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The Grandmother of Modern Art

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by Jeremy Rowland

Have you ever noticed how quickly things get old these days? Take the computer you’re reading this on, for example. I’ll bet it wasn’t all that long ago that you painfully parted ways with a good sum of money to bring it home. I’ll also bet that by now there’s a newer model that will run laps around your transistor radio [once known as a Dell].

And don’t even get me started on cars! You buy a 2013 Road Humper GT with a motor that runs on corn and happy feelings, a GPS that tells you where it thinks you should go, and seats that massage and sing to you when a texting teen enters your lane unannounced—but on your way out of the dealership, next year’s model flies (literally) overhead for delivery.

Hover cars, personal computing devices, and toasters come and go, but it’s when we begin thinking—even for a second—that people are just as easily outdated that we hit a real snag. That a person has only so many years on this planet before becoming obsolete seems to be a notion that has infiltrated our society. But here’s the reality:  planned obsolescence does not, and never will, apply to humans.

Fortunately, we have some great examples in history of “aged” individuals who refused to believe that “maturity” meant throwing in the towel. One such person passed away 52 years ago as of tomorrow, December 13.

Anna Mary Robertson Moses, more commonly and affectionately known as “Grandma Moses,” captured the attention of the world with her folk art depicting rural America. Moses’ work has inspired everything from postage stamps to the character of “Granny” in the 1960s television classic, The Beverly Hillbillies. 

Possibly more celebrated than her art is the age at which she first picked up a paintbrush. When arthritis made it nearly impossible for Anna Mary to continue her beloved embroidery work, her sister suggested that she give painting a try. Then in her late 70s, Moses picked up a paintbrush and began painting some of the most revered works of the 20th century.

Recognition came slowly, however. Anna Mary began by giving her paintings away to friends and family or by selling them for $2 to $3 dollars at the local fair. It wasn’t until engineer and art collector Louis J. Caldor saw her paintings in a drugstore window that her work began to garner attention outside her own community. As he passed through Moses’ hometown of Hoosick Falls, N.Y., Caldor fell in love with her art and, much to the surprise of Anna Mary and her family, began buying her works en masse.

The enthusiastic Caldor shared Moses’ works with New York gallery owners. Some received her work enthusiastically, but support waned upon hearing that Anna Mary was nearly 80 years old. Collectors and gallery owners alike couldn’t see the point in investing time and energy in an artist who wasn’t likely to see the end of the decade. However, after much persistence on the part of Caldor, the Galerie St. Etienne in New York City agreed to host an exhibition of her work. The exhibition was well-publicized and attendance substantial, but the senior artist remained chiefly obscure.

Then, shortly after the St. Etienne exhibition, Moses’ paintings were featured in a Thanksgiving festival arranged by Gimbels department store. Grandma Moses (as she had been dubbed by a reporter after the exhibition) attended and regaled her audience with a rundown of her method for canning homemade jams and preserves. The crowd and press ate it up, and Grandma Moses rose to stardom.

Moses’ works have circulated the globe, piquing interest and opening pocketbooks for the past six decades. Throughout the 1950s, Anna Mary’s paintings garnered such a following that her exhibitions broke attendance records around the world. In 1960, for her 100th birthday, TIME Magazine paid tribute to her spectacular life and accomplishments by featuring her on the cover on its September 19, 1960, issue. 

That same year, Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York declared her birthday “Grandma Moses Day” in her honor. Perhaps most distinguished was her inclusion in Norman Rockwell’s painting Christmas Homecoming. You can see her standing, bespectacled and smiling, in the far left of the iconic painting.

Grandma Moses passed away in 1961, shortly after her 101st birthday. She left behind a small army of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, all of whom she was supremely proud of. She also left behind an example—one that should be looked to any time you feel that you’re last year’s model. 

The question I find myself asking is:  why aren’t there more artists like Grandma Moses? Maybe more importantly, why aren’t there more individuals like Louis Caldor? Those who—blind to age, race, or orientation—take a chance on talent, doing what it takes to encourage, promote, and ultimately enrich the lives of those who just need a little extra push, or someone on their side.

If you’re ever feeling “past your prime,” think about that petite, bespectacled, arthritic grandma from New York, who picked up a paintbrush and quite literally changed the face of modern art. Or if your age can still be counted on fingers and toes, look out for your silver-haired compadres! Don’t write them off because they aren’t savvy on Instagram or if they think Twitter is a site about birds. Let them know that they’re valuable and still have work to do. And who knows; you might even learn a thing or two.

Jeremy Rowland is editor for Senior Artist magazine and Director of Media Development at Happy Brain, Inc. He is a connoisseur of edible foods, an avid daydreamer, and has a hard time passing up an art museum.

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