This article originally appeared in the Winter 2011 issue of Cape May Magazine
Artists paint pictures with brushes and poets paint pictures with words. The desired result is the same – to transcend, to stir the heart and soul and mark the memory.
It’s been 11 years since beloved Cape May artist Alice Steer Wilson last picked up her brush. She died July 22, 2001. But Alice lives with us still in her watercolors depicting Cape May architecture and in seascapes basking in sea light.
Alice’s daughter Janice Wilson Stridick is an artist as well, a poet; putting pen to paper words that evoke emotions, beckon memory, create music, leave a lasting impression. Janice follows the art form of her grandmother Margery Wells Steer, a poet.
The three generations gathered frequently, each creating her impressions on paper, at the Wilson family home, an 1850s gingerbread cottage on Congress Street, a block from the beach and across from Congress Hall.
Surely they all loved summer. Many of us remember Alice perched on her stool along the seawall or on a street corner, painting a favorite Victorian. An endearing quality of Alice – she would say hi, glance up from her palette and chat, allowing a look at what was taking shape on her easel. Janice, the wordsmith, needs but a pen to jot on an index card or journal inspiration from a swim, a sunrise, a face. Grandmother Margery picked her words from the salty air while musing on the front porch. “What I have been investigating as a poet, a writer,” says Janice, “is this idea of women and art and creating identities through what we make.”
They all shared a secret. They loved Cape May in winter when the throngs are gone and the sea light softens and the surf pounds louder.
The View in Winter is a book of poems written by Grandmother Margery during “the winter of her life,” when she was 92. In the foreword, thanking daughter Alice for watercolor illustrations and granddaughter Janice for editing, she writes:
Winter..that quiet time of deep snows and warm fires…dreaming of things past and things to come. A time of waiting for another spring.
Alice’s winter watercolors are not as prolific or well known as her summer art. She and husband Fred spent winters in Cape May after he retired in 1985. They added heat and hosted family Christmases at the cottage. By then their four children, Janice, Deb, Kate and Jim, were adults and the pile of presents and the dinner table grew larger with spouses and grandchildren. “Mom loved Cape May in winter especially when it snowed,” says Janice. She painted views from her front porch – snowy Congress Hall and Congress Place, and tidy bungalows at Lafayette Street that have been torn down and replaced by mansions.
“Mother came to Cape May before it was discovered, before it became a Historic Landmark, and she adored it,” says Janice. “Winter, I think, reminded her of the Cape May she knew in the 70s, a neglected historic village, a beautiful, fragile, somewhat ephemeral place. And the light, the light is legendary, and then you have the art of this natural landscape which is beyond compare.
“When she was coming to Cape May in the 70s, the village was just waking up commercially. There were young people starting businesses and restoring Victorians.” They were the age of her children and invigorated Alice, who painted the Mainstay, the Abbey, the Queen Victoria as they transformed from battered white elephants into colorful, elegant B&Bs.
“Mother was an avid preservationist as I still am,” says Janice “Part of her motivation to paint the historic buildings was to preserve them. The Windsor [1879 and designed by Stephen Decatur Button] was at the end of our street, and we loved it.” Alice painted the Windsor many times and her watercolors are cherished images of the rambling old hotel which was destroyed. It burned to the ground in a wind-whipped fire in 1980.
Alice and Cape May flourished together. She painted from life, plein air, seldom using photographs. In many ways, her interpretations of Cape May’s Victorians helped brand the city in the 1980s as the renaissance place to be. Her brush caught the passion, the energy, the synergy of that time of brilliant renewal.
She was the first Cape May artist to display her watercolors in one-woman shows at the Chalfonte Hotel’s Magnolia Room. Her show receptions became a Labor Day ritual over a decade with a growing collector base that was enhanced by Janice’s marketing skills. In the final year Alice’s painting partner, Virginia Tabor, joined the show. The two traditional artists studied together at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, both mothers with teenage children, in the revolutionary 60s, when pop art ruled. Virginia was inspired by Alice’s passion. “She took her paint box with her on her honeymoon!”
Alice started painting young, in oil. Daughter Janice has a small oil of the farm house where Alice grew up at Sunnyslope, North Lima, Ohio. The house is history, but the farm fields remain. Alice’s children remember visits. “Doting grandparents, wonderful fresh farm food, scores of animals, being read to, picnics with friends,” says Janice. “All four of us loved the farm, and Ohio.”
There’s another small oil of a house on Long Island where lucky farm girl Alice spent summers on North Fork, a thin finger of land offering beautiful views of Long Island Sound. Vineyards, apple orchards, potato fields flourish there. Alice’s girlhood landscapes of farm and sea came together in Cape May, which provides both.
Daughter Janice, in the months after her mother’s death, set about a project she vowed to finish in a year. She would produce a catalog of her mother’s work—from the beginning: those little oils to her early efforts at being a classical portrait painter to her blossoming into a prolific award- winning, sought- after watercolorist in Cape May. After the catalog was finished, Janice reasoned, she would organize a museum retrospective of her mother’s body of work –and ultimately wrap it up in a book about Alice Steer Wilson’s legacy as an artist.
The catalog project was much more daunting than Janice imagined. She is still working on it. She has computer-catalogued 1,200 paintings and has images of 1,000 She believes there may be another 800 yet to be located. The project is painstaking and expensive in time and production. She needs to find each painting, borrow it from the owner, have it scanned, reframed and returned to the collector–all the while keeping up with technology that allows excellent image reproduction.
“This is fascinating detective work,” says Janice. ”I have the heart of an archivist or curator. I became deeply fascinated with cataloging the work, learning more about my mother, the artist, in her notebooks, sketchbooks and journals. I learned more about her painting during the last year of her life, for her last Chalfonte show when
her cancer reemerged and took her.” The show went on without her and sold all but three paintings in the first 30 minutes.
Janice tells this favorite story: “Shortly after Alice died, a collector called to say he had discovered this message, handwritten and signed, on the back of this painting [Windsor in September, 1975] he was having reframed:
“In case my paintings are ever ‘discovered’ after I’m dead, this is my statement of what I was trying to do. I loved the appearance of things, light particularly, and tried to copy it as accurately as I could, leaving out what was boring and exaggerating what I liked. Why I loved certain sights better than others I never understood, and neither do the people who are explaining it to you now.”
The journey of discovery by Janice, the poet, continues. She has rediscovered her mother’s childhood summer place. The cabins her great-grandfather Horace Joshua Wells built in the 1930s still stand on a rise overlooking Long Island with stairs descending to the water. Janice and husband Paul joined with some kinfolk at Shady Dell this past September. She took with her the pencil drawing her great-Grandfather sketched designing a simple frame dwelling with wrap-around screen porch. A perfect place for inspiration and the book of poems Janice is writing titled UnfinishedDaughter.
Meantime in Cape May this season, the Wilson home on Congress Street continues to celebrate life. Father Fred Wilson had an 89th birthday with the family gathered around the big table, and Christmas and New Year’s are just around the corner.