‘All along the meadow where the cows grazed and the horses ran’
By Steven Hoffman
By Caroline Roosevelt
I recently met with my mother Frances Roosevelt at her Union Street Gallery in Kennett Square. It was a sunny day, and she wore a white blouse, grey trousers, black pumps and a chunky gold statement necklace.
I was there to interview her for this magazine.
Although many of the shops in town have recently reopened as Chester County has flipped its phases from red to yellow, the gallery’s hours remain by appointment only. I knocked on the door and my mother opened it. She then unlocked the door, let me in, and locked the door behind me. We conducted the interview with masks on.
While the economy sputters, and as the world has slowed to a snails’ pace, the artist Frances Roosevelt has sold more art in the last three months than when she was holding regular shop hours. “I’ve even sold a few paintings to people who have noticed my work while stopped at the traffic light on State and Union,” she chuckled.
It’s no surprise to me. My mother is a paradox, a hustler -- a force -- who nonetheless operates in the dark and in solitude, and the climate she has created for herself has always been this way.
When I was growing up, I sensed in my mother an energy, a warmth and a color, all tucked within a shell of darkness surrounding her. Quite literally. As a young child, I remember the angle of my bed was such that I could peer past the darkness of my bedroom into her office.
After my mother turned out the lights, I would crane my neck to catch a glimpse of her working in the office. It was that of movement, of the sepia light pouring from her desk lamp and reflecting off infinite wings of canary paper. I hated bedtime. I hated the dark. I hated the void. I wanted to be there in the room with her, in the world of Still Doing Things.
* * * *
I do not know if my mothers’ trajectory as an artist was by design, exactly, but it wasn’t by coincidence.
Frances Roosevelt (nee Humphreys) grew up in Charleston, S.C. in the pedestrian and now very posh part of the old colonial residential area. The neighborhoods didn’t hold that status during her childhood, and she describes her socio-economic childhood as very middle class. The youngest of three siblings, she entertained herself in a quiet house, with parents who were exhausted from having already raised two other children a decade earlier. I asked her if she was encouraged to draw or paint when she was a little girl. She laughed.
“Not really from Mom and Dad, but I loved to draw,” she said. “I was alone a lot, and would draw my cat. I won first prize in an art show in first grade for ‘Kiki on a Blanket’!”
She lived down the street from her grandmother, Trudy, who provided my mother with love and attention otherwise lacking in her sterile home. Trudy really loved me, my mother reminds my siblings and me, and describes Trudy as the maternal energy she never received from her own mother. To this day, my mother still reminisces about Trudy during our Sunday dinners, and warmly retells the same story, the only story of Trudy that she has since we were born.
“When I had [my younger sister] Anna, I remember looking into her crib while she was sleeping, and I felt a presence over my shoulder,” she said. “I knew it was Trudy. She wanted to see the baby.”
After majoring in Art and English at the University of Virginia, Frances went on to graduate school to study architecture at Yale University.
“I had to major in English for my dad to agree to the art,” she said. After graduation, she was urged, again at the behest of her father, to consider attending law school. Her mother famously chimed in that she should take some typing classes to become a secretary.
Frances followed the advice of neither. “I needed a steady income, so I chose architecture,” she said.
After receiving awards for her designs in graduate school and working for Robert Venturi (one of the most influential architects of the twentieth century), she spent several years working for award-winning residential architect Lyman Perry on the Main Line.
When I was an infant, she’d bring me to her office and put me in a bassinet under her desk, and by the time I was in kindergarten, she had started pulling back from her career, and was working as a contract architect. These were the nights of canary paper, of paper 3-D models, of protractors and exacto knives that I remember.
We volleyed back and forth with memories of that old office, and the 3-D renderings of her designs, which always included a couple of humans holding hands (for scale), in which the cutout man always wore a hat, slightly tilted. Each rendering of this couple was created with care and precision. I assumed these served as a representation of her parents.
When I was a child, I used to look at this couple, and in particular, the man in the hat, and wonder what childhood was like for my mother. Having the opportunity to interview her for a magazine article wasn’t an option at six years old, but as we continued to talk, I began to develop a sympathetic narrative for her. Her parents were quiet.
They were quiet as grandparents, too.
* * * *
My mother told me that she likes to lay out her compositions first, “and then, Splash!” she said. As cars drove past my mother’s gallery along Union Street, they reflected the sun back into the studio and danced along the walls orange and golden dashes – colors so emblematic of my mother’s paintings. All through the interview, a ‘light in the darkness’ theme kept reverberating in my head, and I saw the splash -- the orange light dancing along the walls, like the light bouncing off the canary paper of her night office, like the solitary light from her studio surrounded by the crisp winter darkness.
Frances Roosevelt’s humility is both charming and infuriating. When I asked her about her gallery, she told me that she didn’t really plan to have a gallery, but that its purpose is to serve as a casual little destination for the art enthusiasts of Chester County and beyond, as well as the culmination of years of work, of illumination in the darkness, of quiet, frenetic movement eventually conceptualized on canvas and splashed upon the intersection of State and Union, in a way my mother will never admit.
