ELIZABETH LAYTON has an amusing, endearing, and vivid show on display at the National Museum of American Art. After seeing it, I felt impelled to pick up the phone and call this Midwest grandma at home in Kansas to ask her questions about her drawings and her sudden career.
She was just coming in off the front porch when the phone rang and she caught it on the fourth ring. She talks about her art, how she started drawing at age 68 after just one lesson in contour drawing and kept at it until she became a professional. Now, 15 years later, she has one-woman shows on tour in New York, Atlanta, and now Washington. "Layton's work demonstrates that creativity must be recognized in new ways," says Elizabeth Broun, director of the National Museum of American Art. The show includes
35 color drawings and prints on view through June 28.
I asked Mrs. Layton if the blank white paper daunts her as she starts a work. The artist, who was managing editor on her father's newspaper earlier, says: "Nothing like if I were starting to write a story. Words are a bigger challenge than drawing; drawing pours out. I never was good with words. Had to struggle with words. Once I learned this contour drawing, yes, I was taken along with the drawing." It drew her out, she says.
According to the museum, "blind contour" drawing is art in which the object being drawn is the focus of concentration rather than the mark being made on the paper. An intuitive technique, it tends to produce distorted images but frees the artists from technical worries and opens up communication.
"I think of them [the pictures] as more of a way to communicate with people. Part of this I think is with contour you get caricature like a cartoon; it identifies the subject you're drawing so it is recognized immediately. I hope what happens is when people look [at my pictures] instead of saying 'there is an artist,' they say, 'I am on that paper,' themselves."
In Layton's drawings, the contour style was evident in slightly wavy, unusually stylized lines. She had taken a few lessons, then concentrated on self-portraits, picking up mirrors and drawing herself over and over again. "These self-portraits, besides reflecting the hopes and fears of the world, allowed her to win a 30-year struggle with depression," writes Don Lambert, the Ottawa newspaper reporter who discovered Layton's talent and helped bring it to light.
In the show's catalog, he writes, "of primary importance in Elizabeth Layton's story is the suggestion that art can do for others what it did for her. It saved her life."
In a society obsessed with images of beautiful women who sell shampoo, toothpaste, perfume, and cars with equal zest, it took great courage for Layton to stake her art on images of older women, all herself, faces etched with wrinkles. Staring out at you are those lime-green, sometimes merry, reporter's and painter's eyes. Reading about her life, which is like a novel, it sometimes seems her life has been even more vivid than her art.
"The art is more vivid," she says firmly. "I'm not that good, even to the colors." She has had two husbands, five children, been hospitalized, and had her share of problems. But, as she says, "I've had a very good life, haven't starved to death yet, haven't been seriously ill, always had a roof over my head, havn't been abused. It was not a hard life. I was deeply depressed, but that was inside me. I didn't like myself. I started drawing, and started liking myself better."
Her subjects are arresting, timely as today's front page looked at from the inside out. She tackles a rainbow of subjects, seeing herself in the looking glass of her art: as "Carry Nation" who used her axe to shatter the saloon mirror behind her. Pictured as "Mona Lisa," she writes: "These are some things that the Mona Lisa, when she lived to be old, probably would have been thinking about." And she surrounds her Mona Lisa with things like birthday cake, J.M. Barrie's play "What Every Woman Knows," dent ures, Cinderella slippers, and knights in shining armor.
She chose "Jonestown, Guyana," "The Wreck of the Hesperus," and "Pandora's Box" for some of her picture's themes. There is also a dark moment of despair called "Void," and a moment of girlish joy in "Winged Victory," in which she pictures herself swathed in chiffon, a pair of running shoes slung over her shoulder.
In "Garden of Eden," she's Eve in a leafy apron listening to a green, toy snake. Underneath the picture: "Women have had the blame all through the ages for everything.... This was my first E.R.A. picture. I was just objecting to being blamed for all the sin of the world."
Asked about her pictures, she says "I don't sell them. On occasion I draw an incentive picture, for someone who is giving a donation to a foundation. I've gotten so slow I don't want a raft of people to come ... drawing a picture, I'd never get it done."
Nevertheless she confesses she is at work on a new one. "There are flowers and people in the picture, daisy mums with lemon-yellow centers, and Glenn [her husband] on one side, and a woman on the other side. It's a second marriage for both of us," she says of the devoted husband who has posed for her so often; in this one they are holding hands.
Her witty and uncompromising show, "Elizabeth Layton: Drawing on Life," was organized by Exhibits USA, a national division of Mid-American Arts Alliance in Kansas City, with funds provided by the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund.