Gambrills painter keeps history alive

Artist says she records sites for future generations

now she is compiling her pictures of the past in books

November 25, 2007|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,Special to The Sun

The walls of her Gambrills home are filled with paintings of barns, churches, historic landmarks and old houses from across the state.

For more than two decades, Mildred Bottner Anderson visited those sites, sometimes taking photographs that she brought back to her studio and used to paint watercolor renderings. Other times she painted on location.

In many cases, the places depicted in her artwork were at risk of being demolished, she said. Anderson said she felt a duty to preserve them in the paintings.

"I was born and raised in the house I live in," said Anderson, 76. "But Maryland is changing so fast. When I was a little girl, this area was just fields. But now there are huge mansions all over the place. I want my grandchildren to have an idea of what was here before the development started."

More than 25 years after Anderson created her first painting, she has compiled her artwork in a 185-page book called Memories: A Piece of History. The book includes 91 original watercolors and is divided into six sections -- barns, churches, gardens, houses, landmarks and landscapes. With each painting is a text block that includes an address, historical facts and Anderson's memories of the location.

Sites in the book include the Millersville Elementary School, the statehouse in St. Mary's City, the Belair Mansion and stables in Bowie, and the Robert Morris Inn in Oxford. The book also includes landscapes of bridges, snow scenes, the banks of the Severn River and the Eastern Shore.

Barely taking a break from the first book, Anderson has started work on a second one that will focus on historic churches. Currently she is working on a watercolor of the St. Francis Xavier Roman Catholic Church in Warwick.

Churches tell the history of a state and a community, she said.

"I love old churches; they are often the center of a community," said Anderson, who taught art for five years in public schools, and then gave private lessons in her home for 26 years. "I don't care for the mega-churches that seat thousands of people. I like the small, quaint churches. You can find out a lot about who lived in an area by its church."

Anderson's own history played an important role in the creation of her first book, as well as her desire to create another one, she said. Her childhood is wrapped up in many of the places she included in the book.

"My grandchildren will never see this area the way it once was," Anderson said. "But in my book, I tried to give them a small glimpse at it."

Although many of her subjects were in Anne Arundel County, the 1960 graduate of Maryland Institute of Art, traveled around the state looking for other places to preserve on canvas, she said.

On nice days, she packed her camera gear, easel and watercolors into the car and started driving. When a location caught her eye, she approached the owners and asked them for permission to photograph or paint their property, she said.

"Almost no one refused," she said. "Most people just asked if they could watch me work. Once I started to work, they always had stories to tell me about the places."

Anderson included personal experiences and some of the stories that the property owners told her in the book.

It's like her memoirs, said Ardy Jolliff of Edgewater, president of the Annapolis Watercolor Club. The artist has created a wonderful record of the county and the state, she said.

"Mildred's book includes personal accounts of each place, so you don't feel like you're learning history when you read it," Jolliff said. "There are dates and other historical facts included, but the stories are her accounts of what she saw at the places, or other personal experiences."

In some cases, Anderson's renderings of the sites were created just days before they were demolished.

"It's possible that the photographs I took, or the paintings I created were the last things done to document many of the places," she said. "Many of them are long gone."

Patricia Nalley, who retired this year as principal of Davidsonville Elementary School, said she saw Anderson's paintings as a way to teach children about how the area once was.

Nalley first saw Anderson's art about five years ago, after Anderson painted a watercolor of the new Davidsonville Elementary School.

Nalley liked Anderson's work so much that she purchased several prints of locations in the Davidsonville area and hung them in the school office and hallway.

"Mrs. Anderson painted barns that have been torn down, homes that are long gone and other scenes in Davidsonville that no longer exist," said Nalley.

"I thought the children and their parents would enjoy the artwork," Nalley said. "It tells a story that the children might not otherwise know."

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