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Grandma Moses

I want to be Grandma Moses when I grow up. I’m almost there already.

I’ve thought about that often, but last week I was working on a gate for the duck corral and there’s a chance I took a couple of shortcuts that a true artist wouldn’t have. I made the gate and then dressed it up by making some cattails in wrought iron so the ducks would feel at home. Still a perfectly fine gate, but the technique used was...a bit primitive.

Hence, Grandma Moses.

Grandma Moses was born just prior to the Civil War and lived to be over 100. She started painting, seriously, when she was 78. The first painting she sold went for $3.00. The last one sold for $1.2 million.

Since she spent most of her life on a farm, she was a worker, completing over 1,500 paintings in a little over twenty years. The reason I chose her as a role model is that she wasn’t THAT good of a painter. She had no real training – she started out as a knitter, but after a while her arthritis hurt her hands too much when she knitted, so she switched to painting and simply put down the pictures she had in her head. When her right hand started to bother her, she switched the brush to her left hand. A common description of her work was “primitive.”

I bet that drove some people crazy. I think about that a lot. Imagine someone who’d dedicated their lives to mastering the art of painting, living in the cheapest place possible to go to college, scratching out a living while perfecting their technique, and sitting in an art gallery watching people not buy their paintings. Along comes this old lady with a little bit of talent - but a clear vision - and in a matter of a few years she’s on the cover of TIME and President Truman is giving her a medal. I bet it didn’t seem fair at all.

About ten years ago, in a longer story than you’d be willing to listen to, I was in charge of collecting books by Minnesota authors to give as a gift to a United Methodist Bishop. I tracked down a poet who was an adjunct professor at a college and had recently published a book of poetry. I went to her house where there was a stack of unsold books, and she was eager to sell one to me. We commiserated a bit on the writing biz and then she said, “Of course, no one makes a living writing.”

I said, “I do, kind of.”

It put an immediate chill on our relationship. Here she was, an MFA in Creative Writing, working at a university, and some farmer whose writing education topped off in Mr. Moeller’s eleventh grade English class was making a living writing while she was stuck working without tenure or benefits and counting her book sales in single digits. I’d never thought about that before, how annoying it must be for some people to see me, with sometimes questionable grammar and a shaky grasp of metaphors being treated almost as if I were respectable.

When I was in my metal shop whanging away on the gate for the duck corral, I checked the time, thought of my to-do list and decided what I’d made was, while not great, good enough for a duck pen. My guess is that Michelangelo didn’t take that approach to the Sistine Chapel, and neither would someone who’d served an apprenticeship developing his skills in forge work.

But I’m hoping Grandma Moses would understand.

And if you’d like to offer me $1.2 million for one of my books, or even the duck gate, I’d give the offer every consideration.

Copyright 2023 Brent Olson


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