Portrait of a young painter

Oldcastle Theatre Company presents ‘Grandma Moses: An American Primitive’

By Joyell Nevins

Photo: Peter Langstaff and Christine Decker perform in “Grandma Moses: An American Primitive” Dec. 3-6 at Dayton Art Institute

Anna Mary Robertson Moses, known as “Grandma Moses” to the world, didn’t begin painting until her late 70s. She was a self-taught painter who continued to exhibit scenes of rural and farm life until she died at 101.
That alone makes her fascinating, but she lived a full life up until then. The Dayton Art Institute and Oldcastle Theatre Company, with additional support from Jessup Wealth Management, want to give a complete picture of Moses through the exhibition American Sampler: Grandma Moses and the Handicraft Tradition and play “Grandma Moses: An American Primitive.”
“Even if she didn’t become famous as an artist, the life that she lived is pretty remarkable and fascinating,” Eric Peterson says. Peterson is the artistic director and one of the founding members of Oldcastle Theatre Company, based out of Bennington, Vermont.
Bennington borders the village where Moses lived during her later years, Hoosick Falls, New York. Since Oldcastle likes to do shows that have a regional connection, Peterson thought “American Primitive” would be a perfect fit. The show is told in two acts: Act I is Grandma Moses in her 40s, and Act II is her in her 90s. Both acts use flashbacks as Grandma Moses recalls different stories from her life and how those weaved into her artwork.
“The play shares her joys and heartbreaks and how they influenced her art,” DAI Director Michael Roediger says.
Both players in the show have a connection to the famous artist. Christine Decker plays Grandma Moses. Decker’s mother, also an artist, had once visited Grandma Moses.
Peter Langstaff, who plays all eight male characters in the show, actually sat on Grandma Moses’s lap when he was 3-years-old. There was a special event going on, and she was helping with the children. And Peterson, who directs the play, also is married to a woman who went to school with Grandma Moses’s grandchildren.
Moses was born in 1860 as the third of 10 children and left home at age 12 to work as a “hired girl” on a neighboring farm. She married at age 27 to a “hired man” on the farm where she was employed. They farmed their own land in Virginia and then back in New York and had 10 children (five of whom died in infancy).
After the children had grown and her husband died of a heart attack, Moses refused to mope or lay around. According to the Galerie St. Etienne, Grandma Moses would later joke, “If I didn’t start painting, I would have raised chickens.”
In 1932, Moses went to Bennington to take care of her daughter Anna, who was suffering from tuberculosis. Anna showed her mother an embroidered picture and challenged her to duplicate it.
Moses began embroidering pictures and giving them away (you can see some of her embroidered handiwork at the DAI exhibition). When she complained that arthritis was making it hard to hold a needle, her sister Celestia suggested she paint instead. Her paintings were given to friends, entered in county fairs and used in a women’s exchange at a local drugstore.
Then in 1938, a New York City art collector and water engineer named Louis Calder happened to see her paintings in the drugstore window. He bought the lot, got Moses’s name and address and once he met her in person, told her he could make her famous. And that was the beginning of a new era of her life—at 78 years old.
“She had a remarkable attitude that kept her alive and working and creating,” Peterson says. “For those of us who are gaining in age, it’s a wonderful thing to contemplate.”
Her attitude of verve and persistence was what it took Peterson to get the play. “American Primitive” was written by Stephen L. Pouliot and toured the country in the early 1990s with Cloris Leachman in the starring role.
Peterson remembered the show when it was on tour but discovered the play had never been published. He called a friend of his in New York, a former agent who he says “seems to know everybody in the business,” and she was able to track Pouliot down.
However, Pouliot did not have a copy of his own script. He had written it by hand, before computers were common household items, and the only copy was in Banner Productions, the company that produced the play and was considering it for television at one point.
So, Peterson began contacting Banner Productions to get ahold of the script. After about eight months of calling and emailing on a regular basis, the head of the company, Bob Banner, passed away. His son took over the business, and while staff was cleaning out old files, they found the script.
Once the script was in Peterson’s hands, the next step was to get Pouliot’s permission. So the writer from California ended up having dinner with four members of the Oldcastle Company and watching their show “Night in Her Stars.”
“Afterwards, he told us he was ‘just entranced’ by the play,” Peterson recalls.
Pouliot was so impressed he even offered to let Oldcastle perform “American Primitive” royalty-free. The play was met with great enthusiasm from the local community. Several of Moses’ relatives came to see the show and told Peterson that Decker was the “best they had ever seen” portray her. Peterson brags about both of the actors’ ability to change characters and ages throughout the show.
“American Primitive” finished its run in Vermont in November 2013. When DAI chose Grandma Moses as an exhibition subject, Roediger remembered working with the Victoria Theatre Association when the original tour of “American Primitive” with Leachman came to Dayton. He thought it could “bring more context to the Grandma Moses exhibition.”
“It was an amazing show that I have always remembered,” Roediger says. “What stuck out to me was that it was such a heartwarming and inspiring story that gave great insight to the artist’s life.”

“Grandma Moses: An American Primitive” will be 8 p.m. Dec. 3 and 4 (with a special dinner menu at Leo Bistro on Dec. 3), and 2 p.m. Dec. 5 and 6 at the Dayton Art Institute, 456 Belmonte Park North. Tickets are $30 for adults and $26 for seniors. For more information or to purchase tickets, please call 937.223.4278 or visit daytonartinstitute.org.

Joyell Nevins believes in the power of the written word, a good cup of coffee, and sometimes, the need for a hug (please, no Tommy Boy references). Follow her on her blog “Small World, Big God” at swbgblog.wordpress.com or reach her at joyellnevins@daytoncitypaper.com.

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Joyell believes in the power of the written word, a good cup of coffee, and sometimes, the need for a hug (please, no Tommy Boy references). Follow her on her blog “Small World, Big God” at swbgblog.wordpress.com or reach her at joyellnevins@daytoncitypaper.com

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