A Painter Who Never Went to Art Class

MOST of the paintings in art museums are by artists who were taught to draw and paint by other artists. Centuries ago, many began as apprentices who cleaned brushes and mixed paints for master artists. More recently, most have attended art classes to learn composition and techniques. But once in a while we come across a painting that looks a little different. It may have been done by an artist who never went to an art class and maybe had no thought of becoming an artist until the first time he or she wanted a picture of something. These are called naif, or primitive, painters.

Jennie Cell is such a painter. ``Pruning Time'' is painted with artists' oil paints on artists' canvas. But that is not the way Jennie began.

Living on a farm in Illinois with her elderly uncle, she wanted a picture of another relative's home. Cameras were still considered an expensive luxury in this rural area in the 1950s. They were probably considered useless to farm work, so there was no point in having one.

This proved to be a blessing in disguise, because Jennie decided that she would make her own picture, using four colors of shoe polish to do it.

Her uncle, who was a carpenter-builder, encouraged her by making frames for that first picture and three more. He made her an easel to work on.

As Jennie had not much more than two years of any kind of formal schooling, much less art lessons, she ``pestered Uncle Rome'' for advice. He had built many things out of wood in his lifetime, so he had no doubt that he could construct a painting out of paint. He made himself an easel and painted her a picture of the County Court House just the way a builder would build it - brick by brick from the bottom up.

Thus reassured, Jennie painted many paintings there in the farmhouse living room. She likes to say that she paints what she remembers and not what she sees. ``County Church,'' ``Walnut Ridge Farm,'' and ``Pruning Time'' are all part of her memories.

In ``Pruning Time'' the man handling the saw is presented with a clear understanding of the power necessary to saw through a heavy tree limb. Behind him on the left, a man runs with a bundle of prunings, giving us a humorous and lively picture of the busy activity of farm life. The five men are working hard trimming the trees so they will grown more vigorously and produce more fruit.

Three main colors go all across the picture. The front band is reddish brown, the middle one behind the trees is a lovely spring green. The sky is pale blue, with a suggestion of whitish clouds. The men and their ladders provide the contrasting colors. The man sawing is dressed in a maroon shirt with black pants and hat. The two ladders behind him are bright yellow, and the runner is all in bright blue.

Uncle Rome and Jennie's friends insisted that she enter her paintings in local exhibitions. Of course, by that time she had exchanged the shoe polish for oil paints. After winning many blue ribbons and awards, she was given an exhibition in Washington, D.C. Two paintings, one of which is ``Pruning Time,'' were purchased for the permanent collection of the National Museum of American Art.

Jennie Cell was invited to travel from Illinois to the national capital to see her show. It was the first time she had traveled so far from home.

Very shy and modest, she said, ``I just don't think they're that good.'' When asked if she was sad to part with her works, she answered, ``No, I had them for a long time. It is time to let them go.'' Looking at the handsome halls of the museum, Jennie added with a smile, ``And haven't they got a nice home?''

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