during those months, Porterfield could not visit her family to help her mother through that difficult period.

“I called her every day and she would be crying on the phone explaining to me how stressful her day was,” says Porterfield, who also teaches art at Northeastern Illinois University. “I think in a lot of ways this show is a tribute to her, because I couldn’t be there, but I can at least show her the respect I have for her, and how she dealt with the situation.”

Porterfield’s painting of her mother carrying her father, for example, is meant to demonstrate how Jeanie felt the weight of the world on her shoulders while helping Porterfield’s chair-bound father in the late stages of his illness.

Porterfield’s art journey began when her father was serving in the U.S. Air Force and stationed in Wiesbaden, Germany. Her mother took art classes as a way to “cure her homesickness,” Porterfield says. The seven-year-old accompanied her mother to those art classes.

“I’ve been in love with art ever since,” Porterfield says.

Over the past 27 years, Porterfield’s paintings have been shown across the United States and in South Korea. She has received awards and grants from The Illinois Arts Council, the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, the Illinois Institute of Art, the Evanston Art Center, and the Phoenix Art Museum in Arizona, among others.

“Mary’s drawings are both phenomenal and courageous,” says Nikkole Huss, the director of the Ferguson Art Gallery who arranged the exhibition. “She is not afraid to express her vulnerability by sharing the heart-wrenching story of her mother’s struggle.”

Huss added that she hopes that CUC students, “whether or not they have served in the role of caregiver, are inspired to lend a helping hand to others in need.”

The January 29 reception drew a crowd of roughly 50 attendees, including Porterfield’s family members, current and former CUC art students, and other locals.

“I really like the facial features and how she uses these strong shading and lines to convey emotion and how the color palette compliments one another,” says junior art student Darrell Carter. “It inspires me to that same medium in my drawings.”

Porterfield hopes that her paintings get people to understand the difficulty elderly people experience with the healthcare system in their twilight years. “I hope it gives more thought and consideration to the elderly, because pandemic or no pandemic, many elderlies are homebound,” Porterfield says. “Many elderlies have lost friends or spouses, and they are going through this alone. I really hope it brings about more discussion and sensitivity about those types of issues.”

The exhibit gallery will still be open to the public until Feb. 25. To see more paintings previously done by Porterfield visit