While Mrs. Seagreaves’ (as I always referred to her) style developed, Jimmy was quite surprised and impressed, providing Verna with the confidence and motivation in her early years to manipulate subjects, as she felt fit, and as he did providing his pottery objects, namely his birds, with an ultra Germanic twist.
Memories of her childhood also surfaced in her paintings, as well as places along Route 222 near Breiningsville, for example, the old Country Junction roadside stand of pumpkins and produce on display as well as Alburtis Lockridge Furnace. Verna incorporated folk birds, tulips and fraktur symbols in her paintings, especially those fraktur art shown in a book edited and given to her by Frederick Weiser.
Someone in her early years had also suggested painting Biblical themes, which at first she was doubtful, but began with “The Peaceable Kingdom” and “Noah’s Ark” (which was a great undertaking in her opinion). Both subjects I featured at the James Christian Seagreaves pottery exhibit in fall, 1999. Verna was pleased with the reception her biblical paintings received thereby prompting a demand for more. Over the years, she must have painted 20-25 of each, similar to James’ self imposed rules, but all different, as Jimmy’s birds. She believed it was impossible for her to duplicate any two paintings, because when she tried, a new idea would always pop in her head and with one brush stroke was off on a different direction.
Customers kept asking for specific subjects and did feel overwhelmed at times yet had a great time fulfilling their wishes. The titles and subjects varied, while customers wanted everything from a painting to remember the Main Street in Kutztown to a visual depiction of Psalm 23. Additionally, Verna did three paintings of the Stahl brothers and their pottery activities in Powder Valley, which I found very interesting from a meeting her and Jimmy had with the Stahl potter family, I believe in 1967. However, her Christmas paintings were of special importance to her.
Verna loved the color, the music and everything that went with Christmas and every year did at least one painting on the season, generally multiple. A “Christmas Sampler of the Twelve Days of Christmas” remained one of her favorites over the years. Thinking of the Santa Clauses ringing their bells on the city street corners in her childhood gave her the idea of doing “December’s Onset,” another favorite of visitors at the James Christian Seagreaves pottery exhibit.
Mention needs to be made of other artists who have had a profound influence on Verna’s growth as a folk painter. In the 70s, Verna read Georgia O’Keeffe’s autobiography, which gave Verna a refreshed outlook on her own way of working and philosophy of painting. O’Keefes’ stated, “I have things in my head that are not like what anyone taught me, shapes and ideas so near to me, I decided to start anew to strip away what I had been taught. I was working on my own, no one to satisfy but myself.”
This was just what Verna needed, giving her new found faith in her own technique and talent, having no formal art lessons and disagreeing with some of the “rules” of painting. Verna at that point on was encouraged to do just what she had wanted to do and include unusual subjects, which added to her uniqueness, along with her trademark use of brilliant colors, simplicity and directness in her paintings. Georgia O’ Keefe, perhaps most influential, made a major impact on Verna’s philosophical art views, simplicity, and boldness of colors that radiated O’Keefe’s works.
Another artist whose paintings Verna enjoyed was Henri Rousseau, especially in the way his colors stood out, the foliage, and dreamlike scenes and animals. Rousseau’s jungle paintings helped Verna with ideas when she worked on her “Garden of Eden,” another portrayal featured in said exhibit, of which she also painted about 20-25 copies. In once reading a description of the Garden of Eden, Verna felt a duty to add an angel who covered her eyes when Adam accepted the apple from Eve.
A third artist Verna admired was lesser known, Ivan Rabuzin, a Croatian, whom she came across in an art magazine. She loved his presentation of flowers and trees done in pale pastel colors of pinks, blues and greens, thus adopting this unusual technique, using Pennsylvania Dutch figures and bold color themes. Verna admired the unorthodox way Rabuzin presented his art with exaggeration and abstract layouts he formulated that were also evident in some of Verna’s paintings. For example, the oversized stems found in “The Tulip Tree,” and the disproportion of size conveyed in another favorite of mine in: “Birds, Houses, and Trees.”
Not known to Verna at the time, but painting in the same era, was noted Lancaster folk artist Hattie Brunner. The first Brunner painting Verna ever saw was on a Christmas greeting of a covered bridge and sleigh in snow. Verna noted a similarity in their paintings and later was amazed at the parallels in their backgrounds.
Coincidentally, both had painted in their later years, taught piano, dealers of antiques, painters of farm scenes, covered bridges, auction sales and both more importantly celebrated in our Pennsylvania Dutch culture. Verna shared with me a Brunner quote from an old interview for the Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine where Brunner stated, “You have to be a homebody and love it, in order to accomplish anything.” Verna whole heartedly agreed with this philosophy, being very content living in the Pennsylvania Dutch country.
Furthermore, in a personal memoir written to me before her death, Verna writes, “As I look back over the years and my painting adventures, I am just beginning to realize how fortunate I am to have had these experiences. How much I appreciate the encouragement and loyalty of the people who loved Jimmy’s pottery and came to like my paintings. It is truly amazing how these special people influenced me and were a big factor in the development of my art.”
Thank you, Verna. You are missed and still thought about. It was my pleasure to get to know you and come to love your work.
Richard L.T. Orth is assistant director of the American Folklife Institute in Kutztown.