Posts Tagged ‘Nashville’


In this oil the young art student moved into experimentation with color, framing the face with a bright halo effect and sweeping a prismatic bond of color in on upward arc behind the head.
From The Tennesseean Magazine January 1979 –  Thanks Nate for loaning the magazine!

By Clara Hieronymus

The paintings and drawings of 50 years ago are a part of Mary Northern’s legacy; the rest of the legacy consists of an ongoing debate about forcible Good Samaritanism as against a victim’s own wishes.

maryAt 18, Mary Caroline Northern,
looks like a much younger schoolgirl.
This is the yearbook picture,
Ward-Belmont class of 1924.
Painting3Mary Northern pored over magazines as a teen­ager,
and made color sketches in the style of horse race
magazines as in this cartoon.

Last month Belmont’s Leu Gallery was filled with a disparate array of drawings, oils, watercolors, small pencil sketches and a motley of newspaper clippings and snapshots.

They represented the work of a young woman, done when life lay mostly before her and she was in that period of early adulthood when dreams, yearnings, and hopes call most urgently for expres­sion.

The exhibit comprised some 75 items painted or sketched in the 1920s and 30s by the late Mary Caroline Northern soon after her graduation from the fashion­able Ward-Belmont school for girls and long before she became a ghostly recluse in a rubble-filled, unheated, and unlight­ed house in East Nashville. The snap­shots are of its rooms.

There is something touching about the pieces in this collection. They give evi­dence of a genuine talent, but a talent that was mostly potential and was never to be developed beyond this stage of time in a young life. For the most part they are no better and no worse than the paintings and drawings by most art-interested teen-agers who eagerly, prolifically try their skills in the modes of their time.

She finished high school in 1924 at the age of 18, and the next year completed a correspondence course in art with the Federal School of Illustrating and Car­tooning. Apparently she continued to study for a little longer with that school, submitting work and receiving evalua­tions and suggestions.

She painted some portrait heads in oil, made some illustration-type sketches in pencil and watercolor, created some watercolor and ink cartoon sketches with comic quote-line captions (these look as if they derived from magazine cartoons of the 1920s), did some figure drawings in pencil and some “continuous line” drawings in black ink.

There are also some figure studies in pencil, the kind done for art class as­signments. Miss Northern’s work reflects the period of the 1920s, both in the angular Art Deco motifs and the wearing apparel of her subjects. She apparently was more interested in people as sub­jects than in landscapes or still lifes.

Soon after her death on May 1 (1978) at the age of 72, when her art work was discov­ered in the grisly dwelling she had lived in most of her pitiable life, much was made of some color drawings done in the manner of Vogue magazine covers. It is highly unlikely that these were ever actually accepted for publication; like other works in the collection they seem more to reflect the enthusiastic experi­mentation the young art student engaged in as she tried to increase her skills and find a direction for expressing them. They are done in the style used by that magazine’s cover artists, but they are not of cover quality.

Evidence of other self-conscious ex­perimentation is found in the signatures on the varied works. Like most teen­agers, she tried out many versions in the way she signed her name, sometimes using script, sometimes printing, some­times running the letters all together, but obviously trying for a way that would both please her and call attention to it­self.

A letter from an instructor at the correspondence school commends, her efforts, notes that she draws very well, and asks her to let the writer know what response she gets from the magazine.

An auction of Miss Northern’s art and personal effects last July brought unbelievably good prices, though buyers admitted that their value derived more from the “story behind them” than from the merits of the art per se.

The oils in the Belmont show have been cleaned by Lyzon Gallery and restored to vivid freshness of color. The ink, pencil and watercolor drawings are miracu­lously clean, and one marvels at that fact. Apparently they were kept in manila envelopes and covered away in an upstairs room; despite the broken win­dows and the years’ accumulations of dust and detritus, these bits of Miss Northern’s younger, happier life re­mained intact.

The Reverend Palmer Sorrow, admin­istrator of Miss Northern’s estate, says he is considering the selection of one of the drawings with the idea of making an edition of 500 prints to offer for sale.

The show of her work opened recently (Dec. 26 – Jan. 12) at the Third National Bank. On Jan. 20 there is to be an auction from 2 to 5 p.m. at Maryland Farms in Brentwood. Since the earlier sale yielded enough revenue to pay Miss Northern’s debts, Sorrow said proceeds from the coming auction will be divided between Belmont College and the Hospital Hospi­tality House.

He notes that the auction, to be con­ducted by Bill Colson, will take place almost on the anniversary of Miss Northern’s death. Sorrow is very san­guine about the probability that this sale will bring high prices. He feels that the story of Miss Northern’s strange life will make buyers eager to bid for the work offered; to him it seems fitting that she might be remembered for these rather cheerful expressions and not for the sad squalor in which she suffered out her final years as an eccentric old woman with gangrenous feet who would have frozen to death had she not been taken forcibly to a hospital.

