'Pen to Paper' at Flo Gris Museum shows human side of celebrated artists

OLD LYME — Good news for all those who rely on spell check or autocorrect.

Georgia O’Keeffe, among the foremost artists of the 20th century, was an atrocious speller. She also used squiggly lines instead of punctuation and had no regard for the rules of grammar, as shown in “Pen to Paper,” an exhibit at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme that features a collection of letters handwritten by a host of celebrated artists.

No surprise, arguably, that O’Keeffe also wrote in a bold hand. And that she was known for her unapologetic irreverence.

The personality that comes through in O’Keeffe’s handwriting is of a piece with the larger mission of the exhibit: “to gain insight into the lives of artists whom we know only from what we see on museum walls through their correspondence,” as curator Mary Savig has put it.

As the letters reveal, even as these artists were creating works of art that would immortalize them, they were contending with the mundane details of life.

Grandma Moses, for instance, who was renowned for her nostalgic paintings of rural American life, was also, if the handwriting in a Dec. 26, 1953 letter is any indication, an early multitasker.

“Legibility falls increasingly by the wayside as she attempts to negotiate a demanding schedule, a high volume of family news, and a limited amount of space in which to write,” the commentary notes .

Grandma Moses juggled. Landscape painter Frederic Church bemoaned, underscoring, with bold, impatient flourishes, the “9,631,201 problems” of architecture and construction to be solved daily as his home along the Hudson River was being built.

It’s the intimate nature of writing a letter to a friend that shows artists such as Church unguarded. It is likewise for the unassuming Iowan Grant Wood. In learning that two of his works would be given wall space at the prestigious Chicago Art Institute in October 1930, he omits a greeting, scrawling, emoji-like, “Hurray!” in large red-pencil letters surrounded by a hand-drawn frame.

A similar glee infuses photographer Berenice Abbott’s 1921 letter to a sculptor friend.

Having been in “terrible straits,” she writes, she had a “sudden flash of intuition” to visit Berlin. As she gushes about the city’s art, culture, and even its “dry-cold-fresh” air, her scribbled words trip over each other and skip up the side margin, as if the boundaries of the page are unable to contain her exuberance.

A poignant example of the bracing power of pen to paper resides in a July 21, 1956 transatlantic aerogram to Jackson Pollock written by his wife, Lee Krasner. At the time the couple was in a trial separation.

In what was likely the last piece of correspondence between them — Pollock would be killed in a car crash on Aug. 11 — Krasner includes, at the very bottom corner of the otherwise chatty correspondence, a postscript set apart by bold, oversized parentheses.

“How are you, Jackson?” it says .

Of course, the exhibit could have been an opportunity to mourn the limitations of an email or text to convey such raw emotion—or even a call to revive the lost art of letter writing. For Florence Griswold Museum’s Tammi Flynn, it’s simpler .

“As snail mail fades from contemporary culture,” she said, “let’s celebrate the showcase of creativity, whimsy, and insight these fascinating letters provide.”

Including, presumably, Georgia O’Keeffe’s glorious unconcern with spelling and punctuation.