Squeezing out the details of Frances’ artistic process felt forced, almost painful, and even a quiet interview in her own gallery with only her daughter there asking questions was too much of a spotlight placed on her. When I asked her about her style, she stared off. I saw her eyes flit back and forth, wordsmithing the response in her head before even parting her lips.
“I’m of two minds when I paint,” she said. “I like to paint from memory, but then I have to supplement that with the totally abstract and goofy. It keeps me from getting too realistic. I love photography and photo realism, but it’s not what I want to do as a painter. Mood is important to me, and generally the mood is created with color.”
In her work, Frances focuses primarily on the abstract landscapes of Chester County or the Lowlands of South Carolina, usually creating a definitive horizon line around which vibrant strokes of periwinkle, gold, and tangerines swirl. She goes on to mention her favorite painters, Helen Frankenthaler, Henri Matisse, Richard Diebenkorn (a map maker and evidently a darling among art-interested architects). I asked her for one outlier who doesn’t necessarily appear as a strong influence on her work.
“The Pre-Raphaelites,” she said.
I tugged at her with another question.
“You know, people love hearing about the process -- about what artists do when they paint,” I said. “They love hearing how it is you get into that comatose state of mind that allows you to hyper-fixate on a canvas for five hours. So how do you create your environment?”
“It’s embarrassing,” she said. “I listen to Simon and Garfunkel’s The Concert in Central Park album over and over again until I don’t even hear the music. I also love Mark Knopfler.”
* * * *
About 20 years ago, my mother, at her wits end with me as a hellish teenager, designed a studio for herself on the property of the family home near Kennett Square. It’s a simple one-room “shed” with a lofted ceiling, exposed beams, and a giant window facing the pasture that runs adjacent to the property my parents still live on.
From this small space, this is where the first 20 years of paintings were made, that later stacked up feverishly in the basement and the guest rooms and crawled along the walls of the first floor. Once she had that studio, I noticed a change in her.
It was as if she had learned how to breathe again.
“A lot of times I will sit in my studio and look at books of painters I admire,” she said. “I have my studio set over the landscape with the bird feeders. I like to sit and have nature go through the editing of my mind and then onto paper. I don’t like recreating what I see on the spot.
“It’s a very private thing for me. I could never do a workshop. I like being alone in my studio. Especially in the winter.”
To this day, no one except for the poodle is allowed in that studio.
The library at my parents’ house is loaded to the ceiling with books dissecting the Gospel of Thomas, or the study of the early mystics, theories on life after death, and the intersection of Science and Faith. Art books take up most of the rest of the library real estate and they can also be found squirreled away in her studio stacked in neat little piles on the floor.
One of my favorite bedtime stories as a child was Leo Lionni’s “Frederick.” I knew the story well and while I remember my father reading a lot of our bedtime stories as children, I only hear Leo Lionni’s “Frederick” in my mother’s soft voice.
All along the meadow where the cows grazed and the horses ran, there was an old stone wall, it began.
Illustrated in a minimalist assemblage style on the page, “Frederick” followed a family of field mice. One mouse in particular, was the source of constant criticism for sitting too still. Instead of storing food for the winter, he would close his eyes and soak in the colors of summer.
Upon the arrival of winter, when all the mice had hunkered down for their hibernation, Frederick wowed them with vivid descriptions of color, warmth, summer that he had soaked in and “stored” for the winter. It’s a beautiful story, and one that my mother loved to read to us, specifically.
I then asked my mother what the “a-ha” moment was for her as an artist, when she knew for the first time that she wanted to take her painting seriously. Frances perked up in her chair, and as though the words were waiting anxiously in the wings, she recounted the exact moment.
“[Local artist] Stan Smokler and Madeline were over for dinner about 15 years ago,” she said. “I had a tiny abstract sketch that I liked and I popped it into a frame I already had and put it on one of the bookshelves. Stan noticed it and said, ‘I really like this. Nobody does this anymore.’ “That’s when I got excited again and that was the first year I participated in the barn show on (Peter) Welling’s property.”
I then asked Frances what she wanted to bring to Kennett Square.
“Well, before COVID, I was planning to work with Kennett High School and put on a show for a student each year,” she said. “I still hope to do that once this passes…I love this community. I just like being here. I grew up in a town where everyone walked around everywhere. I like being tucked away from everything but still right around the corner from the main street. It fits my personality that I’m tucked away.”
I wrapped up the interview and pulled my purse over my shoulder. We had been sitting still for a long time. She stood up and brushed the wrinkles out of her pants as we both started towards the door of the gallery.
“It’s like Frederick the Mouse,” I chuckled as I looked at the floor and looked back at her.
“Like Frederick the Mouse,” she responded.
I saw my mother’s eyes squint, and I knew she was smiling under her mask.