A life spent before an easel

Artist: Elizabeth McShane no longer sees well enough to paint. But, her work is on display for others to enjoy.

March 16, 2001|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

At 95, with failing eyesight, Elizabeth McShane can barely see the details of her paintings.

But she can see enough to remember.

A fragile figure, she stands erect in the tiny art gallery at Pickersgill Retirement Community in Towson, leaning only slightly against her walker to get a closer look at her impressionistic paintings, the old chair she gilded, the mirror she transformed into art.

She can see just enough to recall where she painted her lush outdoor scenes - in her former back yard in North Baltimore's Poplar Hill, or at a friend's house in Fork in northeast Baltimore County.

Twenty-one pieces of McShane's artwork, mostly paintings, will be on display at Pickersgill for the next month.

That's a fragment of the work she has created since her graduation in 1926 from the Maryland Institute for the Promotion of the Mechanic Arts, now called the Maryland Institute, College of Art.

How many did she paint?

"I haven't the vaguest," she says.

Hundreds?

"Many more than that," she says. "I painted as long as I could see."

Her eyesight began to fail eight years ago, long after she had raised five children, taught art classes for many years, and become a grandmother and a widow.

McShane grew up in Sparrows Point, where her father was a superintendent for Bethlehem Steel.

She began drawing in earnest as a child playing with crayons.

"I never thought about talent. I thought I was having fun."

After graduating from Sparrows Point High School, she would board an empty train each day after it unloaded steelworkers and head to Baltimore and the institute.

Years later, after she had married, she taught painting in her basement in Poplar Hill to "pregnant women who were frustrated, young mothers who needed to get away from their families." In the 1960s she charged $3 a lesson.

"I was mighty cheap. I had to charge something to keep the numbers down," she says.

Perhaps her favorite student was her granddaughter, Meredith Scott, now 42.

"She's better than I am," McShane says. "She's very creative. I never tried to affect her style or control her."

Scott, who lives in Rodgers Forge and paints designs on furniture on commission, has a small chest of drawers decorated with a Dutch windmill scene in the Pickersgill show.

"She was my role model, which was raising a family and working as an artist," says Scott, who has four children.

She painted with her grandmother from childhood.

"We made Christmas presents together, coasters, trays. She lived through the Depression, so we used what was available," Scott says. "She taught me what she knew. She had a real sense of design. We had a common bond," says the granddaughter.

They worked together until McShane could no longer see.

Does McShane miss painting?

"Very much. At night when I'm awake I imagine I'm painting. I think of trees. I think of painting the Wye Oak," she says. "I love the light in the trees, the way it works with the shadows."

Painting in her imagination makes her happy.

"I'd like to see some of them," she chuckles.

McShane looks over her work in the gallery, which is just down the hall from the neatly kept room where she now lives.

"I'm amazed at how well they look," she says of her paintings. Still, she adds, "You always feel it should be better. You're never quite satisfied."

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