Sculptor and glass artist Mary Shaffer was born in Walterboro, South Carolina, in 1947. As a child she lived in South America and her first language was Spanish. She received her Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Rhode Island School of Design where she studied illustration and minored in painting. Having a mother who believed strongly in the value of travel as education, she also attended the Ecole d'Humanite in Goldern, Switzerland, for several years.
Shaffer is recognized worldwide as one of the founding artists of the American Studio Glass Movement. In the early 1970s she adapted an auto industry technique for shaping windshield glass into a "mid-air slumping," process which allowed her to move glass in a particular way as it was heated. She then began mixing glass and metal tools, casting, dipping and slumping glass from objects found in flea markets and junk yards, and innovatively extending her materials to include "light, bronze, steel, stone and glass, water and sound."
In the 1970s and 1980s Shaffer taught at the Rhode Island School of Design, Wellesley College, and New York University where she was Director of the Crafts Program in the Department of Art and Art Education. She also managed the Art Center at the University of Maryland in the 1980s. From 1975 on she exhibited her work at O.K. Harris Gallery in New York (a gallery primarily devoted to painting and non craft sculpture), and has also shown in glass-specific or craft venues such as Habatat Galleries in Michigan and Boca Raton, Florida, Hellery Gallery in New York, and Anne O'Brien Gallery in Washington, DC. In 1992 Shaffer completed the installation of her largest sculpture to date, Center-Light, a luminous column of glass and bronze in the three-story open stairwell of the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, a building designed by architects Cesare Pelli and Associates.
Shaffer's work can be found in the collections of nearly twenty major museums worldwide including the American Craft Museum, the Corning Glass Museum, the Kyoto Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Decorative Arts in Lausanne, Switzerland, and the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution. She has received numerous honors and awards for her work, and has been honored by the American Craft Museum as a Visionary.
Shaffer moved to Marfa, Texas, in 2001 after having been a long-time resident of Bethesda, Maryland, and having studios in Maryland and, later, New York.