As I step into the new territory of 2017, I’d like Grandma Moses to be a guide. Her paintings teach me lessons that I want to realize, to intend and deliberate, as I go about the days of this new year.
In the wintertime painting Sugaring Off (1955), across the white blank snow are vivid patches of color: people working together to collect sap from the trees. Across the scene are tiny vignettes: men driving oxen pulling barrels, a carriage with two people driving by a pine tree, people gathered around a big bonfire, others carrying pails, and of course, men and women holding buckets at the trunks of maple trees.
The folk art aesthetic blooms to life. Before starting her paintings, Grandma Moses collected little cut-outs from magazines and newspapers, carefully fiddling around with their arrangement until she got what she liked. For Sugaring Off, all the little vignettes come together to express a profoundly clear theme: people are in this together.
And here’s my first lesson. For all that I treasure about silence and solitude (and I really treasure these things), I want to be in the context of doing the daily round with others. This scene teaches me the importance of this, that carrying out tasks alongside other people—family, friends, co-workers—can yield something colorful and gladsome. I know that being with people can be imperfect (!) but the scene Grandma Moses crafts here stirs within me the desire to find the realistic goodness of working together.
And that heralds the second lesson—the happiness of work. In Grandma Moses’ essay “Work and Happiness,” written when she was 95, she wrote about how work brings life—a way to, literally with the hands, solve the harder questions of being. This vision of work is not a doing that distracts from the heart, but a doing that gives purpose and zest to the blood pumping through the heart. Again, we all know how work carries painful stress for the body and the mind, but again, this painting of people tapping trees, banking fires, and carrying buckets stirs within me the desire to find the realistic goodness, the gift in the mess, of work.
And then there’s the third lesson, a potential by-product of home-making work: the crafting of emotional coziness. In so many of her paintings—Baking Bread, A Tramp on Christmas Day, Candle Dip Day in 1800, Apple Butter Making—what exudes from the colors and compositions; the rendering of wood and fabric and flame and food; the portrayals of natural beauty and domestic craftsmanship—is a vision of creating something homey, building sites of belonging, warmth, and care.
So unfolds the last lesson. It’s the call to look after neighbor, defined in the fullest Gospel sense—the person or people who are other, strange, to us. In one way, Grandma Moses’ paintings offer scenes of a homogenous New England world, but in another way, what resounds is an imperative to look after our stranger-neighbor. This lesson comes from the heart of the best folk art, the egalitarian clarion call: for the people by the people. The paintings couldn’t have happened without the real-life community that Grandma Moses was part of. Our own versions of community, work, and coziness can so easily become myopic iterations of self-contentment (I know this because my own heart leans this way, without courage or grace to help it)—if they are not somehow turned outward as well as inward, determined to be living and involved responses to real people also alive in this year around the sun, 2017.