Today is the 120th anniversary of my paternal grandmother’s birth. Mary Elizabeth Brown Harris was the older of the two girls born to J. R. and Mary Jane Griffin Brown and she grew up right along the Ohio River in Warsaw. She married my grandfather in June 1920; the two of them spent much of the 20s traveling around Kentucky as teachers. As best as I can tell, they got back close to home in mid-1928, and she remained within a 30 mile or so radius of her birthplace the rest of her life. My father came along in June 31. She was widowed in late 61, became a grandmother two times over in 64 and 65, and began developing dementia in the early 70s. It advanced so much that her final years were spent bedridden in a nursing home in Florence, passing away in January 75. Unfortunately, I have very few memories of her in anything but that latter state.
Here’s a photo from her youth, probably her late teens.
Sometime in the 90s I received a surprise gift from my father: a framed watercolor, painted by my grandmother. (Amy got one, too, and another soon appeared on a wall at my folks’ house.)
It’s had a place of prominence in our dining area for over twenty years now. Dad went on to tell me that these were three of several pieces of hers they’d found some time before. He said the only ones that were dated were from 29; since that was the year Elizabeth’s father died, Dad speculated that painting may have been part of her grieving process.
When I was going through things in my parents’ townhouse after they were gone, I found a few other of her works. Amy’s kids took one each, and I claimed one of the very few oils on canvas, a winter nighttime scene, for Ben:
Several weeks later, continuing my mission to organize and clean out, I was back in the bin where I’d found that canvas. Inside was a magazine for teachers, from the fall of 29:
I noticed it seemed to have a number of items stuffed between its pages. I opened it and found incredible treasures: about two dozen more watercolors. Dad had obviously known about them, but if he shared details with me, I must have ignored or forgotten them. Forgive me for sharing a few of them with you today.
Water is a common theme–streams, lakes, waterfalls abound. The one at the top of the post is one of my very favorites–there’s almost a Chinese feel to it, to me.
Scenes with roads in them also crop up with some frequency, and there’s snow present in plenty, as well.
She didn’t sign everything. This one, like several others, are better, more vivid in real life–blame the camera on my phone for this.
It’s awesome to see that she was sketching in trees on the lake picture on the right, but never came back to finish it.
She dabbled in other styles, too.
There are also lots of clippings stuffed in the magazine. My read is that she was on the lookout for scenes and illustrations that she could use for inspiration.
Here are a couple of cases where I found pictures that led directly to her work, though in this first one, it’s no longer winter. The Courier-Journal is the Louisville newspaper–the date on the back of the clipping is 11/4/28.
The one with the cherry blossom trees seems to owe more to the magazine photo from 4/23 than it does to the C-J picture from 4/26, but she kept both on hand.
When did she stop, and why? And when had she started? My guess is that the bulk of her work happened in those few years between settling back close to home in the fall of 28 and my father’s arrival. There’s no evidence she took it back up after he came along. There are a few dozen sheets of blank watercolor paper alongside the clippings and other scraps, though, still waiting for use.
I’m not claiming she was any sort of artistic genius, but they’re amazing family heirlooms. It’s unfortunate that her talent, her eye for framing, didn’t get passed down (though maybe one of Amy’s children has more ability in this realm than anyone else?).
I do still need to split these last finds with my sister. I’m just super-glad I took the time to look through that September 1929 issue of Normal Instructor and Primary Plans three years ago, rather than just hurriedly tossing it out.
As you might guess, I would love to have talked with her about it all.
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