As KU exhibit features Grandma Layton drawings, a personal reminiscence of discovering her gift

photo by: Contributed

Don Lambert, who had a long friendship with Elizabeth Layton, is pictured with the artist, who died in 1993.

Although it was 44 years ago, it seems like yesterday that I discovered Grandma Layton. She was a 68-year-old depressed housewife from Wellsville who had just completed her first and only art course at Ottawa University. I was a 27-year-old newspaper reporter in Ottawa, always looking for something new to write about. We were an unlikely duo, but we shared a cause: to bring her art and messages of hope and understanding to public attention.

Popularly known as Grandma Layton, Elizabeth Layton would do more than a thousand self-portrait drawings in the 15-year art career that ended with her death in 1993. She drew the “The Golden Rule,” with a rainbow behind her, symbolizing marriage and marriage equality. She drew herself as the “Winged Victory” (in the collection of the National Museum of Women in the Arts), having sprouted arms and a head to become complete. She drew herself on the brink of death, kept alive by tubes, plugs and respirators in “Pulling the Plug.” I managed to get her drawings exhibited in 200 museums across the country, including the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, and to get her covered by Life, People, Parade, “Good Morning America” and National Public Radio.

Layton was born in 1909 in Wellsville. Her father owned the local newspaper, the Globe, and her mother wrote columns and poetry. Layton came from an educated background. Her sister graduated from Stanford, her brother from the Naval Academy. Her great aunt was one of the first women to graduate from the University of Kansas School of Journalism and became a book editor at the New York Times.

Bowing to pressure from her parents, Layton attended Ottawa University for two years, but her heart was elsewhere. She married a handsome young man from down the road. But she hadn’t been married long before she realized her parents were right: He drank too much and was “wild.” But by that time she was pregnant, and women’s choices were few. She remained married for 12 years. During that time, she had five children and at least that many miscarriages. Upon her father’s death, she packed up the kids and returned to Wellsville to run her father’s paper. It wasn’t easy. Her bouts with depression were becoming more frequent and deeper. But there was no place to turn for help. Some days she hid in the closet. She had a nervous breakdown and received 13 shock treatments. Even her new marriage to Glenn, a kindly widower, wasn’t enough to bring her up and out.

photo by: Contributed

“fear,” a self-portrait by Elizabeth Layton, is on display at KU’s Spencer Museum of Art.

When one of her children died in 1976, she sank to the bottom and could see no reason to live.

It was her sister in California who said, “Elizabeth, you have to do something with your life. Why don’t you do what I do — take an art class with the other blue-haired ladies. Maybe one or the other of us will become the next Grandma Moses.” Not able to find a painting class, she enrolled in drawing at Ottawa University. All of her fellow students were 19; she was 68. Her fellow students called her Grandma, and she signed her drawings that way. The instructor, Pal Wright, was teaching blind contour drawing wherein the artist looks at the object being drawn rather than at the paper. He suggested that the students find a mirror and draw themselves. She cringed at what she saw in the mirror. She was overweight and wrinkled. But, she realized, “I have all these wrinkles, I might as well draw them.”

When I was a senior at Concordia High School, my art teacher said that while I was not the best artist in his classes, he admired the way I looked at art, helping my fellow students make connections with the school and community. “That,” he said, “Is your talent, I hope you figure out a way to use it someday.”

During my time at the Ottawa Herald, I noticed there was no place for local artists to exhibit their work. I convinced the local librarian to devote one corner to that purpose. We called it The Corner Gallery.

One day the boss gave me an assignment to write yet another precede for the local college football team. Ugh. On the way, I stopped at the student union, hoping to pick up a story tip. In the union was a college freshman drawing exhibit. Again, ugh. But there were two drawings, the likes of which I had never seen before. They were of an old woman with big green eyes. I was mesmerized. These drawings were speaking to me, and I felt they would change my life.

A meeting was arranged at Layton’s home in Wellsville. She was afraid I could not find her because there were no house numbers in Wellsville. Everyone already knew where everyone else lived. So she found a bucket of black paint and identified the front of her home with a large 345. Inside that home were all of the trappings of any grandmother. Nowhere was her own art displayed. Her drawings were under the bed because she explained, “They are too ugly. No one would want to look at them.” I told her I thought they were beautiful. I left her house that day with 10 drawings in the back seat of my Volkswagen. I wrote the first story about her and arranged her first one-person exhibit at The Corner Gallery.

I was so strongly affected by Layton’s works (herself as Eve in the Garden of Eden, herself on a diet, herself in baby-doll pajamas) that sharing the work with the universe became my mission. One of the first places I went was the Spencer Museum of Art at KU. Elizabeth Broun, a graduate student, had started “Discovery Day,” during which she would look at people’s art and give her opinion. Remembering that day, Broun recounts, “I was completely unprepared when I saw Elizabeth Layton’s drawings for the first time as a young curator at the Spencer Art Museum. I was used to understanding artworks through the art historical categories I had been taught, but her art subverts those categories, so I was left with a more immediate encounter with the image. It was clear that Layton had a rare gift for transcribing personal experience into vivid form. I was hooked.”

photo by: Contributed

“Raggedy Ann and Andy” is a self-portrait by Elizabeth Layton on display at KU’s Spencer Museum of Art.

Some months later, as director of the Arts Council in Topeka, my art circles widened. The Kansas Arts Commission had started a new program in which it toured art works by Kansans. Layton’s work was the first tour and was an immediate success. Later the Mid-America Arts Alliance in Kansas City continued the touring exhibit nationally.

While Layton was achieving artistic success both locally and nationally, things were changing at home. She realized she was no longer depressed. It had all come out onto her paper. Drawing for 12 hours a day, she had cured herself.

In 1990 Broun, then director of the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, called me to say, “It’s time.” The Layton exhibit there drew rave reviews. The Washington Post called her “Grandma Moses on Tabasco Sauce.” New York Magazine called her a “genius.”

There were detractors when I tried to get her in “Modern Maturity,” the AARP magazine, which rejected her because she showed aging.

Not only did Layton show aging, but she celebrated it in complex self-portraits about capital punishment, women’s rights and civil liberties. Her portraits were about the nation. One example of the way she fused the personal with the universal was when the subject of AIDS came up with an old neighbor. The the neighbor said, “It seems to me those people deserve to die.” Layton had a friend, an artist from Lawrence who had told her he had AIDS. She didn’t think he deserved to die. Rather than confront the neighbor, she did a drawing, “Remembering NAMES” (in the collection of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art). She portrays herself with teary eyes as she works on a square for the AIDS quilt, embroidering: “They’re all our children now.” In other words, when you are a mother who has lost a child you understand what every mother goes through at a time like this.

As Layton told me many times, “My drawings don’t do any good if they are under the bed.” More than 100 of her drawings have found a home at museums across the country, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the American Folk Art Museum in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, and many others.

I visited Layton every week for 15 years. We’d chit-chat in her living room before going upstairs to the spare bedroom that she had converted to a studio, her sanctuary. One day she showed me a drawing called “The Magic Gate.”

“This is about my death,” she said. “But see, I’m smiling.”

— Don Lambert has donated his Layton archives of books, magazines, letters and films to the Spencer Research Library at KU. He lives in Kansas City.

See her drawings

Five drawings by the late Elizabeth Layton are included in a new exhibit at the Spencer Museum of Art, “Healing, Knowing, Seeing the Body,” which runs through May 16.

photo by: Contributed

“The Magic Gate” is a self-portrait by Elizabeth Layton in which she smiles as she prepares for her afterlife. The drawing is currently on display at KU’s Spencer Museum of Art.


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