Required Reading: Trailblazing Women Printmakers

August 30, 2023

When a group of Cape Ann women took art classes during the Depression, amazing things happened.

Text by Nathaniel Reade

It all started, as the story goes, with a small-town barter: in return for her sons’ music lessons, Virginia Lee Burton, of Gloucester, Massachusetts, gave her neighbor classes in design. Burton, an art school graduate, was such an exceptional teacher that those classes grew into a juried collaborative of forty homegrown artists who garnered an international reputation and contracts from major retailers—all while refusing to compromise their integrity.

Burton, whose married name was Demetrios, though she used Burton professionally, is best known for such children’s books as Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. But the excellent Trailblazing Women Printmakers by Elena M. Sarni, published in August by Princeton Architectural Press, reveals how she also helped create one of the “longest running and most successful artist guilds in American history.”

At a time when American artists were heavily influenced by European modernism, Burton insisted that her students—mostly women, few with a background in art—pick something nearby they loved, then observe and draw it: butterflies, tree swings, square dancing, Queen Anne’s lace. Once approved, they carved their designs into linoleum blocks, a technique that was both accessible and inexpensive. They usually printed on fabric—dresses, tablecloths, placemats—because it seemed more useful and salable, two important factors for small-town mothers with mouths
to feed.

The guild, dubbed the Folly Cove Designers after a Cape Ann landmark, hosted its first exhibition to big crowds in 1940. They were then accepted to major craft shows in Boston and Philadelphia. In 1945, the upscale retailer Lord & Taylor devoted several windows in New York to Folly Cove work, drawing national press and international attention. At a time when the world seemed scary, these heartfelt celebrations of rural New England life, as one trade publication put it, filled “a long-felt want.”

High-end manufacturers came calling with contracts for upholstery, wallpaper, and carpet designs. A Folly Cove wallpaper of spotted red ponies and blue trees appears in an I Love Lucy episode. But the Folly Cove designers resisted manufacturers’ changes and eventually went back to making their own work. When a Macy’s buyer allegedly told Burton that she could be driving a Rolls Royce instead of a Ford, she responded, “I rather like my Ford.”

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