Graduate Mary Buchanan Brings Together Fashion, Art, and Healing

Upon graduation this May, Mary Buchanan (’23) will receive a BFA-Design with a concentration in Fashion and a Minor in Photography. Buchanan’s path to this degree is a story of tremendous dedication. She first attended WSU in 1999 to study Fashion, before shifting to the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in San Francisco (FIDM), where she received her associate degree in Fashion Design. In 2015, however, she returned to WSU to complete a Bachelors of Fine Arts- Design degree.

As an artist living with cancer, Buchanan is creating work that addresses her bodily experience with the disease while building a legacy for her daughter, her family, and friends. With a leave of absence from work, she is enjoying the time to be able to focus on herself as an artist and realize her creative vision. “This moment is allowing me a wonderful opportunity to really focus on my art,” she says “It’s pretty magical that I finally get to tinker away and work towards becoming a professional artist. Beyond my situation with my health, I found the silver lining to be surrounded by love and support from friends and the faculty in the department. I have found allies in the department who I can share ideas that I am working on or thinking about.”


The Empress, from the series Tarot II, Cyanotype and mixed media, 2018
From the series Tarot, Cyanotype and mixed media, 2016


Setting Her Pace at WSU

Buchanan’s deep relationship with WSU stretches back to her childhood. Her father, mother, and especially her stepmother – all WSU alumni – encouraged her to return to finish the degree, she says. “I have great memories of my parents on campus and going into Old Main as a small kid. When I enrolled here, I remember how cool it was to go into Old Main and do my fashion courses in the same place where my dad once had a biology lab for his PhD. That was a really sweet circle.”

She also has great memories of being an undergrad student in the early 2000s. “I lived over on Second Avenue and Antoinette Street, and I didn't have a car,” she says. “I would walk to campus, and we have such a beautiful campus – Yamasaki buildings, the walkability around the campus, the Fisher Building being right there, the DIA, and the beautiful Detroit Public Library. These are all my favorite places. I had a really nice time being independent and taking in the feeling of the city as a young person. The campus is a jewel, and to study there is really special.”


Lafayette Towers, Cyanotype on cotton paper, 2019


When she returned to WSU, in 2015, Buchanan was a new mother with a different perspective. She found the structure and sense of community to be both grounding and creatively invigorating. She says, “When I returned to Wayne, it was a different experience from when I was 19 and right out of high school. I am people-oriented, so it is very challenging to work on my own. I really thrive in the classroom. My first art class back was Introduction to Digital Photography APH 3400. The instructor, Deb Kingery, encouraged me to continue pursuing photo courses and to find the courage to exhibit my work. Soon to follow were experiments with fiber, fashion, and photo which I continue to explore.”

The process couldn’t be rushed because Buchanan wanted to align her FIDM credits with her WSU credits in a meaningful way. This took a diligent partnership with her advisor, Avanti Herczeg. “Avanti and the program folks were very helpful in being consistently communicative over time. I wouldn't have stuck with it if I hadn’t had that support,” she says. Setting a slower pace toward her degree turned out to be the right approach for Buchanan, and also a way to bring her life and her work together in meaningful ways. “Taking classes across a longer period of time is a way to instill what you’re learning in your life. If I was rushing through it to get done by a certain time, I don't think I would have appreciated how each class enriched me in different ways. The time I spent allowed me to slow down if I needed, and ultimately was the best way for me to invest in myself. I'm not doing this for anyone else but myself.”


Spirit of Detroit

Buchanan describes the WSU Fashion program as having a “Detroit slant.” The city may not have a fashion industry, but “there is motivation and open-mindedness about doing your own thing,” she explains, adding that studying art in Detroit is uniquely influenced by the energy of artists who have sustained a strong presence in the city, weathering its ups and downs.

She says, “It's always been the artist community that has really survived in Detroit. I see that as such a monumental, beautiful thing about Detroit, though the city is often talked about so poorly around the world. In my experience, there has always been a community of creative people and truly diverse people, rich in culture and kindness and connection. Learning from people here has really touched my soul.”

Today, interest in nurturing independent fashion designers in Detroit is growing, and the WSU faculty are bringing that message into the classroom. “When I talk to the fashion faculty at WSU,” she says, “I really hear clarity and feel the essence of Detroit. You can do it yourself, find people, and try new things. I am reminded about the ‘Spirit of Detroit.’ For me that means resilience and surviving, finding a little wiggle room to make something new. That's something that is really special about Detroit, and I think that the Art Department at Wayne really grasps that.”

