Gayleen and the Raimbillis among the Granite Plants

Above my desk is the painting by visionary artist, Gayleen Aiken, that I bought those many years ago at Don’s house. The picture is titled “My happy Raimbilli Cousins with music, hobbies, granite plants, mills, big farm-house.” There are 27 cousins in my painting, cousins she created when she was still a child, and who appear again and again in her work. Gayleen invited me to write to her that day, and when I discovered some gold and silver pens in our local stationery store, I did, and sent the pens besides.

In her letters to me, she thanked me for the pens, and she asked about the player piano Don told her was in my house. Did I want to sell it? Could she buy it from me? She wrote about health concerns (a dislocated knee), visitors and get-togethers. She talked about Don, her art dealer, her art boss, and the events he’d arranged for her: a magazine feature, exhibits, a film, a birthday party. But mostly she wrote about her work.

Gayleen’s art was fueled by a dream:

We miss our old fancy woodwork, old wallpaper, old chandeliers, old black iron kitchen sinks, old pantry cupboards, high old rooms that echo nice with our music, larger attics, the old porches, the scenic old country halls and views. And more things. When my mother got old and sick she got a forgetful mind and confused mind some days. She worried about taxes, etc. I miss Mother and the properties my mother foolishly sold…. We might want to move back to one of our old big old heirloom country houses sometime and have a big old art studio again and big hobby museum later.

Gayleen’s paintings are almost invariably occupied by Raimbillis. Each of them has a name, a hobby a story. They always smile.

My Raimbilli Cousins March, Gayleen Aiken, 1984. (From a postcard)

Most of the paintings are set in Barre, Vermont where she grew up, amid the granite plants and near or in a big old heirloom country house. The cousins play musical instruments: ukuleles, banjos, horns, harmonicas, xylophones, drums, and bells. In other paintings they also play  juke boxes, organs, music boxes and nickelodeons.

Don and Jay Craven, a Vermont movie-maker, made the film, Gayleen, in 1985. In it she cavorts with life-size paper dolls of the Raimbillis; by sunlight and moonlight, she plays various instruments in her collection, explores the rococo interior of one of those “old country houses,” talks through the plot of a comic book as she creates it, and creates one of her paintings.

Don died in 2001 of pancreatic cancer. Gayleen died in 2005 at the age of 71. She left behind, according to Peter Gallo, the curator of a recent show of her work, “paintings, drawings, signs, cut-out figures, lists, broadsides, scrapbooks, handmade chapbooks and comics.” And, of course, all those instruments and music-makers. He calls her “a multi-media performance artist.”

Watching the movie Gayleen, I was reminded of playing pretend games as a child. Those were important times. I knew what was real and what was pretend, as did Gayleen, but I also knew what was more important, more significant. It makes me wonder about the connection between performance art and pretend games. About art and play.

I don’t know whether Gayleen’s art developed or changed over the years. I know it was the work of a lifetime. What did change was her own opinion of herself:

Don Sunseri is my art boss now. It’s nice that my art job came to me. I have to do lots of art for his many far away art shows. I’m a real artist now, do paintings. I always called myself an artist and I always liked to draw pictures and color.

Her work can be found in the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Museum of American Folk Art, the Smithsonian Museum of American Art and the American Folk Art Museum in New York City. She’s been shown in many major art exhibits, and she’s the subject of a book: Moonlight and Music: The Enchanted World of Gayleen Aiken.

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