Vintage canvas: Octogenarian's work on display at art center
WORTHINGTON -- During her lifetime, Matilda Cross has amassed an extensive body of artwork, but she's never had a solo exhibition.
That changes tomorrow, when "Looking Back," an exhibit of the 89-year-old's drawings and paintings curated by local art teacher Tricia Mikle, opens at the Nobles County Art Center.
"I always messed around with that sort of thing," Matilda said about her artistic talents, recalling how she would even draw in the dirt on her family's farm near Brewster. "After a rain, it would be nice and smooth."
Matilda attended country school and Brewster High School, where art instruction was minimal. Her first formal training came through classes at the Worthington college.
"During the Depression, not too many fathers thought their daughters should go to school. If you could become a teacher or a nurse, you were doing pretty good. My dad was in favor of my doing artwork, but then his father was an artist, too -- he did calligraphy. It kind of runs in the family. So my father took me up to the art school in St. Paul on Summit Avenue. I don't know if it's still there. He took me up there and found me a place to work for my room and board," she explained.
She attended the art school for two years and was employed at a business called Process Displays, where she learned silk screening techniques that were utilized widely in advertisements. That was just before and during World War II.
"Then a girlfriend and I started our own studio," she said. "All the men were gone, so women had a better chance."
Although it was moderately successful, after three or four years they closed the studio, and Matilda returned to the Brewster farm, where she continued to work independently in the art field. George Cross, a young fellow she'd known most of her life, came courting, and soon they were married and settled on his family farm.
"He never made much comment" about the artwork, she said. "But he never did any complaining about it, either. He tolerated it. When the babies were small, I couldn't do too much. I had three babies in two and a half years -- twins in there helped a bit."
The Crosses had two boys and a girl -- Chuck and twins Richard and Kate, and Matilda now has six grandchildren.
Motherhood might have slowed her down a bit, but Matilda found time to paint whenever she could.
"My favorites are landscapes -- sunsets and sunrises," she said. "A good place to go in the evening on the farm was to go down to the cattle fence, the west gate at sunset. ... I'd take a notebook with me when my husband had to go somewhere to get parts for repairs or something. I'd make sketches while he attended to business. Sometimes it didn't amount to anything, and that was alright. It just went into the wastebasket."
Matilda recently moved into The Meadows assisted living facility in Worthington, where there isn't room to store the bulk of her artwork. Some pieces will be kept in the family while others will be donated to the high school and arts center.
In preparing for the exhibit, Mikle took a digital photograph of each painting and had Matilda make notations about what she remembered about the subject matter, in effect cataloguing her body of work. She also framed as many pieces as she could.
There are portraits that Matilda sketched while in art school in the 1940s. The school brought in models regularly to pose for the students, she remembers.
"I like portraits, but I'm not that good at it," she said modestly. "I enjoyed it."
Due to her own preference, there are a lot of landscapes reflecting the rural landscape of southwest Minnesota, and a selection of still-lifes, too. One wall of the gallery will feature paintings done after a trip Matilda took to Europe with daughter Kate in 1984.
"It wasn't a scheduled tour. We just went where we wanted to go," she recalled. "Kate had been there before and knew the ropes."
The trip and photographs taken along the way provided plenty of inspiration for Matilda's paintings.
"I imagine I got at it pretty good when we got back," she said. "You get a lot of ideas in your head."
The exhibit will also include several silk-screened pieces from Matilda's business enterprise, and there are a few in various other mediums, but for the most part, Matilda prefers to work in acrylic.
"But your proficiency at chalk drawings and watercolor are your best-kept secret," remarked Mikle.
After drawing and painting for nine decades, Matilda looks forward to finally seeing her work, en masse, hung in a gallery.
"It makes it so much better" she said of the late-in-life opportunity. "It's a Grandma Moses-type thing.
"... The thing about it is, for me, it was all fun," she continued. "If you enjoy what you do, it makes a difference."
The opening reception for the Matilda Cross exhibit will be from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday in the art center gallery, located in the lower level of the War Memorial Building, 407 12th St., Worthington. The exhibit will hang until June 30. Hours are 2 to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. For more information, phone 372-8245.