A Look Back in History: Verna Seagreaves' vibrant watercolors live on: Part I

“Gingham Birds and Tulips” watercolor by Verna Seagreaves

Following the success of my first feature article published by the Berks County Historical Society, they asked me to set up an exhibit of James Christian Seagreaves pottery in the fall of that year in their museum gallery. The late redware potter article commanded such an outpouring of interest and curiosity, Mr. Shaner, our Director, and I decided it was apropos or imperative that I include water color paintings by Jimmy’s wife Verna A. Seagreaves as a back drop.

Simply, they were a team in life and artistry, and since we obviously could not hang pottery from the museum’s walls, the idea seemed logical. Many of his wife’s colorful paintings were of the local countryside and incorporated bold Pennsylvania Dutch motifs.

More so, they were equally colorful, represented the couple’s innate talents and shared life long interest in their Pennsylvania Dutch culture, and as I’ve stated numerous times, her paintings somehow reflected the romance of their lives in this enchanted corner of Berks County. An accomplished artist in her own right even at age 86, her last full year of painting, she demonstrated an unusual exuberance for painting and recording the Pennsylvania Dutch lifestyle.

Urged by the society and its members who wished to learn more about Verna’s talent and paintings, I began interviewing her again, but this time about herself that December (1999), a month she identified affectionately with, since some of her favorite subjects to paint involved Santa Claus and Yuletide paintings.

As a young child of less than average wealth, one of Verna’s fondest memories of early childhood was how thrilled she was when she received a box of crayons containing as many as 32 different colors, and she would use Sears Roebuck catalogues or anything else that was available to her for practice, instead of traditional coloring books. Furthermore, her public school art courses were meager in the 1920s and even in later years at Emmaus High School during the 1927-1931 years, no art courses were even offered. So her life centered on music, playing piano and singing, so her paintings as admired nowadays are testament to her hard work.

After formal schooling and college, Verna with her musical inclination, became a full-time music teacher for the Upper Macungie Township schools directing a group aptly named the Choral Maidens, presenting spring concerts annually. Locally, she sung at weddings, church services, and became organist and choir director at her local church. Having established herself as a quite successful musical person, a relative introduced her to potter, Jimmy Seagreaves.

They were married in 1941, and the following year their daughter, Claudia, who I had also come to know was born. With added responsibilities, Verna carried on as a part-time teacher, and Jimmy worked at Bethlehem Steel starting an antique shop in their enclosed back porch at Alburtis, selling the usual smalls. Meanwhile, Verna being artistically inclined worked on quilt cross-stitching in her spare time, even incorporating Indian quilt symbols gathered from her visits with her now grown daughter (Claudia) who had relocated to the American West (Colorado).

Then in 1966, Jimmy and Verna Seagreaves joined the Reading-Berks Chapter of the Pennsylvania Guild of Craftsman, where she met Alma Strauss, who encouraged Verna’s childhood fascination with the arts. Alma Strauss was a watercolorist artist whose colored pencil sketches of covered bridges and churches were very popular. Verna had admired Alma’s watercolor paintings and sketches as many did, and so much that with the extra encouragement of her husband, she began colored pencil sketching.

Verna had such a great personality, never taking anything personal, she confided in me (and honestly) how elated Jimmy was that she was occupied and not poking her nose into his pottery craft! So much so that Jimmy began buying Verna art supplies, Wensin-Newton paints in those days, as well as how-to-do books on painting. Self taught, she began painting sunflowers, covered bridges, church steeples, trees, birds, tulips, nature scenes, etc.

Two locally famous artists, Austin Davison and Sigmund Gorney of New Jersey and Philadelphia, respectively, “encouraged her” and even bought some of her first paintings. Around the same time, other antique dealers and pottery customers of Jimmy seemed interested and began purchasing her paintings as well. Verna Seagreaves’ method of painting was using a dry, as opposed to wet watercolor technique, preferring watercolor to start out with, and if she needed, used stronger color directly from the acrylic tube. Thus, brilliant colors became her trademark!

As a housewife, all of her paintings had to be sandwiched in between her household chores and responsibilities of a marriage, so that Jimmy could devote time to creating his pottery for supplemental income. This was the best way she added, so if she had to leave her paintings, she could do so at any time and resume again when she was free. Verna practiced and practiced, painting the local East Penn Valley countryside. During the years, Verna and Jimmy had purchased a large number of art books, sometimes copying some of the paintings she encountered in books, but she always felt had to add her own touch to make the painting come more alive.

Richard L.T. Orth is assistant director of the American Folklife Institute in Kutztown.