KCAC Forum Magazine November 1980
by Don Lambert
It was three years ago this fall that Elizabeth Layton took her first art class. Little did she know that learning to draw would change her life. But changer her life it did. The 71 year-old from Wellsville, Kansas not only learned to draw, but she discovered a style uniquely her own. By using the little known technique of blind or contour drawing, she learned to express herself in ways she never thought possible. This new freedom of expression has allowed her to unlock the cuffs of depression she had worn more than half her life.
Elizabeth Layton was born in Wellsville, a town of about 1,000 people interested mostly in football. The daughter of the newspaper owners there, she graduated from high school, got married, and had children. That marriage ended in divorce, and she took over the operation of the newspaper. In the fall of 1977, Elizabeth Layton traveled the 12 miles to Ottawa University to take her first art class. The technique being taught happened to be contour drawing whereby the artist looks at the subject being drawn rather than at the paper. Thus, a direct line of communication is established from object to artist’s mind to artist’s hand to paper.
It was not long until she established her own style. Drawing herself with one green eye larger than the other and a small red spot in the center of her upper forehead. Yards of sagging flesh. Colors which are always appropriate for the mood of the drawing. A distorted perspective which somehow always works and even enhances the message of the drawing. And an ability to show both tragedy and comedy – often in the same work.
Her first drawing done September 12, 1977 features herself standing in front of a women’s suffrage sign. In front of her are a doll-sized cooking stove and frying pan. In this line drawing, it appears she is only playing at her routine chores. Her second drawing is included in the traveling show at the UMKC gallery during November. She is attempting to water a plant but appears to be watering everything but the plant.
After this class, her works along with those of the other students were displayed in the student union at Ottawa University. It was there that I, a reporter for the daily newspaper in Ottawa at the time, noticed her drawings among the muddy, barely adequate drawings of the other students. Knowing nothing about her drawings except that they are wonderful, I met with her and have been promoting her drawings since.
It takes her nearly a week to complete a drawing. Using her bedroom as her studio, she beings with an idea. it could be dieting. Or a hospital intensive care room, or pollution, or cloning. She places a large sheet of paper on a board. She sits in front of her large bedroom mirror or looks into a round-hand mirror. She is ready to draw.
Why does she draw herself? She explains simply, “Because I am always available.”
Setting beside her box of colored pencils and crayons are props she uses often such as a butterfly, a leaf, and other small items. Many of these items find their way into the “business” around her central character.
She explained that each composition is like a puzzle. In each space, only one particular item will fit. Many of her drawings have dozens of small figures and symbols in the background which help the picture tell its story. When the basic outline is completed, she uses crayons and colored pencils to fill in the drawing.
Each of the drawings does tell a story. In Thanksgiving, featured on the outside of this issue, she is creating her fantasy Thanksgiving. She does not like to cook. And children don’t usually like the traditional holiday foods. So in her fantasy, everyone is eating Kentucky Fried Chicken, olives and Oreos. One tradition, a sprig of parsley, has been added to each chicken box as well as in her hair and in the bird cage. Outside, a thankful turkey rejoices for having been spared his traditional fate.
In the other cover work, Garden of Eden, she has drawn herself as a terrified Eve who is running away from the snake, Adam, and his harsh phallic side of the garden. She explains, “I don’t think it is fair for women to get blamed for the first sin. It was probably Adam who made her eat that apple.”
One of her works not in the traveling show but pictured in this issue deals with capital punishment. To draw it, she placed a noose over a mirror which she set on the floor. Squatting on her knees, she looked up through the noose to achieve the eerie perspective. Her swollen face and bulging, hopeless eyes show her strong opposition to capital punishment.
For another drawing pictured here which is included in the show, All Dressed Up and Going Out, she put on her fanciest dress and her daughter’s high heeled shoes. The drawing shows accurately that the dress is too tight and the shoes high enough to make her dizzy.
In another drawing, she has donned a black lace negligee, revealing breasts sagging to the waist though she is making a suggestive wink. Her husband Glenn poses for some drawings, sometimes wearing things like a stool lid cover on his head to like like a hat worn by Christopher Columbus or a towel to look like Aladdin’s turban.
In the last three years, Elizabeth Layton has attracted a fair amount of recognition. One of her drawings was chosen from among 600 entries to win first prize in this spring’s Mid-Four Juried Show at the Nelson. Although she never saw Christo’s wrapped sidewalk in Loose park, she depicted it brilliantly. In the drawing, she is skipping down the walkway. She, too, is wrapped in the bright yellow-orange cloth. The cloth is her cocoon, and it appears she will soon emerge from it and join the butterflies swarming about her head.
Douglas Drake included two of her works in The Pioneer Exhibition which was shown at Crown Center and in his gallery in October of 1978.
She is one of three Kansas artists designated by the Kansas Arts Commission as “Kansas Governor’s Artist for 1980.” For this honor, she exhibited four works in the office of Governor John Carlin. However, three of the works, including one showing all the ways women have been mistreated by men, were promptly removed to a minor office.
Thirty-one of her works have been mounted for touring by the Wichita Art Museum and are traveling with the assistance of the Kansas Arts Commission. The show, now at UMKC, goes to Ottawa in December, the Mulvane Art Center in Topeka in January, the Wichita Art Museum in the spring, and the Sheldon Gallery in Lincoln in November of 1981.
But the most important aspect of Mrs. Layton’s art is that it has made her feel good. Nearly 70 years of happiness and sadness was bottled up inside her. It is all coming out in her drawings.
She discounts, however, the talent which her drawings reveal. She explains to the dozens of friends and admirers she has met in the last three years, “Drawing can do for anyone what it has done for me. All you have to do is want to do it. Then try it. You’ll be amazed.”
Art comes in all ages and sizes! Never let doubts hold you back from trying something new, be it a style or medium. You never know what amazing new thing you will discover!