The art of an elderly Wellsville woman first caught the world's attention in the late 1970s. By the time she created this drawing in 1985, Elizabeth "Grandma" Layton was recognized as a master of the technique known as contour drawing.
Layton's only art training came late in life when she enrolled in a class at Ottawa University. She hoped to find a diversion from the depression that had plagued her for 35 years, beginning with an unhappy first marriage and culminating with the death of her son in 1976. Layton's treatments for violent mood swings and severe headaches had included electroshock and drug therapy.
The university art class taught Layton to draw using the contour method. The artist seldom looks at the paper while drawing with this technique. The result is a distinctive, rough image. Therapists recommend the contour method because it makes drawing more personal and, particularly in Layton's case, releases suppressed emotions.
Layton threw herself wholeheartedly into drawing, working up to 14 hours a day. Although her depression lifted within a year, she continued to express herself through art. Early works often are gloomy images reflecting her dark moods. Later drawings depict a cheerier road to recovery. Her personal thoughts are the subject of most of her works, therefore, Layton's own visage often features prominently. Her oeuvre includes nearly 700 self-portraits. Layton also used her art to address social and political issues such as aging, world hunger, capital punishment, AIDS, and the Equal Rights Amendment.
One of the first individuals to organize exhibitions of Layton's work was Don Lambert of Topeka, who became her friend and biggest promoter. Lambert has said of her work:
"No art looks like this. It's pure, it's honest and it comes from deep within her. She's not concerned with art history. She draws feelings, that's all, pure and simple, and we're not used to seeing that in art, pure feeling."
Layton created the drawing pictured here as a gift to Lambert in 1985. Entitled "Celebrate the Arts and the 125th Birthday of Kansas," it depicts the capitol as a birthday cake loaded with candles, flanked by Layton (at left) and her second husband Glenn (at right, often a subject of his wife's work). An orchestra plays jubilantly on the statehouse steps. A yellow brick road (referencing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz) meanders through the background, and the stars arching behind the capitol call to mind the state motto, Ad astra per aspera (To the stars through difficulties). Traditional Kansas symbols such as the sunflower and bison are scattered in the background, and the drawing's shape follows the state borders.
Lambert donated the print to the Historical Society in 1987, where it resides in the collections of the Kansas Museum of History.
To view more contour drawings, visit the Elizabeth Layton website.
Entry: Layton Drawing
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: March 2011
Date Modified: December 2014
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.