SOUTHINGTON — A decade after setting out on her dream of creating a community arts center in town, Mary DeCroce was able to see that mission accomplished.
As executive director of Southington Community Cultural Arts, she built an organization from scratch that now runs classes, exhibits and collaborative events with local non-profits, all while taking the time to teach painting classes herself.
DeCroce, 68, died in her home on Sunday, three decades after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. According to her obituary, she had overcome the disease six different times and underwent a stem cell transplant in 2015 and CAR T-cell therapy in 2019.
“She would tell me that she wanted to use art to bring people together,” said Valerie DePaolo, a town councilor and cousin of DeCroce. “All people, people of different ages and different mental abilities and colors and genders. She wanted to have the art be something that could help to unify people — to connect them, to teach them...Mary made the community beautiful.”
First Congregational Church will hold a service in her memory Sunday at 2 p.m., which will be followed by a celebration of life reception at SoCCA, 93 Main St., at 3 p.m. The reception will include an exhibit of her artwork.Continuing mission
Jhenea Gooden, an administrative assistant at SoCCA, said DeCroce had someone in mind that she wanted to see take over after she died. An announcement of the center’s next director will be forthcoming.
“We’re looking forward to having someone that she had chosen to continue to fulfill the mission. As far as SoCCA goes, it's business as usual, we're going to make sure that we keep our doors open and have classes and the gift shop is open,” Gooden said.
Starting in 2011, DeCroce began raising over $1 million to renovate the historic Gura Building at 93 Main St. and established SoCCA there in 2016. The center quickly became a focal point for the town’s artistic community, through classes and coordinating events, including exhibits for the town’s first Pride celebration and murals along the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail — some of which DeCroce painted herself.
“She was a force you know and just very creative and a leader,” DePaolo said, “but I always thought of her as more of a quiet leader. She didn't want the fanfare, she wanted to bring these things into the community, but maybe staying in the background a bit and letting other people have the light.”Public art
DeCroce attended the Art Institute of Boston and taught art classes and workshops throughout her life, including at St. Dominic Elementary School and the Southington YMCA, where she told children that there would one day be an arts center for them to attend, Gooden said.
Her artwork can also be seen throughout Southington and surrounding towns through public art installations and murals. The most recent work she had a hand in is a mural on High Street, part of the “MLK39: Racial Equity Mural Tour” being organized by Rise Up Hartford.
Though she favored the town participating in the statewide mural project, it was important to her that residents guide the direction of the mural, which will have an official unveiling ceremony on Sept. 25. At the center of the mural is a quote from DeCroce: “It starts with an idea and the community makes it happen.”Creating pathways
Though creating SoCCA was her dream, DeCroce was also involved in a range of community events and organizations in Southington. She co-chaired the Relay for Life from 2007 to 2009, raising over $1 million for the American Cancer Society, and started the Harvest the Arts Festival — which was part of the Apple Harvest Festival for a number of years.
Creating pathways for art to create meaningful differences in people’s lives was central to DeCroce’s vision for SoCCA, leading to the creation of the All Access Arts program, which provides weekly arts programs to around 50 individuals with intellectual disabilities.
The program sells artwork that they create to give participants income to improve their lives.
“I definitely feel like she was always searching for a need, whether it was a need to have a safe place for people to feel welcome and carrying that everyday helped to navigate us in a certain direction,” Gooden said.
Continuing DeCroce’s vision of a town that uses the arts as a way to understand and empower each other now lies in the hands of residents, DePaolo said.
“If we can continue to do that and unify all the residents in our town, I think that would be a nice thank you to her and all she's given to the town,” she said.