GLBT Literature: Mary Ann Willson

Willson PaintingAbout Mary Ann Willson

(from The National Gallery of Art)

Mary Ann Willson – the American folk artist, active 1810/1825 – was unknown until 1943, when a New York art gallery discovered a portfolio of her drawings. She is now regarded as one of the earliest American watercolorists, along with Eunice Pinney of Connecticut.

An anonymous letter written in 1850 and signed by "an admirer of art" accompanied the drawings. It relates that Willson and a Miss Brundage moved to Greenville, New York, in about 1810. The two women pioneers built a log cabin, and while Brundage farmed the land, Willson painted pictures that she sold to nearby farmers. The letter claims that her watercolors were sold from Canada to Mobile, Alabama.

Willson used brightly colored paints made from berry juice, vegetable dyes, and brick dust. Untrained, she drew images from popular prints in a bold, simple style. Her series of scenes from the tale of the Prodigal Son illustrates a story popular among American settlers.

At the death of Brundage, Willson is said to have been inconsolable and to have disappeared shortly afterward. The last of her known works was completed in 1825.

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Willson PaintingAbout Isabel Miller

(excerpted from an article by Margaret Breen and Elsa A. Bruguier)

Isabel Miller was born Alma Routsong on November 26, 1924, in Traverse City, Michigan. She began college in 1942 and received an honors B.A. in art from Michigan State University in 1949. In the interim, she served two years in the U.S. Navy and married Bruce Brodie, with whom she remained fifteen years. Routsong, who came out under the pen name Isabel Miller, a combination of an anagram for "lesbia" and her mother's birth name, is a lesbian fiction writer, whose works explore, often across class divides, relationships among women.

Although Routsong published two novels under her own name...in the 1950s, her best-known work is Patience and Sarah [originally entitled A Place for Us], with which she introduced herself as a lesbian writer using the pseudonym Isabel Miller. Completed in 1967 and printed two years later in a 1,000-copy Bleeker Street edition that Miller financed herself, the novel was first sold on Village street corners and at meetings of the New York chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis. In 1971, it received the American Library Association's first annual Gay Book Award. McGraw-Hill's release of the novel as Patience and Sarah one year later brought it to mainstream bookstores across the country.

Inspired by the companionship of Mary Ann Willson and Miss Brundidge, who lived in Greene County, New York, in the 1820s, Patience and Sarah is a historical romance, which typically celebrates the present by projecting its prohibitions and desires onto an idealized past. A literary touchstone for the activism of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Patience and Sarah recounts the joyous trials of saucy, educated painter Patience White and cross-dressing farmer Sarah Dowling, who leave their native Connecticut in order to set up house together in upstate New York. There they tackle the conflict between conventional gender and sex prescriptions and unconventional behavior: Greene County becomes their green world. [You can learn more about Isabel Miller's life and works at the glbtq encyclopedia.]

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Willson PaintingIsabel Miller on Mary Ann Willson & Patience and Sarah

Excerpt from Isabel Miller interview (January 20, 1975) in Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A., edited by Jonathan Katz

Jonathan Katz [interviewing the author ]: Can you describe how you came to write Patience and Sarah?

Alma Routsong ("Isabel Miller"): My lover and I were touring New York State and were visiting the folk art museum at Cooperstown. I was wandering through it, not really concentrating on anything, when my lover said: "Psst, psst! and called me back, pointing to this picture of a mermaid by Mary Ann Willson. There was a card beside it that said Miss Willson and her "farmerette" companion lived and worked together in Greenville Town, Greene County, New York, circa I820. Then we went into the next room – a small library – and found a book by Lipman and Winchester, called Primitive Painters in America, with a short piece about Mary Ann Willson. It said that she and Miss Brundidge had a "romantic attachment." I was absolutely taken by it. I didn't want to travel any more. I didn't want to see Harriet Tubman's bed. I wanted to go home and research Willson and Brundidge, find out all about them, and write a book about them. I spent about a year going to the library, trying to find out about them. I looked up all the Willsons and all the Brundidges in the Forty-second Street geneological library. It's a great library, but it didn't have anything about them.

J.K.: Did you also research that time period?

A.R.: I read everything I could find. It was very frustrating. I tried to read some of the fiction from the time, too – James Fenimore Cooper. God, he was awful!

J.K.: Did you read any personal narratives of women?

A.R.: I couldn't find any that included erotic relations with other women....

Excerpt from the 1969 Afterward to Patience and Sarah

Not much is left of [Mary Ann Willson and Miss Brundidge]. Even their hill – still called Brundage – is partly gone, bulldozed for road mprovment. I couldn't find them in any Greene County census, or in the records of land transaction in the Catskill courthouse.

Still, something is left. The bright, playful watercolors are left. And [through a few scattered records] we know about their "romantic attachment" to each other, their quiet peaceful life, the respect and help of their neighbors, their dooryard full of flowers, their plowing and haying, their cow, the improvised paints – berries and brick dust – the paintings sold for twenty-five cents to neighbors or bartered to peddlers who carried them all over eastern Northern America, from Canada to Mobile. And we know our own response. We are provoked to tender dreams by a hint. Any stone from their hill is a crystal ball.

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Willson PaintingAdditional Resources

National Gallery of Art – features these additional works by Willson:

"American Folk" Exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston – this brief overview of American Folk Art allows you to see Willson in a broader context (article is from the online Journal of Antiques and Collectibles).

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