Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Young at Art

"Youth is a wonderful thing. What a crime to waste it on children."

George Bernard Shaw

There probably isn't much of a reason for modern people to think about — or even remember at all — Anna Mary Robertson Moses.

For that matter, there wasn't much of a reason for her contemporaries to think about her through most of her life.

She was born a couple of months before Abraham Lincoln was elected president, and she died 50 years ago today, less than a year after John F. Kennedy became president. For most of her adult life, she was an ordinary wife and mother; she gave birth to 10 children in the late 19th century and early 20th century, half of whom did not live past infancy.

As she was raising her children, Anna Moses often showed signs of the creativity that would blossom in her later years, but that creativity usually was expressed through embroidery. As she got older, arthritis made that too arduous for her, and her sister suggested painting.

"It was this pivotal suggestion," says the Orlando (Fla.) Museum of Art's website, "that spurred Grandma Moses' painting career in her late 70s."

Well, that was what her sister said.

Grandma Moses said she took up painting because she wanted to give the postman a Christmas gift, and she concluded that painting was easier for her than baking.

Whichever version was correct — and, for all I know, there may have been elements of truth in both — it was truly fortunate that Grandma Moses made the decision she did.

Her style was primitive. That was the art community's word for it, depicting rural scenes and giving the appearance of having been painted by someone much younger.

That was really the essence of Grandma Moses' art and life. If her work suggested a young and innocent artist, it was because her mind really was young and innocent even if it occupied an elderly body.

And she became something of a poster child for those who were young at heart.

When I was growing up, I often heard someone referred to as a "real Grandma Moses" because he or she had embarked on something new at an advanced age. Rarely, if ever, was it something as consequential as taking on the challenge of an entirely new career — but I don't really think Grandma Moses intended her painting to be a career move.

At least, not right away.

Eventually, I am told, Grandma Moses produced more than 3,500 pieces of art. They fill museum galleries across the nation.

But, originally, she made paintings to give as gifts — not only to the postman but also to friends and relatives with whom she had stayed on her travels. She charged a few dollars for others — paltry sums by modern standards but not insignificant for that time.

The price for one of her paintings went up considerably after the rest of the world discovered her in the late 1930s, and she became an inspiration — almost a patron saint — for those who embark on a new career late in life.

She was inspirational in other ways, too. Fans of the Beverly Hillbillies TV series may recall that the seldom–used name for the character of Granny was Daisy Moses — an homage to the real Grandma Moses, who died shortly before the series went on the air.

But it was more than an homage. The Granny character dabbled in several things — medicine, music and art — in that series, taking on the stereotype of an elderly, mentally and physically disengaged person.

Granny continued to make soap for her family, as she had probably done for decades. She did all the cooking and cleaning — and she still found time to do some recreational painting, utilizing barn paint.

That was a particularly nice touch because Grandma Moses was known for taking seemingly useless items and creating something useful from them. She made quilts from scraps of cloth, and I've heard that she even used leftover barn paint in some of her earliest works.

The artistic applications of such apparently useless items became known as "hobby art" nearly two decades after Grandma Moses died.

For a "primitive" artist, she was truly ahead of her time.