Flowers, felines served as artist's secret muses
Published 4:33 pm, Thursday, November 11, 2010
The Dearborn family moved into the antique, Second Empire-style Victorian Georgian house at 46 Wright Street in Westport in 1960. It was there that Gabrielle "Gay" Dearborn raised her two children, tended to her lush English garden and prolifically produced a body of artwork that ranges in media and subject matter.
"She experimented in all kinds of mediums. She didn't stick to just one," said Karen Gersch, who is married to Dearborn's son, Josiah.
Gay Dearborn used watercolors, pastels, oils, pencils, graphite, and ink. She made collages, used papier mache and tried printmaking. For nearly 50 years, Dearborn's garden and artwork flourished, almost completely unnoticed by the outside world but for an occasional entry in a Silvermine Art Center show.
"She was humble and shy so her art was sequestered in her studio," Gersch said.
In 2008, her talent was discovered by Susan Gold, executive director of the Westport Historical Society. Gold brought Dearborn to the attention of Ellen Naftalin and Mollie Donovan, co-curators of historical society exhibits.
"We went over to see what she had done and we just couldn't believe she had escaped notice," Donovan said. "Here she was in the center of Westport and had escaped being known. Her work was just charming. ... She was so vibrant for 90."
Naftalin and Donovan put together a retrospective of Dearborn's paintings and drawings at the historical society in 2008, "and it was a smash," Donovan said.
Dearborn died last March just shy of her 94th birthday. Her beloved home and garden are on the market, but the memories of her life there will linger through her oil paintings, pencil sketches and charcoal drawings; an artistic legacy that her son and daughter-in-law are working to preserve.
After Dearborn's death, Gersch spent almost four months organizing and archiving Gay's artwork. Some of it was in plain view, hanging on the walls of almost every room throughout her house. Others were stored on a huge wooden shelf in flat files five feet high.
"I had no idea of the volume or diversity of what she had done. It's a phenomenal body of work," Gersch said.
Two of Dearborn's works are included in the current New Canaan Society for the Arts juried show of agriculturally-themed artwork at the Carriage Barn in Waveny Park. The opening reception will be Sunday from 4 to 6 p.m., and the show continues through December 12.
The first of Dearborn's pieces is a painting titled "Farm Kitchen."
"It's her kitchen. It's the way we remember her kitchen. It's beautifully detailed," Gersch said.
The other is a large charcoal drawing of bok choy, a Chinese vegetable.
"She loved drawing fruits and vegetables and flowers," Gersch said.
Jo Dearborn said his mother was always planning her garden.
"It was really quite a project," he said.
"She gave the garden as much thought and study as her paintings. It was really an extension of her artistic sensitivity," Gersch said.
At one point, Dearborn transformed what had been her art studio, the parlor of her house, into a greenhouse for her light garden.
"It was like a nursery. In the fall and winter she had these little things growing there from seed. It was remarkable to see these things growing and blooming," Gersch said
Dearborn also loved capturing on paper and canvases her menagerie, which included parrots, turtles, a monkey, raccoon, dogs and dozens of cats.
"She was an animal lover to the nth degree," Gersch said.
She kept a list of the felines she owned throughout her life, from Commodore Winks, which she had in the early 1930s in England, to Tompkins that Jo Dearborn and Gersch adopted after Gay's death.
"If she saw the cat in a wonderful pose she would grab whatever was nearby, the back of an envelope, and draw," Gersch said.
Those scraps of paper posed a problem for Gersch as she tried to catalogue all of Dearborn's works through the five decades she lived in the Wright Street house. It required she methodically go through books, magazines and old gardening catalogues from the 1960s, because Dearborn had used so many of her tiny sketches as page markers.
"Little drawings would fall at my feet," Gersch said.
Jo Dearborn called them "archaeological layers."
"A lot of her artwork was about things that happened around her house and in her yard: A tree she especially loved, flowers blooming in her garden, tulips as they stood in her yard," Donovan said.
Dearborn was also known to drive around Westport and the surrounding communities and draw familiar scenes and landmarks.
"I could do an entire show of her work on flowers, an entire show on local sites, an entire show on vegetables, on animals," Gersch said.
"That's the first thing you feel," said Saxe, who will host an open house at Dearborn's home on Thursday, Nov. 18 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.