Thursday, September 21, 2017

A Lively Sparrow

“Life is what we make it, always has been, always will be.”

            As a little girl, Anna Mary Robertson Moses squeezed lemons and grapes to get ‘colors’ to paint her paper dolls. She also used sawdust, flour paste, and grass to create what she called her “lamb-scapes.”
            He father was supportive, but her mother was more practical, telling her she should “spend [her] time other ways.”
            Her mother was right. She did have to be more practical. She had to be. Born in 1860 in Greenwich, New York, she was the third of five daughters and five sons. She only briefly attended a one-room school house. She left school—and her home—when she was 12 to do housework for a family that was better off.
            She met her future husband in Staunton, Virginia, when they were both working on the same farm. They married when she was 27, and they settled in the Shenandoah Valley and had 10 children, only five of whom survived infancy. She helped support her family by churning butter. Being frugal, they were able to scrimp and save enough to buy their own farm.
            After 40 years of marriage, her husband died of a heart attack in 1927 at the age of 67. Moses continued to run her family farm with the help of her children. But in 1936 she retired. That's when her family started calling her “Grandma Moses.”
            She had made quilts and embroidered country scenes all her life, but she finally had to stop around that time due to arthritis in her fingers. Her daughter suggested she take up painting again.

Prancing Ponies

            “I couldn’t stand the thought of being idle,” she said. At first, she copied images from postcards, then as she got more practice, she found the courage to imagine her own scenes.     They were always idyllic visions of rural and farm life in Virginia and New England—harvests, country weddings, maple sap being boiled into syrup, steam-engine trains barreling down the line, prancing ponies harnessed to carriages, and townsfolk dutifully going about their business.
            She first exhibited her paintings at a county fair near in Eagle Bridge, New York. (She was now living with her youngest son.) She sent them along with her strawberry preserves and raspberry jam which she had entered in a competition. The jam won a pretty ribbon. Fairgoers ignored her art.
            “I’ll get an inspiration and start painting. Then I’ll forget everything, everything except how things used to be and how to paint it, so people will know how we used to live,” she said.
            She created visions of an unspoiled, joyous, idyllic rural New England. “A strange thing is memory, and hope: One looks backward and the other forward. One is of today, the other of tomorrow," she said. "Memory is history recorded in our brain. Memory is a painter. It paints pictures of the past and of the day."
            The truth is slightly more complicated. Like modern artists of the time like Andy Warhol, she had volumes of what she called “art secrets”—photographs, children’s books, and magazine ads that she copied and traced to help her along.
            She had no formal training as an artist, and perspective in her paintings is flattened with backgrounds and foregrounds all seemingly mostly one-dimensional.  
            “I paint from the top down,” she said. “From the sky, then the mountains, then the hills, then the houses, then the cattle, and then the people.”
            In all her work, one senses joy and wonderment at the world. “I look out the window sometimes to seek the color of the shadows and the different greens in the trees," she said, "But when I get ready to paint I just close my eyes and imagine a scene."

            Hoping to pick up a few dollars, she allowed some of her paintings to be displayed in the front window of the drug store in nearby Hoosick Falls, New York. An art collector passing through spotted them. All were priced between $3 and $5, and they had all been gathering dust for years. Sensing something special in her work, he bought them all.
            Upon returning to Manhattan, he took them to prominent galleries. A year later her work appeared in Museum of Modern Art show of “contemporary unknown painters.” Her work was exhibited with her name and the label “Housewife. New York.” She nearly 80.
            She became a sensation. She was an elfin charmer, just slightly over five feet tall. "Like a lively sparrow" is how Norman Rockwell described her. She had a merry gleam in her eyes and wore wearing tiny black hats and demure dresses with fine white lace collars.  

Lipstick to coffee

            Her work appeared on Christmas cards—an estimated 48 million Hallmark cards, and she licensed her paintings to sell everything from lipstick to coffee, wallpaper, draperies, china, and even cigarettes.
            President Truman invited her to the White House in 1949 and played the piano for her. She appeared on the cover of Time Magazine in 1953.
            Norman Rockwell lived a few miles away across the river in Vermont. They became friends, and he even included her in one of his paintings—"The Homecoming" which was published on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post in 1949. "Grandma Moses is the cleanest woman I have ever seen," he said. "Her skin is clear as a young girl's."
            When Rockwell asked to see her studio, she teased him, saying that no proper gentleman would ask to visit a lady's bedroom. She granted him admittance, and he was shocked to find that that she imbibed black coffee "incessantly" while painting.
            He sketched her while she was at work. Later, when the drawing was published, she was upset to see that he included her coffee pot in the picture. She didn't want people to know she was a coffee drinker.
            She became wealthy, earning an estimated $500,000 a year from licensing and selling her originals for nearly $10,000 apiece. (In 2006, her painting “Sugaring Off” sold for $1.2 million.)
            Even though her paintings sold for thousands, Rockwell observed that she used "the same cheap brushes and house paint" she used before she was famous.
            She remained humble, never getting above her ‘raisings.’
            “If I hadn’t started painting I would have raised chickens,” she once said, adding that “If you know something well, you can always paint it, but people would be better off buying chickens.”
            She died at age 101 in 1961. Her doctor said she just “wore out.” President Kennedy eulogized her, saying “Both her work and her life helped our nation renew its pioneer heritage and recall its roots in the countryside and on the frontier.”
            “I painted for pleasure," she said. "To keep busy and to pass the time away, but I thought no more of it than of doing fancy work.”
            “I look back on my life like a good day’s work," she said. "It was done, and I feel satisfied with it. I was happy and contented, I knew nothing better and made the best out of what life offered.
            “And life is what we make it, always has been, always will be.”

