Sunday, March 06, 2016

Artists of Lanesville - VIRGINIA LEE BURTON, Author, Illustrator

This excerpt is from A Village at Lane's Cove by Barbara H Erkkila recently reprinted and available through Ten Pound Island Book Company. Barbara was the best chronicler of Lanesville and also authored the book Hammers on Stone-The History of Cape Ann Granite available in bookshops around Rockport and Gloucester, and The Cape Ann Museum giftshop.

Virginia Lee Burton (Jinnee) set out on many phases of a career in the arts and succeeded in all of them except ballet dancing. She had her own studio at home at Folly Cove where she did all the illustrations for her children’s books such as Choo Choo in 1935, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, 1939; Calico, the Wonder Horse and Katy and the Big Snow, written especially with credit to the Gloucester Highway Department. Her book Maybelle, the Cable Car, 1952, is read and reread in San Francisco, particularly since Miss Burton went there to help publicize the cable cars when funds were needed to restore them, as they are now again.

Miss Burton was always the dancer, even when walking from the studio to her house. She had a particular grace of movement and she wore full skirts as though she might slip off her shoes any minute and dance in the daisy strewn fields.

When folk dancing first became popular, Jinnee and her husband, George Demetrios, began to teach their friends at their farm, sometimes at the Manship home and on the lawn at the Nortons on Revere Street.

In 1938 Jinnee organized a small group for a sketching class which she taught, then began guiding them in the technique of linoleum block printing, creating designs from simple objects such as beach grass, Cape Ann birds, a Saturday night bean supper or a quarry locomotive. This group became the famed Folly Cove Designers, eventually selling their hand blocked fabrics to such famous department stores as Lord and Taylor in New York City. They used to stamp on blocks with their bare feet, but progressed to a printer’s proof press capable of taking larger blocks, offering a greater range of design as well as being faster.

Jinnee Burton’s first pupil was Aino Yjrola Clarke who gave violin lessons to the Demetrios boys in exchange. Aino designed fabrics with musical motifs such as Instrument! Antiqua, 1959; Musicale, 1950, and Fiddle Dee Dee, 1951.
Miss Burton’s own designs were many, ranging from Kitnip, Ocelot, Reducing, Stitch in Time, Finn Hop, 1943; Finnish Dancers, Dance of the House, 1956; to Farmer’s Almanac, Little House, Spring Lambs 11, Zodiac, Zaidee, Choo Choo, Commuting and Early Bird, 1965. Her first large class in the summer of 1940 had fifteen students, the final number of designers, forty-five.’

One of the social events of the summer was the Finnish-style coffee social and exhibit by the Folly Cove Designers in the renovated barn purchased by Jinnee Demetrios. The Finnish custom of putting the “coffee pan” on when a guest arrives is just the opposite to the established Yankee way of offering a cup of tea as one’s guest announced her departure. (Of course, it was a matter of polite timing.) During a large coffee social, people came to the table in groups by turns, allowing time for the hostess to wash cups and saucers and slice more nisu coffee bread.

After Jinnee’s death, the Barn and Folly Cove Designers came to an end, October 1969. Block printed material representing every design was given to the Cape Ann Historical Association for a permanent exhibit.

Virginia Lee Burton was born on August 30, 1909, in Newton Center, Massachusetts, daughter of an Englishwoman, who was a poet and musician, and Dean Burton of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. One of her earliest memories was of Maypole dancing and celebrating Twelfth Night with costumes and singing. Her parents also put on marionette shows for Jinnee and her sister and friends. At Christmas, her father always gave her a beautifully illustrated children’s book. She said her interest in such books must have begun then.

When Jinnee was eight, the family moved to California where she and her sister studied dancing, and appeared in local productions. She wanted to go to art school and won a scholarship while a junior in high school. She traveled to San Francisco by train, ferry and cable car, passing commuting hours by sketching her fellow passengers.
In 1928 she returned to Boston to join her father and also to resume her studies in acrobatic dancing so she could appear with her sister on the stage. She had to give up her plans, however, when her father broke his leg, and her care was required. So, undaunted, she turned to sketching. She worked on the old Boston Transcript, sketching for H.T. P. (Parker), famous drama and music critic, and signed her drawings “VLeeB.”

It was in the fall of 1930 that she heard about George Demetrios, a great teacher of sculpture and drawing. So she enrolled in his Saturday morning class at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts school. By spring they were married. Two sons, Michael and Aris (born in 1935) inspired her to write books for them. Her book, Life Story, particularly in the last section, tells the tale of the little family at Folly Cove.

When Jinnee Burton started a book, she frequently completed sketches first, pinning them to the walls of her studio. Then she worked on the text, but put it off until last, even after she had, made up the dummy. She said, “If I can substitute pictures for words, I do. Each new book is a new experience, not only in subject material and research, but in learning a new medium and technique for the drawings.”

Her book about the little engine which ran away was written for Aris when he was four. He is now a sculptor living in California who has had his own work recognized nationally. Her son, Michael, is the subject of her book Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel. In an attempt to take the two boys’ attention away from comic books, she did Calico, the Wonder Horse. In 1942 she won the Caldecott Medal for The Little House, which told of their own home and how they moved it into-a field with apple trees growing around. Her book Life Story took eight years to complete. At the same time she did design work, wrote and managed her home. But she was never satisfied with this book, and she died before it could be published.

Jinnee traveled to Japan two years before her death to speak at the American Cultural Center and to autograph her books just translated into Japanese. When she left for home, the children’s librarian and her committee presented her with two Samurai swords. The Folly Cove artist, designer and author left a priceless heirloom to her colleagues and for others to enjoy-the ability to observe their world more closely, note small detail and then as she taught them, work a design that shares with others the newly discovered treasures. Jinnee was certainly a remarkable woman.


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