Alice Grace used a jig saw to help make the huge mask that hangs outside her studio at the Collingwood Arts Center.
In the small painting called Southern Girl, an adolescent sits on a quaint brick wall underscored with a ribbon of grass. Her dress is soft blue, her slender legs are crossed at the ankle, her broad umbrella is protection against the scorching Louisiana sun.
"I remember that dress," said Alice Grace. "And it's about me waiting for a bus to go baby-sit down in the white neighborhood."
A self-taught artist, Grace, 65, has learned a bit of magic about art: that the past can be re-imagined. Truth be told, 50-some years ago, young Alice would have waited for the bus on a broken-down bench surrounded by dirty, dusty ground.
"In some of these things, I take away the negative and make it the way I think it should look like," she said.
Compact with close-cropped gray-and-white hair and a welcoming demeanor, Grace will be celebrated Saturday at a noon reception for an exhibit of her work at the RRT Images Gallery of Art in Sylvania.
She explains a cheerful painting of a winding country road; gentle trees are beautiful blue, red, pink, and green. Long ago, walking home from school on that stretch of road meant confronting dreaded caterpillars that dangled from trees and dropped on passersby.
"That's not fearful anymore," she said. "You can get rid of your fears. Paint them."
A canvas of a small home, laundry drying on the line outside, recalls her hand-washing the 12-member family's clothing. Sure it was hard. "It had a way of molding, making me the person I am."
Her continuing education consists of countless hours poring over art books and weekly library trips. She loves Chagall, Van Gogh, Monet, and Romare Bearden.
She's tried still lifes and cubist styles and bought herself a jig saw to make wooden objects such as the huge mask, painted golden and hammered with a nail design that hangs in the hallway outside her studio.
Some of Grace's work can be described as folk art because she uses traditional forms and incorporates social values. Family is a strong theme, as noted in Daughters of Ephraim, a scene of her hatted aunts and her father scraping at a new field with hoes. "My father said he wanted something different for us. He did not want his daughters working in the field."
He worked on farms, her mother worked as a domestic. Grace was the oldest girl of 10 children, living outside of Baton Rouge.
She and her oldest brother, John, loved to draw and talk about it. Her first commissions came from classmates: drawing their school projects, perhaps a map of Louisiana parishes or a tree to show scale.
"Why not? I needed the money," she said.
Her older brother ran the household, but when he joined the army at 18, it fell to her to make sure the seven younger kids were clean, fed, and off to school. By her early twenties, she was married with three children of her own.
"I left Louisiana. I didn't want to live and die in the same place." In 1971, the family moved to Toledo, where her cousin, Norman Bell, father of Toledo's former fire chief, Michael Bell, lives.
After rearing her children, she took up art, starting with transfers on T-shirts she sold at shows with her younger son. Then, she painted 50 greeting cards, with oil and watercolor scenes of flowers, animals, and birds and sold them all.
"That was my turning point. I knew I had something I can offer people."
She started making cookie jars from a ceramic mold and painting them. They sold well at craft shows and by word of mouth for $25. One, in her tidy, wooden-floored studio at the Collingwood Art Center, shows a little girl, a pole resting on her shoulder, going fishing.
She decided to attempt painting on canvases and created a stylized man playing a guitar. "My dad always played guitar. He was a blues guy."
She experimented with chalk, then acrylics.
"Ideas come in my head and I paint them," she said. "I like a lot of movement."
Several paintings depict women dancing, all curves and celebration. She didn't dance as a girl but wore out many pairs of shoes in more recent years dancing three nights a week at singles events.
Grace works part time as a unit clerk in a nursing home and in her studio for up to four hours a day, four days a week. Sometimes her 7-year-old grandson, Tyson Harris, joins her, laying on a carpet, painting along with her.
At Grace's easel, a portrait of woman and child is in the works. "I'm trying to achieve the proper shadowing, to give it a real portrait look."
A reception for the exhibit of paintings by Alice Grace will be noon to 4 p.m. Saturday, in RRT Images Gallery of Art, 6423 Monroe St., Sylvania. The exhibit continues through May. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday-Friday. Information: 419-460-1343.
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