Article by Kathy Johnson Bowles
Grandma Moses once said, “What a strange thing is memory, and hope; one looks backward, the other forward; one is of today, the other of tomorrow. Memory is history recorded in our brain, memory is a painter, it paints pictures of the past and of the day.”
Marion Forgey Line (1919-1999) has often been compared to Grandma Moses, and, like Moses, she is considered to be a memory painter. Indeed, Moses and Line seem to be kindred spirits as they painted luminous pictures of life in the country and family stories. Their vantage point is high above their scenes — all seeing and all encompassing, as if they are spirits floating in the sky as silent observers. Their titles are eerily similar; each artist depicted subjects titled Springtime, Harvest Time, Shenandoah Valley, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas and Apple Pickers. Both lived in Virginia for part of their lives, started painting intently late in life and struggled with arthritis. However, until now we know much about Grandma Moses and little about Marion Line.
Marion Louise Forgey was born in Morristown, Tenn., in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. Though her work may suggest a childhood on a farm, her father and grandfathers were businessmen. She received a public school education and music lessons in Morristown. She attended Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City, Tenn., where she earned a B.A. in English (cum laude) with a diploma in violin. There she met Lloyd E. Line Jr., and, after a courtship of six years, they were married in 1941. For 11 years, they moved around the country as he advanced in his career. During those years she taught English and music while continuing to play her violin in symphonies in Philadelphia and Knoxville. In 1952, they settled in Richmond, Va., and raised their family.
Although Marion Line always loved to draw pictures of people, places and animals, it was not until the 1970s that she returned to the visual arts. After arthritis left her unable to play the violin, she felt compelled to express her own sense of beauty, joy and spirituality through painting. Her paintings are awash with bright colors and nostalgic visions of spring flowers, harvests and wintry wonderlands. She said she gathered her “ideas from Bible stories, song titles and family history, people and events.” [Judith Snyderman in “Grandma Marion,” Richmond’s Visual Arts Magazine Gallery, Vol.2, No. 2]
Jonah’s Regurgitation (1987) is one such work – inspired by a Bible story but also conveying her sense of humor. In Line’s version a large Jonah (nearly half as big as the whale) flies through the air toward the shore. Jonah is accompanied by what appears to be a great deal of whale saliva. A fisherman in a small boat in the foreground looks placidly upon the scene. Other paintings are exuberant reflections on nature, such as Fall Scene: Leaf Rakers (1994). Here, a father and son gather piles of leaves while all around them fall foliage is at its peak. Line could not resist making the scene her own. She painted the treetops with rhythmic, swirling lines that make the tree appear to be on fire.
She often said, “I am not a Pollyanna.” Personal accounts lead one to understand that this was an honest self-appraisal. Family and friends described her as an individual, filled with a creative spirit and humor, and someone with a great deal of empathy and tenderness. Her college classmate, Margaret W. Cooper, wrote a letter to Lloyd Line after his wife’s death, describing her as a woman “with large, soulful eyes, rich with internal reflection.” To her husband, she was a beautiful and complex woman with a fiery spirit. In her works, these characteristics abound.
Perhaps one could look at her other creative endeavors for clues about why she painted such poignant observations as the beauty of the seasons, memories of quilts on a clothesline, or a dog named Sadi. Though homey and poetic, these subjects contain more than meets the eye. Marion Line wrote poetry in her journals expressing personal commentaries on life and relationships. Her writings often seemed to reflect her bouts with depression as well as the disappointments and discouragement she must have faced. After reading one of her poems, dated January 24, 1981, when she was nearly immobilized by arthritis, one can understand why depicting joy was so important. The title is “Bite the Bullet:”
I see no beauty in pain.
It does not ennoble my character.
It does not refine my soul.
It does not improve my disposition.
I see no hidden blessing in it.
Pain makes life harder.
It makes me mean.
It sets me apart from others.
It gets in the way of what I want to do.
According to her husband, the artist found great comfort in producing pictures of her childhood such as Easter Sunday When I Was a Child (1990) or Cousin Will’s Place (1983). Each of these depicts a symbolic safe haven – a place where she felt no pain physically or emotionally.
