You’ve probably heard of Grandma Moses, the American artist who started painting at the age of 78. But did you know that painting wasn’t Grandma Moses’ first creative vocation? Years before she took up painting she captured the landscapes and rural life around her through embroidery.
Grandma Moses became famous for her folk art paintings of rural life on the farms and villages she knew in Virginia and New York in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Her embroidered pieces have a similar style to her paintings. Even her embroidered signature looks a lot like her painted signature. She gave most of her embroidered pictures away to friends and family members, so they aren’t widely known, but newly discovered pieces occasionally surface.
I felt drawn to find out more about Grandma Moses this summer as I was playing with some embroidery designs and realized that the images in my head seemed a lot like American folk art, and Grandma Moses’ paintings in particular. I was surprised and excited to find out about her embroidery. Now, I don’t know for sure, but I’m fairly confident that Grandma Moses wasn’t Jewish. She painted a lot of Christmas scenes and not, as far as I know, any Hanukkah scenes. I wasn’t sure if a post about her work would quite fit a Jewish-themed blog, but her name is Moses, so that decided it.
One of the things that draws me to her art is its depiction of lives lived close to the land. We see cows in fields. Wheat grows. People work the land –communities of people work together– doing the labor that each season requires. Spring is about sewing seeds and making soap. Summer is making apple butter. Autumn is the harvest. Winter is for making candles and turning maple sap into syrup. And when holidays come around, there are lots of smiles, warm hearths, and children running. It’s kind of an idealized New World vision of a Biblical promised land.
I also love the independence and originality of Grandma Moses’ work. Art experts call Grandma Moses’ painting style “primitive” or “naïve,” because she was a self-taught artist and developed her own non-traditional solutions to the challenges of composition and execution.
Much of her stitching technique is traditional. In the image at the top of the page, a detail from her piece “Mt. Nebo on a Hill,” you can see the short and long stitches she used for tree bark and the French knots for blossoms. But in other places she freestyles it, tracing the outlines of windows and other details and filling spaces with free-form stitching.
I’d love to see the fabric under those embroidery threads to see how much of each scene Grandma Moses sketched before she started stitching and how much she built up as she worked.
She built on tradition –both in her subject matter and her artistic style– but she wasn’t afraid to take creative leaps to capture her vision of the world. That makes her a great inspiration for both painters and embroiderers.
[Images: Photo of detail from “Mt. Nebo on the Hill,” 1940 by Grandma Moses, from the book Grandma Moses in the 20th Century by Jane Kallir | Grandma Moses by New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer: Roger Higgins, 1953, Copyright Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection via Wikimedia Commons | 1969 stamp honoring Grandma Moses by Bureau of Engraving and Printing, U.S. Post Office; Smithsonian National Postal Museum; Image enlarged and rendered for tone, clarity by Gwillhickers, via Wikimedia Commons.]
Maria Bywater is the author of Sew Jewish: The 18 Projects You Need for Jewish Holidays, Weddings, Bar/Bat Mitzvah Celebrations, and Home. She teaches hands-on Judaica sewing workshops.