Updated: Jul 7, 2021
The Life of Mary J. Pritchard
Reggie and Wilson’s art has many influences from around the Pacific and around the world. But there is one teacher in American Samoa who taught them both, and who instilled a great love of Samoan art in the two of them.
Mary J. Pritchard was an artist, a beloved auntie, and an advocate for the rebirth of the art of siapo.
Image from siapo.com
Mary’s Early Life
Mary grew up on the island of Tutuila in American Samoa. Her childhood was filled with trips out to the bush with the older women in her family. They brought along the children to teach them how to collect firewood, food, and the bark needed for siapo.
From an early age, they taught her the correct way to collect the bark of the u’a (the paper mulberry tree) in order to make siapo. With fun and adventure, these women showed Mary the spirit of Fa’asamoa.
The Start of Her Career
At the age of 18, just as she was finishing her formal education, Mary’s father died. She returned home from Honolulu where she had been studying.
Now she was faced with a big problem--how was she going to support her mother, her brother, and her three younger sisters?
She was hired as a joiner (a man’s job) in the Public Works department as a sign of support for her family. She was hired as “M. Jewett,” and as a result she became the first woman in Samoa to be hired by the U.S. Navy.
She met Ron Pritchard and they married in 1925. In 1927, she quit her job with the Public Works department.
This is where Mary’s story with Siapo really takes off.
Entrepreneur to Artist
After she quit her job and began to have children, Mary started her own shipping business. She sent Siapo, floor mats, and table mats to dealers in Honolulu. Her business grew until she had over twenty women on her payroll.
She worked every day under the store she and her husband owned, dying fabrics and creating custom designs for customers. Her clothing items were extremely popular, resulting in her needing to rub her Siapo designs onto over forty yards of cloth a day.
But in the evenings, when the work of the day was done, Mary worked on her own Siapo designs at home.
In her early marriage and career, Mary would often walk a couple of hours to the village of Leone where she would watch the Siapo-making of the women there. She would normally find herself in the fale of Tui'uli Leoso. Tui'uli’s daughter-in-law, Kolone, spent her time in that fale creating and teaching other women and girls.
Kolone spent her days creating Siapo designs at a lightning pace, her fingers flying over the surface of the fabric. Free-hand designs were what the women of Leone were famous for, and Kolone Leoso was the most prolific artist in the group. In the quiet moments, she took the time to teach young girls in-between the many errands they ran for her.
Mary’s relationship with the Leone Siapo makers would eventually change her from an entrepreneur to an artist.
The Leone Siapo Makers
Leone was, and still is, a center for the arts in American Samoa. In Mary’s early adulthood, she began to spend time with the Leone Siapo makers, a group of women who gathered in the fales of Leone to create Siapo and teach young girls to do the same.
The Siapo was not just for economic gain. It was not just a business. The more time Mary spent with them, the more she saw the social and cultural significance of it all. These women, through their sisterhood and art, were embodying the Samoan way of life--Fa’asamoa.
Kolone drew inspiration from the colorful church windows that they could see from their fale, and she began to create Siapo patterns filled with colors. Up until this point, most Siapo makers used black and brown dyes in their freehand work, but Kolone used reds and yellows as well.
Mary began to send the freehand work of the Leone Siapo makers to her contacts in Honolulu, with much success. Their work was vastly different from what was being created in other parts of the Samoan islands.
When boats came to Tutuila with visitors, each village brought their own wares to sell. The specialty free-hand Siapo of the Leone women was a favorite every time.
In 1929, as she sat watching the women of Leone create their free-hand work, Mary had a thought.
She should make her own.
The Savior of Siapo
Mary Pritchard has been called the savior of Siapo, but from her first attempt at the artform, you never would have guessed it.
She was given the materials for her first piece from the women of Leone, but she used the wrong adhesive and the entire work stuck to the counter at her and Ron’s store.
When she tried to pull it up, it shredded into pieces.
Her second piece was a success, but soon she realized that she had a supply problem--she had no u’a. Every woman in the Leone group had her own supply of the paper mulberry tree, but Mary had none. So she began to volunteer to help the other women with their harvesting, and in return they would give her bark so she could make her own Siapo.
She grew as an artist, but with the start of WWII, almost all Siapo making stopped. After the war, many of the women and girls who had been making Siapo stopped their production, and Kolone and Mary became two of the only people making Siapo on the island of Tutuila.
When Kolone died in 1970, Mary was among the last Siapo makers in American Samoa.
The choices she made next changed the course of her life and led to the rebirth of the Leone Siapo makers.
Image from siapo.com
A New Generation of Students
In 1972, Mary began to take on students and teach them the art of Siapo. She shared her art with anyone who was willing to learn.
From the time she was in the third grade, young Reggie Meredith knew she wanted to be an artist. In the sixth grade, when she had the opportunity to learn from Mary Pritchard, Reggie dove right in and never looked back. Reggie studied with Mary for 7 years before leaving the island to study Art and Art Education at university.
She returned in 1982, and as she began her career as an art teacher in American Samoa, Mary Pritchard would come to teach lessons on Siapo.
Mary also taught Uilisone in high school, unlocking his artistic potential. Her influence led to him taking an apprenticeship under a tufuga ta tatau in Apia.
After her death in 1992, Reggie Meredith, Uilisone Fitiao, Tupito Gadalla, Maria Walker, Nick King and many others continued her work. Mary shared her knowledge with the young people around her, and the art of Siapo in American Samoa saw a rebirth through her hard work and dedication to education.