From beginning to end, the process of creating provided great clarity for her. Lloyd Line explained: “It was her habit to spend a lot of time just thinking and planning a painting in her head while she was away from her easel doing other things (and perhaps even subconsciously while she slept), but after her mind was made up, she worked fast and seldom went back over a painting to doctor it up.”
Her husband said that when she finished with a painting she always called out “It’s done!” from the room in their home that served as her studio. Then they would ceremoniously hang the new work, declare it “the best yet” and toast each other with a glass of wine.
Her discovery as a painter is the stuff of legends and Hollywood movies — like Grandma Moses or one of the main characters in the film “The Trouble with Harry.” Anne Gray, owner of the Eric Schindler Gallery in Richmond, was delivering a cabinet Line had purchased when she happened to see a painting hanging in the hallway and inquired about the artist. Line was surprised to find that Gray took an interest in her work. In 1983, Gray exhibited several of Line’s works in her Church Hill gallery. In 1984, at the age of 65, Line had her first solo exhibition there. During the final 15 years of her life she created approximately 300 works. Throughout the years, Anne Gray remained a friend and mentor.
Particularly charming and significant in Line’s work are her devotion to storytelling, color harmony, an unyielding inventiveness in depicting subject matter and an innate sense of a balanced composition. Uncle Millard and the Pear Tree or the Letter of the Law (Forbidden Fruit), 1991, epitomizes these attributes. One of the Line family legends inspired this painting. As a teenager, Uncle Millard Line had an insatiable appetite for pears, often stripping an entire tree of ripe fruit before anyone else had a chance to partake. One day, his exasperated father exclaimed, “If I see you pull another pear off that tree, I’ll wear you out.” The next day, Millard spied a particularly ripe pear on the tree. Instead of disobeying his father, he put a ladder up close to the pear and devoured it without removing it from the branch. Later his father saw the core still hanging on the branch. Realizing that Millard had not literally disobeyed him, he had to laugh. Line’s painting illustrates the moment.
That she did not successfully use linear perspective is perhaps a positive attribute rather than a shortcoming. Her lack of linear perspective, which Richmond Times-Dispatch art critic Roy Proctor called “delightfully cockeyed,” supports the notion that these images are from the mind’s eye. Indeed this seems to be a conscious choice for the artist. She once explained to a reviewer, “I sketch right on the canvas with a light wash of turpentine and yellow ochre. I go by shapes; I don’t have to worry about depth.” Style Magazine reviewer Jerry Lewis noted, “Line’s ability to extract details from different eras and weave them into single frames results in a slightly distorted reality.”
Sadi, the Lines’ black poodle, appears in nearly every work, regardless of the period depicted. Perhaps for Line, Sadi is at once a talisman and provides comic relief. Other family pets also appear without regard to the chronology of their lives, for example, Trumpy, the horse from Line’s girlhood, Simon the cat and another dog, Plato.
Her works are endearing because they seem familiar and emotionally restorative. They show us things that are true for all of us. They depict images of family heritage and homestead, significant childhood experiences, or stories told by mothers, fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers. These images are imbedded in our hearts and souls as memories. Memories keep our spirits uplifted in times of pain and sorrow. Memories remind us that time passes, yet they kindle hope. Memories provide examples of courage, truth and beauty. Memories are fertile visions that keep the past alive while providing inspiration for today and tomorrow.
Note: Much of the factual material presented in this essay, as well as the poem and other quotations, were taken from a personal essay by Lloyd Line, “Marion Line: Reflections on Our Life Together,” 1999, and from interviews with him in November 2000.
Fertile Visions: Paintings by Marion Forgey Line was exhibited at the Longwood Center for the Visual Arts, Longwood College, Farmville, Va., January 19-March 2, 2002. A 16-page catalogue is available from LCVA, 129 Main St., Farmville, VA 23901.
KATHY JOHNSON BOWLES is an artist and scholar.
As seen in the Folk Art Messenger: