I had been sorting out some boxes when I came upon some embroidery and hand made lace. Towels, antimacassers, coasters and doilies – all were present, made and decorated in a day when everything was at least nominally “useful.” Even into the early ’60s, Mom had antimacassers on the sofa – a large one on the back and one on each arm. Supposedly the lace was easier to clean that the sofa, which was probably true before the age of treated fabric that resisted grime. Whatever one needed around the house was at one time made around the house. Eventually there was enough time to embellish and money to buy embroidery thread. There was more scope to be creative.
In 1860, Anna Mary Robertson was born to a rural family. She went out to work as a hired girl by the age of 12, and certainly knew that life could be hard. She eventually married and had children of her own, able to spend only found minutes on her embroidered pictures, which she favored over the primarily useful crafts. After her husband died when she was in her late 60s, she continued farming with one of her sons until creeping age forced her to retire from farming and live with a daughter. While there, she continued her embroidery, creating stitched scenes of a rural life, until arthritis forced her to stop with the needlework.
I guess for many of us, that would be the end of the line, creatively speaking. But for Anna Mary, it was the impetus to start over with another craft, so at the age of 79, she took up a paintbrush. At first she painted postcard images and ideas from prints, but she soon went back to her rural subjects. She had no training, no artists’ paints, she used whatever was hanging around to paint on, but “she persisted” as we say. Soon she became known as Grandma Moses, Moses being her married name. Her paintings were based on her memories of a farming life.
Most of us have seen her art – a lot of the winter ones are reproduced on holiday cards each year. We are so used to them they have kind of become cliché, and we don’t really see them any more, nor appreciate her eye and her imaginative storytelling about her times. She was purposeful about leaving out modern bits and pieces to give a cohesive picture story about her history. You won’t find tractors or telephone poles in her busy landscapes, but you will come upon myriad other details – a grindstone seen through a barn door, horses running around the pasture as a thundercloud builds, a steeple clock on a kitchen shelf.
Her stories are true ones – one of my favorites is of laundry day, a panoramic view of all the steps. I love the way she shows how we spread all the white things on the lawn and bushes for the sun to bleach. It’s so right, and so, for the most part, forgotten. Then there is one called “Early Spring.” It is a scene all snow-covered and chill. But if you are an initiate from this north country, you can tell it is spring. The geese are out. The sled has been replaced already with a wheeled wagon, which is no doubt having trouble in the snowy road. Around the bases of trees a little grass space has opened up. It’s springtime, even if winter is not quite letting go.
Moses lived near Bennington, although in New York state, and the Bennington Museum has the largest collections of her work around. If you go, try to forget all the holiday cards and look anew. And remember she lived to be 101. She started painting when she was 79 and was still painting in her last year. She is a role model of the words, “It’s never too late!”