Buchanan speaks of the powerful element of mutual respect between students and faculty within the WSU experience. “I felt very respected as a human being and an artist, and I saw respect and fostering going on around me with other students, which was so encouraging,” she says. “It made me feel very safe to explore my art, and it made me want to come to class and be in that environment.” She also appreciated the balance of freedom and discipline that she found in the program. “I had freedom where I had to find it within myself to produce the idea. If I went off the rails a little bit, I wasn’t made to feel like I didn’t deliver, but it was clear that it was my job to get my questions answered. That nurturing and guidance helped me work toward my own studio practice.”

This deep support was felt most acutely when she was working on her final project, which dealt with cancer and the body. “I knew that I could come into class and ask questions and feel supported,” she says. “Friends and family sometimes can't always understand your vision, but there's something pretty magical when your peers in an art community seem to understand or to be able to have that conversation with you. That makes your ideas sharper. That's pretty special.”


From the series Tarot, 2016
From the series Tarot II, Cyanotype and mixed media, 2018


Expressing Her Experience with Cancer Through Fashion

Buchanan took Beginning Weaving AFI 2650, where she explored different mediums, including photography. She incorporated cyanotypes onto woven fabric, creating, for her final project, a crinoline and corset. The result was “very out of the box for weaving,” she says, and adds, “I was excited but also overwhelmed. There was an air of experimentation that I wasn’t expecting in weaving. I assumed that the process of weaving would be fairly rigid and structured, but there was a good amount of creative interpretation that was available in the class.”

This work with textiles, fabric construction, and craft led Buchanan to explore a connection with the journey of cancer and the body. The idea was first sparked in Tailoring/Directed Study AFA 4990.  “I was very interested in the similarities between the impact of cancer-related surgery and tailoring itself,” she says. “Tailoring is about making bespoke garments that are fit to an individual body -well-proportioned and body-conscious. I’ve had many surgeries. My own body has been manipulated and sewn back together, and I wanted to find a way to express that experience with my handwork.”


Weaving Studies, Cyanotype and mixed textiles, 2021


The project took shape with a corset that Buchanan was constructing as a tailoring project and cyanotype images of trees that were reminiscent of the vascular system. For her final weaving project, Buchanan worked with the technique to create something reminiscent of a historic cage skirt. “It was very satisfying to play with this concept – to play with shape and weaving to create this very exaggerated form around a very fitted corset,” she says.


Body Study, Cyanotype on silk, cotton, and mixed textiles, 2021
Detail of Body Study, Cyanotype on silk, cotton, and mixed textiles, 2021


Conceptually – and therapeutically – Buchanan is addressing expectations of her own body and image, and the persistence of these standards, in the fashion industry. She explains, “This work is also about facing how different my body is from other women my age, and feeling like my body doesn’t fit into fashion anymore. This is a difficult feeling for me as a fashion designer – I’m someone who’s been obsessed with Vogue since I was a kid! I am feeling like my body is not representative of my vision and style anymore. I feel that loss, and I am asking myself, ‘What is that vision now? What is my style now?’”


Eloise’s Dream, Cyanotype on Cotton, 2019


Making and Healing

Buchanan sees mental and physical health benefits through the process of art making. She explains, “The tactility of working with weaving and working with the concept of something that is so primitive and ancient – this took me out of myself a bit. The thinking about the making can be very scary, but that flow you get into can be soothing.”

Buchanan understands that connecting with these feelings in her work is a powerful and daunting process. “I often don't know if I want to dig into the feelings, but the feelings are where the most special and authentic creativity is going to be,” she says. “It's hard to put into words what I have been through. It's hard to put into form. And the two are very different, the words and the process of creating something. But once I get going, and I know that I am going to present something meaningful to a group of people that have also shared things that are deeply meaningful, it really motivates me to create something.”


Jessica’s Skirt, Sepia toned Silverprint, 2018
Eloise Blue Print, Cyanotype with mixed media, 2020


Right now, Buchanan is finding joy in her art making and connecting with herself and her life experiences. She hopes to create a legacy of work to leave to her daughter, a combination of fashion, photography, and possibly animation. She is planning to create some new fashion pieces, 3D forms, and cyanotypes that allude to her surgeries. “I want to create something in her language. I'm finding a road to creating a body of work that will answer questions I won't be able to answer when I've passed, or to give her and other people something to ponder on: Who was this person? What were they all about?” Some of this process involves looking back at older work, and Buchanan sees this as an interesting part of the process. “Sometimes illness takes your identity and turns it upside down. Going back and seeing the thread in my work makes me feel really good. I have an identity in what I have created and what I continue to create.”

WSU will continue to play a part in her journey as an artist, and she is considering applying to the MFA program. “I loved getting this degree from Wayne. It provided so much for me as an individual human being, as an artist, and as a creative person. I have enjoyed coming back to Wayne and want to maintain that community and continue to get that mentorship.”


From the series Tarot, 2016


See more of Buchanan's work at:


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