In 1939, when Jeanette Shropshire was 9, she overheard a conversation between her mother and father about a boat full of Jewish passengers who were turned away from the United States and sent on a grim voyage back to wartime Europe.
“I asked her what was going happen to them, and she said they probably were going to die,” said Shropshire, whose work is the subject of a retrospective exhibition opening Friday in the Locust Street Neighborhood Art Classes. “And I never forgot that.”
The images of the passengers on that boat, the famed MS St. Louis, and the terrible fate awaiting them, percolated in Shropshire’s memory and imagination for the next 50 years. But after a fortuitous visit to Molly Bethel’s neighborhood art center on Locust Street in 1989, they finally floated to the surface.
“I came to watch my granddaughter paint, just to keep her company. And Molly, who is the head of this place and does all the teaching, she came up to me and asked me to draw one of the trees that was out the window. I had never drawn before in my life,” Shropshire said. “She’s been my inspiration.”
Eventually, after Bethel taught Shropshire the basics of painting and drawing – “She made me do exercises, colors until I was half-crazy,” she said – her aching feelings about the Holocaust made their way onto contrasting black-and-white canvases. Her Holocaust series, much of which will be on view in the exhibition, depicts with a free hand the stark and often-disturbing scenes she’d been trying to get out of her head for a half-century: men and women huddled in railcars, piled bodies and other nightmarish scenes.
“I kept thinking of it all the time, since I was a little girl. And then, other things touched my heart. South Africa and apartheid and homelessness – all the things that we all see every day and hear about but don’t really express. And this was my way of expressing it,” she said. “It must have been inside me and I didn’t know it.”
She settled on her instantly recognizable black-and-white style as a way to stand out from other painters working in bright colors.
Shropshire, 81, a retired schoolteacher, has work in the collection of the Burchfield Penney Art Center and received considerable attention in the mid-1990s. Since then, Shropshire hasn’t painted much, though she is currently working on another canvas in her series on homelessness.
Locust Street’s new executive director Liz Van Verth came up with the idea for a retrospective of Shropshire’s work as a way to draw more attention and funding to the 53-year-old neighborhood institution. But, Van Verth said, she was shocked when Shropshire announced that she would donate all of her paintings to Locust Street.
“If this show comes off nicely, I have a legacy here for children who can’t afford to follow their dream,” Shropshire said. “I’m giving them all my paintings to sell so that I’ll have something to leave to the children in the future. They can come, they don’t have to pay anything, they get free supplies, free teachers. Do you know how wonderful that must be to someone who wants to paint or someone who wants to be an artist? You know, a lot of times we think of an artist as being nothing too important really when you think about a career. But being artistic helps to give people dreams, I think.”
Asked to explain why she nudged Shropshire to try her hand at painting, Bethel said, “I’m inclined to do it to anybody who walks in the door.
“Because I believe everybody has some form of talent and you just need to find it,” she continued. “And if they draw something and they find themselves wanting to come back and do more, then who knows where it’ll go.”
Shropshire’s first visit led to some fascinating places indeed.
“When I began to paint things that I thought about, I thought about the Holocaust,” Shropshire said. “I said, ‘I have to get it off my heart.’ And I did. I got it just the way I wanted it.”
What: “Jeanette Shropshire: Reflections”
When: 4:30 p.m. Friday through May 3
Where: Locust Street Neighborhood Art Classes, 138 Locust St.
Info: 852-4562 or www.locuststreetart.org