As I was preparing these thoughts about my remarkable mother, I was reminded of what I consider to be the very best Mother’s Day TV commercial. It was also the shortest and most powerful. The gruff, tough legendary football coach Bear Bryant looked straight into the camera and said:
“Have you called your Mama today?” /pause/swallowing/blinking back tears/
“I sure wish I could call mine.” /fade to black/end.
Fannie Lou Spelce
This story, though, is about an amazing woman born 114 years ago on a farm in a tiny Arkansas backwoods hamlet of around 300 people. Gumption? Fannie Lou Spelce showed it early when as a teenager she went to a nearby Big City to study to become a Registered Nurse. And upon getting her RN, she and a fellow nurse answered an ad for nurses in the biggest city of all, New York City. From all accounts, these two attractive southern ladies were “the belles of the ball.”
After a short stint in NYC, she moved back to her home state, married, and gave birth to two boys, Neal and Bennett. Her career as a nurse was amazing all by itself. If for no other reason, she excelled as a nurse while ultimately raising two boys as a single mom, and moving us to Texas.
Just how amazing was she as a nurse? As an Operating Room Nurse she assisted two of Texas’ most famous heart surgeons at the time Drs. Denton Cooley and Michael DeBakey pioneered Open Heart Surgery in Houston.
Fast forward. She moved to Austin as the school nurse at St. Stephens Episcopal School. She wanted to be near my brother and me who were attending the University of Texas. Saying she “always wanted to draw,” she started oil painting during her spare time. Now this is where Mother’s memories become the focal point of this story.
(Please note: To increase the volume in this 35-minute interview with Fannie Lou Spelce, click the speaker icon at the bottom of the video in the footer.)
“I want to paint Momma and Daddy, Neal and Bennett, the Home Place farm where I grew up and the Arkansas town where I raised my two sons,” she told us. And her very first paintings, without lessons, were widely acclaimed.
Let me show you what I mean. Art critics have called her work Folk Art, or Primitive, or Naïve. She’s compared to Grandma Moses. But I think the best description is Memory Painter.
This is a self-portrait. Mother holding me as her first-born baby. How important is this painting? It was chosen as the cover for the catalog for her major “discovery” exhibit at this nation’s foremost gallery for American artists, the Kennedy Galleries in New York City. What an accomplishment for a self-taught artist. And to be recognized in the best city in the US for art and artists.
Even before she gained national acclaim in NYC she had this painting, Arkansas Peach Season, selected by a jury for inclusion in an exhibit at the Dallas Museum of Fine Art. It was also shown at UT’s Blanton Museum of Art. And exhibited in many other museums. Quite an honor.
But, for me, this painting is a “historical record,” in effect, of our growing-up years. Take a look at the lower left. You can see Mother teaching me a life lesson. There she is standing over me as I am leaning over placing peanuts back in the burlap bag where I had sneaked a handful to take home and eat. And she had me go into the general store and tell Mr. Fancher that I “stole” some of his peanuts. Talk about learning right from wrong!
Other scenes: on the upper left is where she placed Bennett and me in a one-room Catholic school so the nuns would “baby sit” us after school until she got off work and walked us home (we didn’t have a car). Mother, Bennett and I are all through this painting. The background shows the peach orchards in the area and on the right is a peach shed where we would get peaches that were too ripe to ship. By the way, this painting is featured with the largest image of any work in the Encyclopedia of Twentieth Century American Folk Art and Artists published by the Museum of American Folk Art.
Little did my brother and I know that the stories we used to tell Mother about what we thought we saw when we walked by a nearby vacant house (that we swore was a real haunted house) would end up in one of her paintings. She captured how we were so scared we held hands as we walked by. Ah, youth.
Why is it that mothers are so fascinated by the bare bottoms of babies? How many family albums contain variations of such images? I guess it’s because mothers were continually patting (or was it, paddling?) those bottoms. Thank goodness Bennett and I were adults when she decided to reveal our bottoms in a painting that will last forever. By then we were beyond embarrassment.
So, Mother, we forgive you for the bare bottoms, at the same time we forget all the deserved paddlings we got.
And to you, as you recall your memories, Happy Mother’s Day.
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