Betty Abbott Sheinis was 84 and in the final weeks of her life when we met her. But we were immediately enchanted by her warm personality and peaceful spirit.
Anet James and I are owners of a local art gallery. Sheinis's husband Arnold had invited us to their home to see his artwork. As gallery owners, we often visit artists' studios to consider their work for exhibition. This particular home was packed with hundreds of pieces of artwork. There were stacks of art piled three and four feet high in the basement; many closets were filled to capacity and in virtually every room in the house the walls were covered from floor to ceiling with drawings, paintings, and photographs.
About half of the art on display was Arnold's and the rest was Betty’s. She specialized in beautifully crafted watercolors depicting landscapes, city scenes, and the ocean. Like Arnold, she had been an artist all her life.
But our biggest surprise on this March morning was a beautifully illustrated watercolor which Betty had painted 30 years earlier, found peeping out from underneath a pile of folded laundry in a storage room on the the second floor of the house. It was intended to be the cover art for a stunning children’s book. It featured a rabbit and a woodchuck, sipping tea in a lush forest setting.
"At first glance, we thought it might be an original Beatrice Potter or Tasha Tudor illustration for an unknown book,” Anet remembered later.
It was clearly a project dear to Betty's heart, produced with incredible skill. The mystery was, why had it not been published and where were the missing pages for the book?
“Is this my painting?” Betty asked when we showed her the book cover. She no longer recognized her own beautiful works of art but she accepted our praise with grace and humility.
Since Betty had no memory of producing the painting, we had was little hope of getting her to tell us the location of the missing pages. This was going to be a treasure hunt and, at the same time, a unique opportunity to learn more about this inspiring woman’s creative life. We were also given an insight into her 60-year love affair with her husband Arnold, her loyal friend and fellow artist.
“Oh, that’s Betty’s book.” Arnold said when we asked. He had no idea where the rest of the illustrations were or if they even still existed.
“Betty kept everything, so they must be here somewhere," he said. It was clear he wasn’t confident that they would be found.
But several weeks after Betty’s death, Arnold woke up in the middle of the night remembering that she had a secret hiding place for her favorite paintings. Beneath her grandfather’s antique bed, he found all the original paintings for the book stored safely in an old portfolio. They were in perfect condition. He also found the manuscript for the story printed in a small mock-up she had created for potential publishers to review the book.
It was time for this work to meet its public, Anet and I agreed. We decided to publish it ourselves.
The book – titled "Rhoda's Ocean" – tells the story of Wilma Woodchuck and Rhoda Rabbit, who are best friends. But Wilma and Rhoda are very different.
"Practical Wilma believes in neatness, while Rhoda is a dreamer who forgets her shoes and wonders what an ocean looks like," says Arnet. "'Rhoda’s Ocean' celebrates creativity, friendship, and the rewards of being yourself."
In some ways, it tells the story of Betty herself.
She grew up in the Great Smoky Mountains of rural Tennessee where she was the only daughter of five children. At the age of 19, she received a full scholarship to Cooper Union and bravely moved on her own to New York City to attend the prestigious art school. After graduation, she went on to work as an illustrator for a top advertising agency, The Washington Post, and other newspapers. She won several major awards for illustration during her career.
Betty had met Arnold in the late 1940s at Cooper Union, where he was also an art student. Arnold often shares the story of how they met. “I asked her to have a cup of coffee at the local Automat," Arnold reminisced with a twinkle in his eye. "That was a strong cup of coffee, because we were together for sixty years.”
They went on to be married in 1952 and raised three sons in the same house in Natick, Mass. where they had moved in 1970. They have seven grandchildren, to whom the book is dedicated.
“I remember her working on the book, but I never really paid much attention to it," Arnold said. "Betty was always doing artwork even while she was cooking or playing with the boys. We would travel and paint together all the time. She liked the mountains and I enjoyed painting by the ocean.,"
At her funeral, Arnold gave a moving eulogy, ending with, “She was a wonderful wife, mother, grandmother, companion and friend. She was the only woman I ever loved romantically. Goodnight sweetheart, till we meet tomorrow.”
I asked Arnold if the characters in the book reminded him of anyone.
“I think I was Wilma and she was Rhoda," he replied. "I liked things to be a little neater than she did.”
Arnold lives alone now and paints every day in his basement studio. He also works out in the weight room at the new senior center in town and often stops by the library where Betty had been a volunteer for years. “She was a real lady,” a co-worker there says of her, recalling her “gentle and kind personality.”
Arnold also visits the gallery weekly to check on the book’s progress. He often tells us how much Betty would have loved seeing it finally published.
“She would have been thrilled," Arnold said. "She was a wonderful artist... I miss her very much.”
John Mottern and Anet James are owners of Gallery 55 in Natick, Mass. Gallery 55 is also the publisher of "Rhoda's Ocean."