Myron King, of Lyzon Gallery, said the color drawings reminded him of Villon prints brought back from Paris by the late Philip Perkins.· “They are interesting because of the timing of what she did and when she did it,” he said. “The sale is a natural for a charity and should be an interesting one.” John A. Hill, an art collector and member of the Fine Arts Committee at Cheekwood, said, “It’s terribly interest­ing work because it represents its period, the 1930s mainly. It’s obvious that she copied the style of art being done at that time, and most of it is decorative. I think we’ll buy one or two things for Cheekwood because of their historical interest.”

Mary Northern’s 1924 yearbook from Ward-Belmont school and a few
pencil sketches mode in the late 1920s and 30s shore space in this cabinet in Belmont’s Leu Gallery.
Mary Northern lived as a recluse in this dilapidated house on Gallatin Rd.,
so overgrown and dark, people in the neighborhood thought no one lived there.
Miss Northern, her feet frostbitten and bleeding from burns suffered when she tried
to warm them in this fireplace, lived, ate and slept in the sagging chair seen here.
In this self-portrait as a young woman, Miss Northern apparently
veiled the eyes as if the artist’s appraising look penetrated too deeply.

Hers was a story that puzzled, troubled, touched and exasperated people, not only in Nashville but in other cities in other states. It set off ethical debates and editorials, as well as columns by syndicated writers on a national level.

Mary Northern, who had lived alone after her mother’s death in 1960, and was reclusive even before that, literally withdrew from the world except for such necessities as going to the store with her Social Security check to buy meager supplies for herself and the six cats that occupied the filth and ashes piled up in the downstairs room of her house.

Windows were broken, there had been fires in the room she lived in, sitting in a broken down chair in front of a fireplace, keeping her catsup bottle and other food under the chair and using the mantel as an ashtray. Without electricity, the house was dark and unheated. Miss Northern’s feet had suffered severe frostbite during the cold winter of 1976-77 and, trying to warm them, she had burned them badly.

When Sorrow, a neighbor up the street who had often taken food to her, saw the horrifying condition of her black­ened and bleeding feet, he called the Department of Human Services which had also been taking food and trying to help.

It was he who said, “Something has to be done. You must make her go to the hospital.”

Police were sent and Miss Northern, kicking and screaming was taken to the hospital. Doctors, examining the irreparable damage, urged amputation but the patient refused consent. Ultimately, nature and daily whirlpool baths washed away the decayed flesh and left bare bones, some of which surgeons re­moved.

Strong-willed and cantankerously independent, Miss Northern took the anti-coagulating medication or refused to take it, as she wished. She weathered pain and pneumonia but not the blood clot which doctors had feared would be a probability, and on May 1 died peaceably, in a clean bed, in clean apparel, looked after and tended to in spite of her­self.

The aspect which so intrigued all who heard or read about the Northern case had to do with interpretations of moral obligation toward those who need help, and the right of the person to resist that help. The courts at one point had said Miss Northern was incapable of deciding for herself and ordered amputation. She felt otherwise and, with the help of her attorney, successfully fought that ruling.

Columnist Ellen Goodman of Boston quoted William Cur­ran, professor of legal medicine at Harvard Medical School about the court’s decision to declare Miss Northern incompe­tent. ” .. . It may owe more to St. Augustine’s Confessions than to Gray’s Anatomy. It stems from the idea that individuals hold their bodies in trust, that the body is the vessel of the soul and people have an obligation to sustain that life. In short, they have not been granted the power to decide to die.”

Miss Goodman noted that most of us would choose life, and would also want to “save” another person, “But if, like Mary Northern, a 72-year old woman chooses to risk death over a 50% chance of a crippled life, and if she maintains this choice, then surely she should be let alone. I think all of us want that power over our lives.”

The debate has continued, even after Miss Northern’s death. The questions raised are still unanswered, the impli­cations still tantalize the rational, responsible mind.

Perhaps thoughtful consideration about being our brother’s keeper when the brother does not wish to be kept and the right to exercise control over one’s own life will, in the end, be Miss Northern’s legacy to the community. These, not the touching handful of painting and drawing studies by a young art student full of hope about the future.


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biltmorematchesHighway 31, Franklin Road, Nashville Tn

Hewitt C. Davis Owner



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More about Mercury Here

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Bowling in the 1950s

Anyone recognize the alley?

That was alley 16 at Melrose. It wouldn’t take a hook worth a durn.
Some of those folks look familiar too.
-Lou Vodopya

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