There is a reunion of old friends and lovers in Ukiah this holiday season.
An exhibit called “Artful Liaisons,” at the Grace Hudson Museum (until Feb. 17) tells the intriguing century-old life stories of three artists, what connects them to each other and what contributions they made to 19th century American art.
It won’t surprise you to learn that Mendocino County artist Grace Carpenter Hudson, whose portraits of her Native American Pomo neighbors won her national acclaim, is one of the three.
Her seldom-seen early work, from the first years of her artistic training in the 1870s, is the beginning of the story.
The artist in the middle, the fulcrum, if you please, is Edward Lincoln Espey, whose short life produced vivid landscapes. His early romance with young Grace Carpenter provides not only the reason for the show but the “might-have-been” that makes it almost as much love story as art.
And, finally, a talented multimedia artist named Grafton Tyler Brown brings it all to a kind of conclusion. But not really.
The definitive end of the story belongs to Karen Holmes, curator of the museum/Sun House complex that is a center for Mendocino County’s history and ethnography as well as its premier art venue.
It was Holmes’ article in a Maine art and antique digest that began a five-year correspondence with Portland gallery owner Mark Humpal which put all the pieces of this painterly puzzle in place.
The trail is too long and steep to follow here, but I can tell you that it is awash in happenstance and serendipity and ends triumphantly with the current exhibit.
Let us begin.
In 1878, Grace Carpenter graduated from Ukiah Grammar School. Because there was no high school in town, she was sent off for further education to San Francisco by her parents, Aurelius O. and Helen McCowan Carpenter, who were among the literati of the frontier community.
Grace’s early interest in art brought her to the San Francisco School of Design before her 14th birthday. That’s where she met Ed Espey from Eugene, Oregon, who, following his artistic inclinations, was also a student at what was deemed the best art school on the West Coast (precursor of today’s SF Art Institute).
Before long Grace and Ed became — in the language of those gentler times — “sweethearts,” a relationship that would last for the next four years.
Both explored the depth of their talent in a range of artistic disciplines. But Espy went to study in France and, while the love letters between them continued, Grace had caught the attention of an older man, a widower named William Davis. Against the wishes of her family, she eloped with him in 1884. She was 19. He was 34. It was a brief marriage. The divorce was finalized in 1886. Grace’s formal art education ceased and she returned to Ukiah to work with her parents in the photo studio and give art lessons. Her artwork from this period — what little there is — is signed “Grace Davis” and lacks the quality of her earlier and later work.
The three-year “down period” ended when John Hudson came to town.
An exhibit connecting painters Grace Carpenter, Edward Espey and Grafton Tyler Brown
431 S. Main St., Ukiah
Admission: $4 individuals, $3 students and seniors, $10 families
Hours: Wednesday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Sunday noon to 4:30 p.m.
Ends Feb. 17