By Linda Crocker Simmons
It has been more than a year since a significant discovery relating to Alice L.L. Ferguson and her life as an artist has been made, but last month the drawing illustrated here, was found. Discovered during a recent Internet search it has been acquired from the California dealer who was selling it in a group of drawings labeled “New Deal”. All the drawings in that folder were created by Helen Sewell Rennie (1906-1989) sometime during the 1930s or 1040s. Not much has been yet learned about Rennie except that she like Alice had a career in the arts and was active during the 1930s and later in the Washington region.
Rennie was a native of Maryland and had, as Alice had done, studied art at the Corcoran School of Art (today the Corcoran College of Art and Design). It is conceivable they met there or at one of the regional arts groups to which both belonged. Very likely they had professional art connections or friendships with one or more other artists associated with the various Federal arts projects taking place in the Washington metropolitan region during the 1930s. An immediate candidate is Lenore Thomas (1909-1988), a tenant of Longview, the close by property which Alice had developed in hopes of selling. But once occupied by Lenore and her fellows Alice found the arrangement too enjoyable to want it to end. Like Hard Bargain Farm the tenants at Longview had their “Gang” of guests whom Alice described in her book, Adventures in Southern Maryland (p.31) as compared to Hard Bargain Farm’s as “more artistic and more sure they are intellectual”.
Artists are kindred spirits and often share common characteristics and activities. Congregating to make art is one — just what Rennie has depicted in her spare line drawing of Alice. The easel which would have held the canvas or a tacked-up sheet of paper is not shown but rather suggested, just out of sight. Alice’s right hand is in midair holding either a stick of charcoal, or a pencil, maybe even a brush, reaching for that easel.
Rennie’s drawing tells us further things about her subject: Alice was a smoker. In her left hand she holds one of those ubiquitous signifiers of the “new” woman of the 20th century. The plume of smoke also serves as a sad foreshadower of one of the elements which likely contributed to Alice’s medical problems in the years before her death in 1951.
Rennie has captured her subject quite accurately; the angled profile of Alice’s face would have been known to other artists, friends and family. By the time this drawing was made Alice was well into her 50s. She wore her hair close to her head, short above the ears. Comparisons with photographs of Alice from about the same time show the profile with a strong nose—somewhat exaggerated—and and short hair.
The outfit she wears could be either one of those stylish but comfortable dresses of the period, or a painter’s smock. Such accouterments of an artist’s trade as smocks, canvases, easels and brushes have vanished from Hard Bargain Farm. All evidence of Alice at work making the lovely paintings that hang in the Farmhouse is gone. But with the fortuitous discovery of this little drawing we can once again see Alice, the painter, as her image was captured by another artist and possible colleague during the last decade or so of her life in the act of creating a work of art.