A SENSE OF PLACE & THE INDUSTRIOUS, INDOMITABLE SPIRIT
It’s probably no exaggeration to say that everybody in the modern U.S. has grown up under the influence of Virginia Lee Burton. An early 20th century children’s book writer and illustrator, Burton changed the sensibility of American picture books. Her work is classic and beloved, and I’m sure you’re familiar with their titles: The Little House, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Maybelle the Cable Car…
Her stories tell of place, the passing of time, changing seasons and landscapes, hard work and ingenuity, environmentalism, and often feature a strong feminine personality in the form of a locomotive, or a bad-ass horse named Calico who “could run like greased lightning and she could turn on a quarter and give you back fifteen cents in change”.
I guess I could go on and on about how great Virginia Lee Burton was as draftswoman and author, but it wasn’t until a few years ago, when on a winter’s night a beautiful little film called A Sense of Place came on PBS and I learned about the Folly Cove designers. I credit this documentary about the life and work of Burton, her family, and the community of artists and bohemians living in close relationship with the land near Gloucester, Massachusetts with cracking open a fissure I’d felt for years about my own art, allowing me to recognize that drawing from the familiar and beloved is enough; that the familiarity will inform the work, and the work will inform the knowledge and love of the subject.
INSPIRATION IN EVERYDAY LIFE
A few days ago I came across a recently published article on Atlas Obscura titled The Unlikely Story of the Folly Cove Guild, the Best Designers You've Never Heard of, reminding me of the incredible story of the guild and the nearly heroic character of the key member, Jinnee Demetrios.
Burton was known to her friends as Jinnee, and in the early 1940s her design and printmaking lessons became a locus of the creative community in Cape Ann. Her rigorous work ethic combined with her imperative to draw from the rich environment of the Atlantic coast landscape created the foundation of the design and printmaking workshops she taught, leading to what became known as the Folly Cove Guild.
“Jinnee steered her students away from lofty or imagined subjects, and encouraged them to find inspiration in everyday Cape Ann life. The resulting familiarity and love, she believed, would come out in the design.” (The Unlikely Story of the Folly Cove Guild)
In the documentary A Sense of Place, the filmmakers tell a story of Cape Ann and the Folly Cove Designers as communal, free-spirited, and hard-working, with Jinnee as both driven and the driver of the group of friends and artists. They developed their artistic sensibilities through observation and intimacy with the land, its seasons, its coast lines, and the people within the community. Prints were of farm animals, sea gulls, square dancers, and ships in the harbor ~ art not divorced from life, but a reflection of it.
Drawing and designing, in my experience, can become very cerebral. By its nature it's not quite as tactile as say, fiber work, or as elemental as pottery. So to see the work of the Folly Cove Designers is to be reminded that the process can still be connected to the subject, and is itself subject to accidental discovery. The iterations Jinnee forced her students to go through - drawing over and over again to develop total familiarity with the subject is more a physical routine than an intellectual one, but still it informs the intellect. The product of all of that work appeals to both our senses and our curious minds, without needing further elaboration. Through familiarity with the subject, the artist expresses its essence. And that's enough.
At least I think it is. How about you?