MORAL: Push the paint around.

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Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Safe Havens

“I can do it!”

When Jim Havens was 14, he wanted to grow up to be an artist, but now he was too ill to sit up, much less hold a paintbrush. It was May 1922, and he was dying on the family sofa in Rochester, N.Y. He was skin-and-bones, gripped with pains in his legs, terribly hungry, and subsisting on a near starvation diet ordered by his doctor.
Eight years had passed since Jim had received his death sentence—diabetes. In 1914 when he was diagnosed, most people died within weeks or months of learning their fate. Few survived more than a year or two. Yet the strong-willed Jim had managed to finish school and three years of college.
His family’s doctor had given up. Nothing else could be done. Perhaps Jim was ready to go, too. But his father James was a battler. A former congressman, he was the chief attorney at the Eastman Kodak company, the manufacturer of film and incredibly popular and inexpensive “Brownie” cameras. Ever since his son had fallen ill, James had researched the disease and communicated with anyone and everyone to try to save his son’s life.
            Diabetes has afflicted mankind since ancient times and was known to physicians in India, China, and Egypt as early as 1500 B.C. Its symptoms include excessive thirst and frequent urination. In fact, the word ‘diabetes’ comes from a Greek term meaning to “pass through.”

Sugar killer

 It was the sugar killer. Doctors noticed that ants were attracted to the urine of those with diabetes due to its high sugar content. The technical name of the disease is ‘diabetes mellitus,’ the latter word being a derivation of the Latin word for honey.
“The patient is short-lived…The melting is rapid, the death speedy,” wrote the 2nd century AD Greek physician Aretaeus of Cappadocia. Thomas Willis, a British physician in the 1700s, called diabetes “the pissing evil.” But like so many physicians before him, he had no idea “why the urine [of those afflicted] is wonderfully sweet like sugar or honey”
It was not until 1889 when experiments with dogs led doctors to understand that the disease had something to do with the pancreas. In 1920 Frederick Banting, a young Toronto surgeon, became curious about the relationship between the pancreas and how the body processes carbohydrates and sugar.
He and fellow physician Charles Best extracted material from an area of in the pancreases of dogs called the islets of Langerhans. They named the resulting processed liquid ‘insulin’ meaning “of the islands” in Latin.
It so happened that George Snowball, the manager of a Kodak store in Toronto, visited Havens one day in his Rochester office. Desperate, Havens asked Snowball if he could help. He said he would ask a fellow golfer who was a doctor at the University of Toronto’s medical school.

Cajoled a few doses

He gave Snowball no hope—not a chance in Hell, perhaps--but the manager was persistent. He met other physicians at the med school. It turned out that one of them---Frederick Banting--was experimenting with dogs and had isolated the newly named substance insulin.
When Snowball and Havens learned that it was being used experimentally in Canada on humans, Havens went into high gear, and the Havens’ family doctor cajoled a few doses from Banting to give to young Jim.
Even when there were no positive results, Snowball wouldn’t give up. He told Banting he would personally pay his air fare if he would fly to Rochester. Upon arriving, he began injecting Jim with larger doses every two hours. After many hours and many injections, Jim’s test results showed there was no sugar in his blood.
“How do you feel?” Banting asked the young man. “Try sitting up.”
At first, Jim didn’t think he could. At last he lifted himself off the sofa. “I can do it!” he exclaimed. “I do feel better!”
That day for lunch he ate a normal meal, and the pains in his legs had vanished.
Jim achieved his goal of becoming an artist and lived to be 60. He became a painter, illustrator, and sculptor renowned for his wildlife scenes, and today his work is in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Library of Congress.
Banting and Best won the Nobel Prize in 1923. By that year, insulin was being produced in massive quantities and saving thousands of lives. Today, largely due to modern dietary woes, more than 25 percent of Americans over the age of 65 have diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and if current trends continue within 30 years as many as one in three people in the U.S. may have the disease.

MORAL: Keep searching. There may be a Snowball’s chance.

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A Lively Sparrow

“Life is what we make it, always has been, always will be.”             As a little girl, Anna Mary Robertson Moses squeezed lemo...