Missouri on canvas

For Fayette painter, the best reward is capturing state history
Monday, June 4, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:12 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008
Peggy Forbes takes a picture of her mother, Mary Louise Forbes, center, during the opening reception in Ashby-Hodge Gallery of American Art in Fayette on Sunday. At right is Martha Holman. Forbes’ paintings are on display from Tuesday through June 12.

Mary Lou Forbes’ career started out of a simple desire to redecorate a new home 40 years ago.

“The walls were this pale blue,” Forbes said. “I thought to myself, how swell it would look with some pretty pictures.”

After 40 years of honing her craft, the 90-year-old painter is putting her work on display for the first time. The Ashby-Hodge Gallery of American Art in Fayette will feature her work and that of Anna Mae Hodge in “From Fayette to the World.” The gallery held a reception Sunday afternoon for the show, which will be open to the public from Tuesday through July 12.

Forbes’ and Hodge’s paintings depict more than a hundred years of rural life in mid-Missouri.

Forbes grew up on a farm south of Fayette and graduated from Central Methodist University in 1939. While working in the Joliet, Ill., school district and raising her four daughters, she met local painter Erwin Hobby, who turned her interest in art into a lifelong pursuit. She attended Hobby’s class every Saturday for six years until he died. She said those years profoundly influenced how she approaches her art.

Most of her paintings are pastoral scenes: a collection of fields, streams and skylines in rural Missouri. Forbes’ interest in depicting the simple beauties in nature was the result of growing up in the Howard County countryside.

“I’ve always been fascinated when I’m watching the clouds change,” she said. “If there’s anything good in my paintings, it’s the skies, the things I’ve watched.”

Forbes and her husband, Ted, retired in 1988 and returned to their hometown of Fayette, where she continued to work on her art, re-creating images from photographs and vivid memories. Her dining room has become a studio. Its walls are decorated with her former projects, or the “not so good ones,” as her daughter Sylvia calls them, along with bookshelves filled with art textbooks and family records.

Forbes has never sold a painting and doesn’t plan on selling one in the future. Until the current exhibit put her art on display, her work was something she’d give to her daughters, who have always supported her passion for painting.

The art in Forbes’ home would never have made it into the public sphere had it not been for the efforts of Tom Yancy, a retired CMU professor and local artist. Yancy helped Forbes complete some of her more difficult projects, giving her hints and tips along the way.

“It was inspirational for both of us,” Yancy said. “She rubs in the art with her fingers. I never did that before. I found I liked it.”

Yancy co-founded the Ashby-Hodge Gallery with Joseph Geist, his CMU former colleague and the gallery’s current curator. They wanted to bring the power of art — from well-known painters and up-and-coming artists — to mid-Missourians.

Among the vivid landscapes in the gallery’s newest exhibit are paintings of two buildings: the historic, one-room “Dudgeon School,” and what is rumored to have been the first Christian church west of the Mississippi, the “Old Salt Creek Church.”

Forbes said she hopes her paintings can preserve a part of Missouri history.

“I like history. I like it because I can save it for the future,” she said.

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