Wednesday, January 19, 2011

caroline washburn wells

this is the story of my great-grandmother, caroline washburn wells.

my great-aunt virginia told me this story two summers ago, so i don't have all of the details, but i hope it's true enough, because i love this story. the story is this: all my life, growing up on mt. riga, and at home in brewster, there were dozens of paintings hung on the walls of every cabin, and they were done by my great-grandmother. all my life i have been surrounded by them. beautiful paintings, some portraits of the family, but many more of the mountain itself, sweeping landscapes of the fields, glimpses of the still lake through a netting of curved tree branches, vivid flowers, and one of my favorites which hangs on my wall: her own cabin, with the famous "h. h. wells" sign displayed proudly in front. she liked to sign these with her name in block letters, or else, which i liked much better, with her initials layered on top of each other in boxy lettering: two big "C"s on top of an even bigger "W." it was an impressive statement.

these have been so much a part of the fabric of my childhood and of the mountain, that i always just assumed that they had been done over a half-century, part of a longtime legacy of mrs. caroline washburn wells. well, they were not.

my great-aunt virginia says this: great-grandmother never painted until the last part of her life. she never knew, in fact, that she could paint. when caroline was growing up, she had a sister who was the artist of the family, whom i believe went to an art school in fact (this sister is the one who married into the lippencott branch of the family, if i'm not mistaken–can anyone verify?). caroline did not go to art school, and did not think she could paint.

well, she was married to my great-grandfather, henry hubbard wells I and they had six children and they lived in brewster in the big casino house at the top of wells street. then at some point in her life, she went through a mental collapse, and went to whatever they called mental health clinics in those days. and it was there that she decided to take an art class. from that, the paintings just poured out of her. landscapes, still lifes, portraits, everything. she also did beautiful pottery, i believe, but i don't know when that began. but the point is, at that moment in her life when she probably felt like she had nothing left going for her, she discovered this amazing capacity for creation. so much so that the art she created was so prolific that someone of my generation felt it had been there all along.

i find it incredible that even through all of her anxiety and suffering, these images were inside her all the time, perhaps struggling to find a way out. we think we know ourselves fully, but her story reminds us that we only begin to understand the scope of our own potential.

so that is the story of my great-grandmother. if anyone knows any more about her, or about this story, please share with me so i can correct/add on to it.

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