Harry and I in the Strawberry Patch, a painting by Clara Mae Orto, is one of the many unique works found in our Folk Arts Collection at Crandall Public Library. It is currently on loan to the TAUNY Center in Canton, New York, for an exhibition I guest-curated, called Folk Arts All Around Us, on view from February 13 to October 23, 2021.
Clara Mae Towers Orto (1929-2010) was a self-taught artist who painted scenes depicting life both past and present in the Corinth area of northern Saratoga County, New York. She mostly painted from her memory, letting her mind’s eye guide her brush to reveal the scene as she remembered. With the exception of the skies, all her acrylic paintings were done with a tiny, fine, triple “O” paint brush with each painting taking on average of 3 months to complete.
In 2003, Clara Mae self-published the book, Home and Loved Ones, My Paintings and Their Stories, where she paired her memory paintings with stories of her life. Here is the story that goes with this painting:
As soon as strawberries were ready for picking, my brother Harry and I walked barefooted up a dirt road to work in Harvey Layton’s strawberry field. Harvey paid us five cents a basket to pick the berries he grew to sell to the villagers and the stores. He knew we kids didn’t sort the berries carefully, so he sorted them before he packed them into the side-car of his motorcycle to take them to town. Harvey was the only person I had ever seen with a motorcycle, and I was particularly impressed by the side-car piled full of strawberries. He was a bachelor, living alone in his little house, which seemed to me to be a strange, lonely life. Coming from such a large family, I couldn’t imagine anyone choosing to live alone.
We had to walk a quarter of a mile up the very steep “Tannery Hill” to get to Harvey’s place. The hill was named for a long-gone tannery that had been at its base. The wonderful gardens that grew in the fertile soil at the tannery site were a reminder of its location. Sometimes the sand on the road was so hot that I would suck in my breath and hop to the side of the road in hope of finding a cooler spot for my feet.
Harry could spin quite a yarn, but his had a different twist that Thelma’s and I was usually the victim. If we were each given a piece of candy, or fruit, or whatever, he would hide his and then give me a big tale of woe about how he had lost it. Things usually ended with me, half-convinced, handing over half of mine, only to hear him laugh and say, “Now watch me gobble up mine.” That’s the story I’m telling in this painting. Harry has a basket full of strawberries hidden behind his back and is reaching out to me with an empty one, knowing I would fill it for him. We had great fun together, with pulling as many tricks on him, both of us knowing it was done in fun. We were paid five cents a basket for picking the berries. We picked ten or fifteen baskets and divided the money between us. We thought we were earning big money, and had great and wondrous visions of the things we could buy. We did not share all the same visions, but we did agree on buying Creamscicles because we could break them into two sections. When we finished a Creamscicle, we might see the work “Free” on the empty stick, which would mean that the next one was free. We had often won free Creamscicles, so we greedily ate them fast, only to end up withy a terrible headache and a blank stick.
I liked to squirrel my money away and dream for a while about what I wanted. Punch out dolls, Big Little Books, and small notebooks were some of my favorites. The Big Little Books were only about four inches tall, very, very fat, and difficult to handle. The pages were always flopping over on each other, but I loved them and was willing to put up with it. Little Orphan Annie, Little Women, Little Men, Little Abner, and Drums Along the Mohawk were a few of the ones I enjoyed.
I used the small notebooks as my diary to scribble daily adventures and write little poems. Mama listened to the radio soap operas while she did her housework. I listened too when I was in the house and wrote little verses about the radio characters like Stella Dallas, Ma Perkins, Papa David, and Che Che. Those verses would send me and Anna Mae into giggling fits. Harry, with his great sense of humor, was curious about what we were laughing at and always managed to find my poems. One time I saved up $2.50 for a real diary with a lock and key. After Harry found that one, I decide to bring my writing to a halt. He was just too good at finding things.
On the way home from picking berries, we would pass an old run down house, barely standing and almost hidden in the dark woods. Of course, we called it “haunted.” I was scared to death of that old house, but Harry claimed he wasn’t scared, and proposed that we go in together. As soon as I was well inside the house, Harry came up missing. Of course he had never entered.
In the Summer 2004, we hosted a solo exhibition of Clara Mae Orto's paintings called Home & Loved Ones: My Paintings & Their Stories by Clara Mae Towers Orto. Her family and friends helped us gather her paintings for the exhibition, by lending us some 35 paintings done by Clara Mae. Fifteen of these paintings had not been published in her book. These folks then joined the greater Glens Falls community to celebrate at the opening reception in the Folklife Gallery. Clara and her exhibition landed a feature article in the Chronicle newspaper, and over 200 written comments were left by patrons.
At the time, she had been painting for some 37 years, and had this to say her body of work: "My art and my strength are rooted in the area where I live… Corinth, South Corinth, parts of Porters Corners and Greenfield Center. Most of my paintings contain bits and pieces of events I’ve experienced with the people and place I love. The paths I have followed exploring my small area of the Adirondacks, stay in my head, to be put onto canvas later."
For more information:
Orto, Clara Mae Towers. Home and Loved Ones: My Paintings and Their Stories. Corinth, NY: A to Z Engraving, 2003.
Harry and I in the Strawberry Patch, acrylic memory painting and story, by Clara Mae Towers Orto, Corinth, Saratoga County, New York, acquired in 2004 for the Folk Art Collection, The Folklife Center at Crandall Public Library, Glens Falls, NY.
Home & Loved Ones: My Paintings & Their Stories by Clara Mae Towers Orto, an exhibition curated by Todd DeGarmo, June 7 to August 31, 2004, Folklife Gallery, Crandall Public Library, Glens Falls, NY.