Seagreaves, Verna – American Folk Artist

Verna Seagreaves

A 20th century Folk Artist, Verna Seagreaves painted in the manner of Grandma Moses. The wife of noted folk potter James Christian Seagreaves, Verna lived and worked in Breinigsville, Berks County, Pennsylvania. Here is a 1999 column about the two artists and their work from East Pennsylvania Publishing:

Breinigsville Artists’ Work a Pennsylvania Dutch Legacy

By Julia Foster Nazimov

Press writer

They were unlikely artists-a couple with roots deep in Pennsylvania Dutch country; he a worker in the mill at Bethlehem Steel, she a teacher. But art thrives in the most unlikely places, and over the years, Verna Seagreaves of Breinigsville and her late husband, James Christian Seagreaves, have produced an astounding collection of pottery and painting.

James, who died two years ago, is better known than his wife for his redware pottery with a Pa. German flavor, work that since his death has enjoyed a renaissance of interest. But Verna is an accomplished artist in her own right, turning out scores of paintings reminiscent of folk artists like Grandma Moses, at the easel in her modest bedroom.

The Seagreaves’ work is now on display, through Oct. 28, at the Berks County Historical Society, 940 Centre Ave., Reading. The exhibit should give visitors an opportunity not only to enjoy James’s extensive repertoire, but to discover Verna’s work, which is not as widely known as her husband’s.

Like her husband, Verna, now 86, is self-taught. “I never took an art lesson,” she says, adding that once she considered taking a class at the Baum School in Allentown, but her husband told her, “Don’t you dare!” Her colorful landscapes and thematic scenes, many with a humorous or whimsical touch, are drawn entirely from her imagination.

“My theory is, if you want an exact picture, there’s the camera,” she says.

Even her landscapes, depictions of country towns or events, such as auctions, while based on her experience, are not drawn directly from life. Others are more of a patchwork of images related to a theme, such as a biblical story, or Christmas. “I love Christmas!” she exclaims.

One especially enchanting work on display at the historical society is called “The Night Before Christmas,” with a variety of images which recall the well-loved poem. She also went through a “western” phase, influenced by the work of Georgia O’Keefe, whom she admires.

She also tried her hand at pottery-colorful miniature arrangements of plants and animals. “I call them my mushroom gardens,” she says.

But she preferred painting. She started using watercolors and later discovered acrylics, but the colors of even her watercolors are strikingly vivid, not the pastel shades typically associated with that medium.

“I use the colors right out of the tubes,” the ‘dry method,’ she explains, because it suited her schedule. She could paint for a little while, then go into the kitchen to do her chores, without worrying about her work drying out. Her later works combine watercolors and acrylics.

Verna and “Jimmy,” as she refers to her husband, first met as youngsters, when he visited a friend’s summer place outside Alburtis, where Verna grew up. But they didn’t meet again until 1940, when her cousin introduced them. They were married in 1941.

James was exempted from the draft during World War II because his work at the Bethlehem Steel plant was considered essential to the war effort. Later, he went to work for Air Products. For the first few years of their marriage, Verna also worked, teaching music.

She introduced music into the grade schools in Upper Macungie Township, then, when their daughter, their only child, was 4, she got a part-time job teaching music in Alburtis. When the East Penn School District was formed, encompassing Alburtis, she worked as a music teacher for the district for nine more years. After that, she was a church organist for several years, but says she “devoted my time to Jimmy and his pottery.”

They lived in Alburtis until 1961, when they moved to Route 222 in Breinigsville, because it was a good place for James to sell his pottery. Later, they built the home farther out on Route 222, where Verna still lives.

She started painting in the 1960s, with support and encouragement from her husband and many of his potter friends. She says, with amusement, that he may have encouraged her partly because “I got into his hair, I think.” For years, they worked on their hobbies in amicable tandem, he in his downstairs workshop, she upstairs. “Our hobbies were our recreation,” she says. “We never took long vacations.”

The only formal training he had, his wife recalls, was from a Greek potter named George Karros, who stopped by their shop one day and taught James how to use a potter’s wheel. James was extraordinarily prolific, creating hundreds of bowls, plates, pitchers, and his signature creations, his bird whistles. These are small models of birds, usually with Pennsylvania Dutch designs, with a hole on one end into which you blow to make them whistle. Often, she remembers fondly, she could hear the sound of the whistles from the downstairs workshop, as her husband was going about his work.

The Seagreaves were married for 56 years, and her love for him is evident in how profusely his work is displayed throughout her house. But she hasn’t let his death get her down. She spends time reading the hundreds of books which line the shelves in practically every room in her house, books bought over the years at sales in anticipation of this time, when it would be difficult for her to get out to a library. She still paints, plays music, and visits with friends. She and one friend get together once a week to work on jigsaw puzzles, another of her loves.

“I play my CDs and I paint and it’s wonderful,” she says of her life.

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