As Mary Jo Messenger put the finishing touches on her portrait of James W. Rouse for an art class, she had an epiphany: Why not paint a series of portraits to illustrate Rouse's vision for the planned city he often referred to as "a garden for growing people"?
What began as a simple homage to Columbia's founder 18 months ago quickly took on a life of its own.
The result is an exhibit of 20 oil paintings of residents whose lives represent the ideals Rouse set out in establishing Columbia as a diverse and inclusive community in 1967.
"I call this exhibit my salute to Columbia," said Messenger, a Kings Contrivance resident whose work will be displayed at the Bernice Kish Gallery at Slayton House through Aug. 14. A reception will be held from 3 to 5 p.m. on Sunday.
The exhibit — part of a months-long celebration of Columbia's 50th birthday that will last through Oct. 7 — "is about gratitude to Rouse, to those who made [his] vision a reality and to those who continue to keep the vision alive," she said.
In tandem with Messenger's portraits will be a display of Howard County landscapes by Cooksville resident Oda Von Berg. Their joint exhibit is titled "Celebrating Community: Columbia and Howard County."
Messenger set herself a deadline to paint 14 portraits in addition to Rouse's to take part in birthday events this year, and included five others she'd completed earlier that fit the project's theme.
She painted the portraits from photographs she took with a Canon S100 digital camera, combining shots from different angles and settings to create composites in most cases.
The program for the exhibit will have an introduction that "explains the motivation for putting the show together," Messenger said, emphasizing that the show represents a "small, biased sample" of residents and doesn't purport to tell the whole story of Columbia.
Alongside each painting's title is a quick response code that connects a viewer via smartphone to the exhibit's website, celebratingcolumbia.com. There they can watch videos of portrait subjects talking about their lives and what the community means to them. Many of them will attend the opening reception.
There's also a self-published book by the same name that matches the portraits to Rouse quotes and is available online.
Aside from Rouse, well-known people represented in Messenger's exhibit include Toby Orenstein, owner of Toby's Dinner Theatre, and Jason Love, Columbia Orchestra conductor. The remainder are "regular people."
Ethel Hill, a retired attorney who has lived in the same home in Running Brook since 1969, is depicted with her daughters, Terri Hill and Donna Hill Staton, under the heading "In Celebration of Strong Women."
She was recommended to Messenger by a mutual friend as someone who had known Rouse, whom the artist had never met, and because she was a community activist who went to law school when she was 50 and had raised two accomplished daughters.
"I told Mary Jo how Jim was very visible and very involved in the community," Hill said of Rouse, who also lived in Wilde Lake. "My kids saw him out and about and often talked about his plaid jackets."
Messenger, who is 72 and has lived in Columbia for 40 years with her husband, Scrib Messenger, is the first to acknowledge she followed a circuitous route to bringing out her inner artist.
She retired as a mathematics teacher from River Hill High School in 2006 after a 35-year career in Howard County and elsewhere.
But she felt she had more to offer in her chosen field of study.
"I wasn't just a math teacher. I was very, very serious about math," she said. "When I retired there was a void. I wasn't ready to discard my professional knowledge."
She decided to work as a consultant in the field in which she had already distinguished herself, effectively putting off a long-held dream of studying art until 2009. She then enrolled at Howard Community College, studied landscape painting in France, and now takes classes with David Zuccarini at the Howard County Center for the Arts.
In October 2015, her teacher asked his students to paint their interpretation of a modern-day saint. After selecting Rouse, Messenger began researching his life.
Though she and her husband had chosen to move to Columbia from Ithaca, N.Y., in 1977 because of Rouse's vision, she didn't know much about the developer's background.
What she learned affected her deeply.
"How does a man who grew up on the conservative Eastern Shore have such a vision for what the world should be?" she wondered aloud, with tears welling up in her eyes.
The research process revealed Rouse's depth and spiritual side, she said.
"I became more and more enthralled with his vision, and overwhelmed by a sense of gratitude for all [he] has given to our community," she wrote in a speech on Rouse that she recently delivered to Christ United Methodist Church, located at the Owen Brown Interfaith Center.
Judy Pittman — who worked for human services organizations in the county for 40 years and appears in one of the paintings as a co-founder of transportation service Neighbor Ride — said she wasn't surprised her friend decided to push herself to take on a labor-intensive project that might have overwhelmed others.
"This exhibit shows the depth of Mary Jo's commitment to Columbia," said Pittman, who lived in Columbia for many years before moving to Ellicott City three years ago.
"I've known her for a long time and it's interesting how emotional she gets" when it comes to the subject of Rouse and his vision, she said. "She's a huge believer in Columbia."
Hill said she also came to the planned city in search of something.
"When we came here from Philadelphia, we didn't know anyone," she observed. "Columbia has changed a lot over the years, but that's the way life is. Still, I certainly wouldn't want to live anywhere else."
Messenger said she hopes people will take away from the exhibit a greater appreciation for the people who were drawn to Howard County by the promise of Columbia and are still shepherding Rouse's vision into the future.
"This is about the common man," she said. "It's just us."
If you go
"Celebrating Community: Columbia and Howard County" will be on exhibit through Aug. 14 at the Bernice Kish Gallery at Slayton House, 10400 Cross Fox Lane, Columbia. An artist's reception will be held from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Information and gallery hours: 410-730-3987 or wildelake.org.