In my last post I talked about women’s work as art which has since reminded me of one of the most famous American women artists: Grandma Moses.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, her work began as embroidery, or “yarn paintings.” She was already in her 70s when she started. If arthritis hadn’t started crippling her hands so that embroidery was painful, she would never have begun painting. “She would sit on an old, battered swivel chair, perching on two large pillows. The Masonite on which she painted would lie flat on an old kitchen table before her. There was no easel. Crowding her in her ‘studio’ were an electric washer and dryer that had overflowed from the kitchen.” (From the New York Times obituary)
In the beginning, no one really took notice. She sold her paintings alongside her jams at the county fair, but while the jam won prizes, the paintings were pretty much ignored. However, she placed a few in the drugstore where she was charging $3 or $5, depending on the size, when a New York art collector passed by and happened to see them. He bought all of them and everything else she had. From then on it was only a matter of time before Grandma Moses, one of several “naive” painters of the day, was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Some critics and gallery owners balked at showing her work when they found out her age. They figured she’d be dead soon and there’d be no more paintings to sell. How could they know she’d live to 101 and paint up until a few months before her death? And how could they know that she’d develop as an artist?
Grandma Moses’ paintings may have begun as decorative women’s work and, in fact, her earliest pictures were copies made from Currier and Ives prints and postcards, but her art soon took on new dimensions. Her subjects were more and more events from the past as she remembered them, the changing seasons, local lore and fun and festivity. She painted, as other naive or untrained painters have done, without the linear perspective common to realistic painters. The paintings became more and more patterned as she grew in her art: sometimes they were reminiscent of quilts with dozens of smaller scenes or narratives on a larger field-a farm, a fair, a winterscape, a crossroads in the spring, a summer’s day.
When she was asked once how she could paint several paintings of the same thing, for example, a legendary checkered house, she explained that she imagined herself looking at the same scene through the same window but from another place so that everything was changed.
Grandma Moses became a force to be reckoned with commercially when Hallmark cards bought the rights to reproduce some of her paintings for Christmas greeting cards. For many of us, this is where we first discovered her and between her and Currier and Ives, we’re left with an indelible picture of the early rural United States – the Yankee part – that’s sentimental and bucolic. After years of living in California and New York City, I moved to northern Vermont in the 1990s and will soon be returning for a holiday and some sugar-on-snow. There’s no boiling cauldron of syrup for sugaring-off, buckets are being replaced everywhere with plastic piping, but there’s still a sugar house, the scent of burning wood, the sweet taste of amber syrup, the sugar-on-snow-events after dinner when we all stood around the kitchen table and spooned up the carmelized stuff from the snow someone had gathered up and stuck in the freezer. It wasn’t like it was in Grandma Moses’ sugaring paintings, but those scenes colored every spring’s sugaring and made it more special. Was that nostalgia? Well, yes. But Moses was much more than that.
Grandma Moses charged certain iconic scenes with such joy that she made art. But she remained a hard-working Yankee grandmother. As she once said, “If I didn’t start painting, I would have raised chickens.”