Alice’s story

ALICE: “Keep on doing what you love to do.”

I marvel at the velvet-gloved, steely determination a woman needs to pursue her passion in the midst of the “elements of everyday life,” and still have a place in her community, And ask: “Can I do this?”

Living Your Passion: Alice’s Story

Walking up the hill from the ferry dock on the island I saw that Alice was there again, a thin little figure in blue, perched on a stool in front of her easel on the lawn of the Inn. With her art supplies to one side on the grass, sporting a big floppy hat that hid her face – except for the determined jut of her chin – she was entirely absorbed in her painting. The way she sat, upright, the way she worked without pause, you would never guess that she had turned 89 that year. She pulls back, looks at her work, stretches, then sees me and smiles.

We agreed to meet in the evening, after she’d done all that she wanted to do, and after supper. She could hardly wait to tell me that after all the years of small shows, or being in, group shows, she had won a solo show in May with a cash prize. And then, in November, she’d won another prize in the National Arts Club Show for a canvas that she’d done on her very first visit to the island in 1934, of the same dock, only from a different position. The first award ever given for a painting done 53 years ago.

“I was always ‘one of,’ you know,” she said. “One of the Ashcan Group, one of a group of American women artists, or pioneer artists, or early water-colourists. That sort of thing.”

“ Congratulations Alice, that was a long time coming.”

“ Yes,”she paused. There was a world of waiting in that pause.

“I’m just glad it came while I’m still alive to enjoy it,”

She leaned forward, tipping her head towards the harbour down the hill.

“You can see it way over there now, from near the entrance, looking down at the sunset, which was simply glorious. It was just one of those times it was simply magnanimous — I mean ‘magnificent,’ not ‘magnanimous’ — but I guess that’s how it felt, as if nature was just so generous.”

A synopsis of the biographical details—without the pithy quotes that give Alice’s story its character.

Alice’s story is one of lifelong training and transformation. Painting has been her life since she was a small child. The women in the family were “talented in the arts of homemaking”, as Alice put it: needlework, cooking and fine china painting. “And of course the piano, for entertainment in the evenings.” An aspiring woman artist would paint “pleasant little water colours”, a medium, as Alice said, which was “reserved for women.” Alice turned the domestic art of fine china painting into a profession as a landscape painter and art teacher. She trained her eye to see and remember the world in pictures, “always composing”, first through an art school framework, then gradually refined into her own unique style. ” Alice was a rare woman member of The Ashcan Group of the 1930s and ’40s which stressed the artist’s moral obligation to express elements of everyday life. She conducted walking-drawing tours of New York City for many years and was one of the few women of her time in professional art associations.

A review in The New York Times in the early 1920’s, so missed the point of her work that I was inspired to write a poem, which acts as summary and conclusion at the end of her story in We All Become Stories—hers is certainly another good one. It is a long poem printed in full in the February Draft publication so I will read part of the critique and the second half of the poem.


“Her paintings, people-less, reflect her homey character, lacking the social satire of her contemporaries work, the cityscapes rendered plainly and objectively, expressing the elements of everyday life. Her watercolours, dry and contained rigidly, are held by penciled lines until they are allowed to bleed across other imaginary lines in the full spectrum of a variety of subject matters and a range of treatments and moods formally drawn beneath the colour

Crossing the Lines into the Artist’s World

An artist her whole life

she came into her own when all the cherished ties

tethering her long loneliness broke down,

then flourished in the spaces opened

by the deaths that befall the old.


For those who have the ability to see,

they see cityscapes — and landscapes — rendered

down to the hollow places — and the open spaces —

left for a girl who crossed the lines

set by a loving upright bringing up, people

surrounding her. Around, but not really there.


Companion for an admiring artist husband,

delighted mother to an only son, taking students

in the gaps, she managed to paint,

hemmed inside the lines of clear-cutting rules.


Her dry watercolours, regimented like her life, held

by carefully penciled lines holding (her) together,

holding light tight to common-place images.

Composing her life.


“It’s what we do, we women, in every way

we express the elements of everyday life,”

until they are allowed — “We are obliged to find a way,”

(she grinned) — until they are allowed to bleed across

fine imaginary lines in every way they can




fine lines moving thinly but surely

across lines made in her heart’s eye,

running the gamut

of all the subjects that matter, held matted together

in a common language, once shared

with family and friends, until they melt,

bleeding persistently across loss.


In full view


of a range of methods and moods,

every day daringly bright colours

clear, limpid, translucent

for those who have the ability to see

across the fine lines

around those see-through images

expressing the elements of what we still do



Drawn in a breath


living beneath a taut way of seeing,

eagerly learned (two women let into the class)

and then unlearned as she found her own way

of seeing — and being seen through.

I can see her

an old, old woman going out by herself

into the woods or standing near the sea,

absorbing the beauty of the scene.


The colour saturated until rendered down

to exactly the beauty she wanted seen,


only her eye-self way

of seeing the scene, yielding

to the canvas, painted

“in the snatched moments of quiet in my studio.


It’s what we do.”


As she ages, Alice continually redefine her priorities so that she can take part in, and be acknowledged by, a younger arts community-who admire her and make sure her work is shown. She continues to do what she loves to do into very old age – to paint.

I think of Alice as the prize, her paintings tell it all, just as she said a good painting does.