"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 137: Painting

The next letter Bishop wrote Grace was done in “the installment plan,” that is, in two sittings. The first part was dated 19 April 1963; the second part 21 April, both done in Rio. This letter is long and comprised a range of subjects – some the regular topics, some new. This post will focus on the first installment, which is just one long paragraph, plus the beginning of the second part.

Bishop began with the usual account of a “batch of mail” brought “from Petropolis yesterday,” which contained a letter from Grace sent from “Birmingham, Alabama,” a location which “amazed” Bishop, it being, in her view, a “hot-bed of race-ism, industry, etc.” Why Grace was there is not apparent from Bishop’s letter, and since Grace’s letters are lost, we can’t know. No family lived there, as far as I know, so likely she was visiting an old friend. Grace had friends all over North America from her nursing days. Even so, Bishop was surprised enough by this destination that she asked, “where will you get to next?” Bishop could see that Grace was on the  move (she had recently been to Florida and was heading to Montreal), so she told her aunt that she would take her time writing the letter, which she would send to Aunt Mary’s in Montreal, “to be sure to catch you.”

Grace’s letter had informed Bishop of a new hobby: “I am glad you took up painting!” Grace’s daughter, Phyllis Sutherland, told  me that her mother took up painting in her early 80s, but clearly it was earlier. In 1963, Grace turned 74. Bishop observed that painting was “much more fun, don’t you think, than card-playing,” a common pastime for lots of Maritimers at that time.

Bishop quickly reminded Grace that “I paint, too, you know,” which she did “just for the heck of it.” Then she remembered that “you have one of my original primitives.” Whatever that painting was, I don’t know. There was no original Bishop artwork in the family archive that Grace collected and passed on to Phyllis (much of which is now at Acadia University Archives). It makes me wonder if this “primitive” got left at Elmcroft in Great Village, when Grace finally left for good.
Bishop reported that she had just done “a pastel – that’s lots of fun, too.” She enjoyed this medium because “you can put on lots of colors and then smooch them with our fingers and get wonderful effects.” She told her aunt that “a friend of mine here – (named Oscar [Simon]) –” had given her “a box of Japanese” pastels for Christmas, some of them “chalky,” some of them “greasy,” which meant that the pictures didn’t “need to be ‘fixed’ afterwards.” The brand was “SAKURA,” and Bishop recommended “them for the amateur.”  

To thank Oscar, she had done “a picture of coxcombs in a vase – lots of reds and purples – and gave it” to him “for his birthday – today.” Oscar “seemed pleased!” 
(Bishop’s “Coxcombs” for Oscar. Exchanging Hats Paintings, 73)
Then she reported that a “small art gallery” in Rio had “asked to put on a show of my paintings.” The problem was, Bishop wrote, “I do about one a year, or two.” So, she felt  it wouldn’t “be much of a show.” This rate of production was, more or less, on par with writing poetry.

To round out her advice on the pleasure of working in pastels, Bishop also made “one suggestion”: “DON’T copy pictures!” She did concede doing so was “a good way to find out how to use the paints, they say.” However, Bishop reckoned that “it’s much more fun and I like the results better if you do something from life,” which was Bishop’s routine practice. She paused then and qualified, perhaps hoping not to deter Grace with her views, “I shouldn’t say anything.” Clearly, Grace had been copying, because Bishop quickly added, “perhaps I’d like your ‘Arabs at Prayer’ best,” realizing she had not seen any of Grace’s work yet. Still, she had to add that Grandma Moses “you know, just painted what she remembered.” Then, to counter her pedagogy, she added, “It is fun, isn’t it.” For Bishop, painting was a pleasure, noting, “I’m always completely happy when I do get around to painting a small picture, whereas,” on the other hand, “writing is hell, most of the time.”

At this point, the first installment of the letter ended, to be taken up two days later, after returning from “Samambaia for the week-end.” She had two last painting observations to make. The first, “I bet you don’t need any art classes.” The second was a request, that her aunt “paint me a picture of the barn, or the pigs, or cows,” even “the family.”

Bishop knew Grace’s inclination to paint, as her own, came honestly through the family, with the precedent and ability of Great-uncle George Hutchinson and Aunt Maude. A few of Grace’s paintings are at Acadia University, but her biggest extant work, a painting of a bull moose, is still in private hands, with the Bowers family in Great Village. William Benton did a book about Bishop’s paintings, Exchanging Hats Paintings (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996). The second edition of this book, brought out around the time of Bishop’s centenary, has her one Nova Scotia painting on the cover. 
The next post will take up the second installment of this April letter, which commenced with some poetry talk.

Click here to see Post 136.

No comments:

Post a Comment