When at the age of 98, I became legally blind and could no longer paint, I began to write little stories of my life as a creative outlet. The last one I had published was in the Nov/Dec, 2000 issue of Reminisce. The piece below is the first that traces my education and life as an artist.
Moxie seems to be the perfect place to share something of the story of my life with other women, since in my 99 years of life I have often been thought of as a little too daring.
-Lois Bartlett Tracy, Painter.
I was born in Jackson, Michigan on December 9, 1901. By age three my favorite activity was picking up gravel and stones and watching their colors and shapes change when placed in jars of water. I spent hours admiring how beautiful they looked. Even now I love rocks. They talk to me. Trees have always talked to me too. I believe my paintings came into being from feeling one with nature.
Because Mother's health was poor, we could not spend winters in the North. When I was young, we traveled to Florida by train with a change in Chicago. I remember when I was about six or seven, jumping off the train and running towards the Chicago Museum. There was one particular painting on the first floor that was painted with very thick layers of paint. I fell in love with that thick texture. It left me with a glow of satisfaction. I decided right then and there, I was going to be a painter.
We children attended a regular school for only a few years while we were growing up. Our father believed that travel was the best way to learn. We were taught history by traveling to old Civil War battlefields and hearing the old men talk. We learned geography by learning the names of nearby rivers and cities as we explored them. We had an art teacher when I was about six, but there was no color. The only material we had was sepia, and that did not inspire me.
I didn't have another art teacher until I was a freshman at Florida State College for Women in 1920- '21. Since the college was for women only, all subjects were simply branches of Home Economics. Painting was not taught. We were not allowed to speak to any male, not even the father of a roommate. They would line us up to go to the picture show and count us off as we came out. I often felt like I was in prison. I rebelled against these attitudes towards the education of women by cutting my long wavy golden hair to a short bob. I left and entered Michigan State College soon after women were first admitted there .
At Michigan, my painting teacher just let me go ahead on my own. I started using oil paints and would paint everything I saw. We were both startled by my work. To the amazement of us both, he soon informed me that I was painting just the way those wild men in Paris (Van Gogh, Cezanne, etc.) were painting.
By the time the Depression came along, I was married and living in Winter Park, Florida, attending Rollins College. To help with our support, I sold pictures of palm trees, five dollars a tree. If there were three trees in the painting, it was fifteen dollars. Then I painted the buildings on Rollins campus for my 1929 yearbook.
Mostly, I painted the Florida jungles. I used to ride out to a Florida ranch in the morning on a cow pony—a rather small horse, not beautiful, but strong and tough and able to help with the strenuous work of driving the range cattle that were there in great numbers at that time. The cowboys would leave me in a hammock and continue on to their day's work. I would paint all day until they picked me up on their way back in the afternoon. I would usually have enough done on two 30 x 36 or 36 x 40 canvases that I could finish them up at home.
While I was painting, looking for patterns of light and dark, I constantly walked backwards to see how the rhythms in my painting were working. I half expected that I might step on a coiled snake. One day, in front of my easel was the head of a huge rattlesnake. He was standing on his tail and still there was enough of him to have his eyes on a level with mine. When I realized what was just about eight inches from my head, I saw that he was looking at my painting. It looked as though he was studying it. Then slowly he let himself down and crawled away. He must have been at least eight feet long.
At the New York World's Fair, a series of Florida Jungle Paintings I exhibited in the Florida pavilion won for best collection of oils. This success won me an invitation to exhibit in the Studio Gallery in the Hecksher Building on the corner of 57th and Fifth Avenue in New York. From then on, I exhibited almost continuously in Grace Pickett's gallery there, (which later moved next door to the Old Opera House in New York), and Grace became my agent.
