Christine Decker will play Grandma Moses with Peter Langstaff.
Christine Decker will play Grandma Moses with Peter Langstaff. (Peter Crabtree / New England Newspapers)

BENNINGTON, Vt. -- In a small house just over the border in New York, a woman in her 80s sits by the window. She looks out at the November afternoon sunlight on the ridges, and the copper glints of the oak trees still holding leaves.

On the table beside her, old jam lids hold dabs of color, and paint bruses soak in a jar.

She thinks that she will ask her grandson to cut her a hemlock tree for Christmas. When she thinks of the holidays, she remembers the smell of hemlock and turpentine. When her children were small, she would paint the wooden rocking horse in new colors every year for Christmas morning.

"She was a strong woman with her own ideals and ideas," said Eric Peterson, artistic director at Oldcastle Theatre.

On Friday, Oldcastle Theatre will open Stephen L. Pouliot's "Grandma Moses: An American Primitive" -- the play's first performance since its national tour with Cloris Leachman in the 1990s.

Oldcastle always likes to show plays with ties to the region, Peterson said. While she painted, Moses a village in what is now Hoosick Falls, N.Y., just across the border from Bennington.

She was living on a farm in Eagle Bridge, N.Y., and showing her paintings and jellie at the county fair, when a collector, Louis Caldor saw a few of her paintings on display in a drug store in Hoosick Falls.

This play turned out to be similarly and serendipitously hard to find.

It had never been published, and it is the only play Pouliot has written A screenwriter for a California firm, he writes scripts for awards shows and pageants.

When Peterson reached him, Pouliot said he no longer had a copy of the play at home. His office had a copy -- Bob Banner Associates (Banner, a director and writer, co-produced the Carol Burnett Show.) But Banner was ill then, and the office was closed.

In 2011, Banner died, and Pouliot helped to close up the office. He found the script and sent it to Peterson. He later flew out to see a show at Oldcastle and meet the company, and he offered Peterson the script without royalties.

After three years' searching -- and negotiating with the Galerie St. Etienne in New York, which has represented Moses since her original exhibition in 1940 -- Peterson had the story of Moses' 101 years of life.

The play follows her as a child, a young woman, a middle-aged widow, and a 100-year-old international celebrity. Christine Decker will play Moses at many ages, and Peter Langstaff will appear as her brother, her husband, her mailman, the collector who discovered her work and the gallery owner who made her a star.

She painted her autobiography in art, Peterson said. She painted family life, farming, the work people did. She painted her childhood.

She had loved painting and drawing always, but she rarely had the time for it. The girl who painted paper dolls with grape juice for ink began working as a nanny when she was 12.

Later, when she and her husband ran a dairy farm in Virginia, she would loan him money -- "she says at 1 percent interest, and he always paid her back," Peterson said. She sold butter and potato chips.

She seems always to have kept that clear-headed thrift, optimism and practicality.

"She considered painting a hobby," Peterson said. "She was amazed people wanted to buy them."

When Caldor first saw her work, he asked to buy all of her paintings. Finding that she had fewer than she had promised him, she cut one in half to make up the difference.

Caldor, the collector who found and fell for her work in Hoosick Falls, got three of her paintings into a MoMA exhibition in 1939. He showed her paintings to Otto Kallir, owner of Galerie St. Etienne, who mounted her first one-woman show.

She was 80.

In the next 20 years, she painted more than 1,500 paintings and sent them around the world, said Callie Stewart, collections manager at the Bennington Museum, which now holds the largest public collection of Moses' work in the U.S.

Moses exhibited work in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands and France. She was interviewed by Edward R. Murrow on CBS. And in 1964, three years after she died, 100,000 people visited an exhibit of her work in Moscow.

She seems always to have kept her her feel for the land.

Her early work focused on landscape, the texture of leaves, the shadows of horses drinking at the pond. In her later work, Stewart said, the scenes filled with people more than with natural detail, and her brush strokes grew looser, maybe from the influence of impressionist artists, or maybe from the arthritis that had encouraged her to give up needlework for painting in the first place.

Selling paintings for as much as $3,000, she still re-used mayonaise jars to hold her brushes, Stewart said.

And many people in Bennington knew her as a neighbor.

They tell Peterson their stories. Decker's mother knew Moses. Langstaff's grandmother was her friend, and he met Moses when he was 3.

"He remembers her as very sweet and the wrinkliest woman he'd ever seen," Peterson said.

And Peterson's mother-in-law knew her. It amazed him to think that he and Moses had been alive at the same time -- and she remembered, as a child of 4, hearing that President Lincoln had been shot.

"She rode in horse-drawn wagons," Peterson said, "and we were exploring outer space when she died."

She lived to be 101 -- and outlived many of her family. She lost her brother, the boy she called her best friend, when he was 21, Peterson said. Five of her 10 children died as babies, and her husband died when she was 67. She began painting at 75, not long after her daughter, Anna, died of tuberculosis.

And she remained tough, durable and full of life.

She remained the girl who never let a boy outclimb her -- the woman who wrote in her autobiography: "Wintertime! When zero stands at 25 or 30, when we cannot deny the pleasure of skating ‘til we have bumped heads and bleedy noses, and the ice is like glass. Oh what a pleasure as we get together. ..."

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This story briefly references Time Magazine's 1953 cover story about Grandma Moses. The writer of this story -- the magazine does not give the journalist's name -- could do what I cannot. He could talk to her.

If you go ...

What: 'Grandma Moses: An American Primitive'

When: 8 p.m. Friday. Play runs through Nov. 17, Thursday to Saturday at 8 p.m. and Thursday, Satuday and Sunday at 2 p.m.

Curator Jamie Franklin from Bennington Museum will speak on Grandma Moses
on Nov. 7 and 9 after each performance.

Where: Oldcastle Theatre, 331 Main St., Bennington, Vt.

Admission: $37 for adults,
$10 for students

With Bennington Museum admission receipt, $5 off ticket price

Information: (802) 447-0564,
oldcastletheatre.org

What: Grandma Moses exhibit, largest public collection in the U.S., housed in former Eagle Bridge schoolhouse

Where: Bennington Museum,
75 Main St., Route 9, Bennington, Vt.

When: Daily except
Wednesdays,
10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Admission: $10 for adults, $9 for seniors, free for children under 18

With Oldcastle ticket receipt for ‘Grandma Moses,' $2 off museum admission

Information: (802) 447-1571,
www.bennington.org