At this time my husband and I were managing a hotel in Venice that belonged to my father. The hotel was given to him in place of money owed to him for a land deal by a bank he worked for that failed. Running the hotel was fine during the season, but when that was over, there was no way to make a living. During a visit to Connecticut, we saw an ad in the New York Times about a large building and cottages in the mountains of New Hampshire, near Lake Winnesquam. We went up and bought it that afternoon by putting a hundred dollars down. We moved in right away. For weeks we found everything we needed in its huge dining room, which was filled with leftovers from auctions—even a grand piano. We bought good beds, but everything else we got at auctions. We bought dressers for a dollar a drawer. My husband, whose nickname was Bus, would bid on early American and mid-Victorian furniture. Sometimes the upholstery was so bad the auctioneer would say, "Who'll take it?" Bus would take it and do a beautiful job of fancy reupholstery. He created beauty wherever he went, indoors and outdoors, fabulous gardens, flower arrangements, wonderful place settings. He was not a painter, but in every other sense he was an artist. When people asked him if he painted, he would respond, "One in the family is enough!"
When we bought the place, if you wanted to take your Saturday night bath, you put a big tub in front of the wood stove. We had a wind-up telephone and a battery powered radio. We used kerosene lamps for light. There was a two-seater out back which was quite comfortable, and everybody enjoyed the Sears & Roebuck catalog. We poured every cent we got into bathrooms, electricity, an artesian well, and painting inside and out. (Every bedroom door had its own different color.)
Then we had to create a business that would pay for the property. We started an art colony called Tall Timbers. Musicians, artists, and gallery directors would come to visit. I took care of the business and the teaching; my husband took care of everything else. Two families came up from Sarasota and spent the first summer with us, which kept us going that year. For about four years after that, we ran the Venice-Myakka Hotel winters, and returned in early spring to New Hampshire. It was during discussions there, especially in the evening around the fireplace, that ideas that later appeared in my book Painting Principles and Practices, eventually published in the 1960s, were developed.
With the beginning of World War II, fears that the Germans would come and destroy our communication system led to the formation of a network of radio receiving stations throughout the country. I rode horseback at midnight every night, often at thirty degrees below zero, to a lonely little radio shack that was a command center with a radio connection to Washington, DC. My job when was to alert the local authorities if the radio sounded a warning of a German attack. There were several locks on the door and I had a loaded gun for protection. It was terrifying to be alone all night in that tiny transmitter shack in the woods.
To distract myself from fear, I studied things I wanted to learn. At that time, Einstein was developing his Theory of Relativity. Although I was not able to comprehend the entirety of his concept, I did get a better understanding of natural laws during my hours of waiting. I also found reading the theories of Jung rewarding. My favorite scientific work proved to be "Nature of the Physical Universe," by Eddington, a British scientist, working at that time. Later, when I began abstract painting, his explanations of the laws of nature had helped me to create planets and their movements in space as well as the forces to which they are subject in my paintings.
In the meantime, Grace Pickett, my agent, arranged a three year circuit of an exhibit of oil paintings in museums and universities throughout the United States in the 1940s. After the tour ended at the San Francisco Museum of Art, the work was returned to me in seven big wooden crates. These were placed in our eighty-foot long barn/gallery at Tall Timbers .
One morning, soon after the return of the paintings, my husband, my small son, and I woke early in the morning to discover sparks coming from the brooding house where we incubated little chicks. We called the fire company and a neighbor who had a sprinkler. I watched as one brightly burning ember rose out of the chimney of the brooder house and flew over the tin roof of the big barn. It dropped into the one tiny hole in the barn roof, and immediately the hay in the loft burst into flames. The fire spread so fast we barely managed to get the horses, cows, and two huge sows out. Then suddenly it seemed as though two arms of fire reached out and surrounded the house. A forest fire started and no one could get near the place. The fire department never arrived. The seven wooden crates containing all my best paintings burned up.
A farmer family offered to take us home for the night and to provide for us for a few days until we could find a resolution to our situation. Within two days, we were offered a place to live in a sturdy little old farmhouse. People brought us blankets and bedding. In fact, I was given lace petticoats much more beautiful than any I'd ever owned. It seemed all the neighbors wanted to do something to help. That first night in the farmhouse, without the luxury of electricity but with the beautiful light of a full moon, I found some materials and started a watercolor. The color flowed onto the paper into shapes that even today seem to give a blessing.
The fire left my family and me without work, money, or clothes—not even shoes. We had absolutely nothing but a hole in the ground. Losing my lovely home with priceless antiques didn't hurt as much as losing my paintings. Such a terrific emotional shock left us starkly aware of the bareness of our lives. Yet even in the midst of the shock, a small voice within me said, "Take comfort. You are not alone." I knew even at that moment of suffering that everything would work out.
And it did. The fire brought new beginnings and help to each of us. At Tall Timbers Farm, we'd shared our lives with many different animals. My husband had had trouble breathing. He was allergic to animal hair, chicken feathers, grains, and hay. But we would never have thought of selling the place, we loved it so deeply. Now, with no insurance money to rebuild, our livelihood also disappeared. Within a week after the fire, my husband was invited to help with the opening of the beautiful Steele Hill Mountaintop Inn. Shortly afterward, he was offered a management position at this lovely and unusual place. His health greatly improved.
The owner of the Inn insisted that we send our son, then age seven, away to an excellent private school. The school soon reported to us that our son had dyslexia (a recently discovered reading problem) and they were endeavoring to help him overcome it. We might not have discovered this until too late, in the little country school he had been attending. It would have affected his whole life.
As for me, suddenly I was free to paint—free not only from the business, the art classes, and everything to do with running the art colony, but also suddenly free on the creative level. I was free of painting scenery. Although I had loved landscape painting, I felt a need to express the earth's movement. I wanted a person looking at my canvas to feel the earth's rhythm, sense the turn of the earth.
All during my years in New Hampshire, friends from Tall Timbers living in New York invited me to come as often as possible to visit in the city and the art world on 57th Street. Whenever I went, I spent many hours each day in Hans Hoffman's fourth floor walk-up studio class in the Village. The group was mostly made up of recently returned GIs from WW II. He taught us not how to paint but how to think and feel about our subject matter. He taught us the importance of things you can only feel. He used to shout (in German, of course), "Empathy! Empathy!"
Hoffman insisted that when we looked at the model, we had to consider the spaces around her as aspects of the design. The first time I really succeeded in using negative spaces was when I returned to New Hampshire and painted an apple tree by letting these negative spaces shape the tree. When I was finished, I discovered that I had not drawn a particular apple tree but had drawn the essence of every apple tree.
On one of my New York visits, my Tall Timbers friend Helen Stokesbury and I went to the first showing of abstract art. I believe it was in the Riverside Museum. The artists at Tall Timbers had been experimenting with feeling tension poles and vibrations to obtain a pulse in a painting. We were on the third floor and very excited to realize that these artists were working along the same lines. "See what he did with color here!" "Look what he did to pull the eye in that direction!" We were delighted about suddenly understanding these new abstract works. Suddenly the lights went out. We were now high up in the Museum with practically no lighting. We found our way to the marble steps but had to sit on the steps to go down safely—a landing, then more steps! Three flights of steps, all in the dark. We finally found the front doors and began banging and pushing all the buttons we could find. No response! Then suddenly, there were too many lights and too many security people—firemen, guards, police. They saw two scared females. We must have looked as innocent as we looked confused, so eventually they let us out. That was my first encounter with the power of completely abstract painting.
In this lovely museum, most people take the elevator to the top and then walk down the spiral ramp looking at the paintings. Just to be different, I walked up from the bottom. As I approached my painting there were three men dressed in suits discussing it. One said "Wonder how he got that texture?" In New York, I always used the name Bartlett Tracy. In those days if I had put Lois before that, my paintings would probably have been hung behind the door, and I would not have been taken seriously. By the time "Textural Space" became a part of the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1993, it was because here was I, a WOMAN painting Space, even before there was a moon shot.
Three paintings of my Space Series are owned by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. Two were acquired by the Air and Space Museum when it first opened, and one later, in 1976. Another was bought by one of the scientists on the Apollo Project, and one is in the Cornell Museum in Winter Park, Florida.
As I look back, I realize that through many adventures, difficulties, happy times, and successes, painting has been central to my life. For at least 75 years, painting was a must for me; a day without painting was a day lost. Now that I can't paint anymore, writing about my memories has become a source of creativity and sharing. I am thankful that for all of my 99 years the Lord has enabled me to follow my inner voice with courage and joy.
Lois B. Tracy standing next to
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