LESS THAN two weeks into her first art class, Elizabeth Layton produced a self-portrait in ruthless, riveting detail: thick flabby arms with liver spots, large sagging breasts beneath a sheer negligee, a lined face and soft fleshy neck, gargantuan thighs. To this, she added a few dashes of inexplicable whimsy: a ribbon in her hair and a wink of her left eye. She called it "The Wink."
She hung her work on the wall in her art class as did all the students at Ottawa University in Kansas. "I think they thought it was funny," she says. "They couldn't understand those marks from the garters on my thighs."
She was embarrassed, but of her classmates, she says, "They weren't fazed."
But then, she was a neophyte. At 68 years old.
Today, she is 73, has exhibited all over her native Kansas and was named one of three Kansas Governor's Artists and selected for a mid-America tour. Her work was shown earlier this month at the SoHo 20 Gallery in New York City. "Through the Looking Glass: Works by Elizabeth Layton," an exhibit of 31 of her drawings, opens today at the National Council on Aging Gallery, 600 Maryland Ave. SW, and continues through Sept. 2. Of her SoHo show, Kay Larson, writing in New York magazine, said, "I am tempted to call Layton a genius."
"I'll tell you," says Layton via phone from the small town of Wellsville, Kan., "everybody is a genius. What I am is an old, everyday person. What I can do everybody can do."
She did it with a passion--all day long at first--exorcising ghosts of bad experiences, pent-up emotions, a life spent struggling with bouts of depression that included 13 electric shock treatments. In 1976, just a year before she started art class, one of her sons died after a long illness. Struggling with grief and her chronic depression ("the two things don't work together very well"), she decided to take the advice of her sister, who encouraged her to take an art class. Layton had tried the creative arts before--illustrating letters to her children, writing poetry--but she had never pursued them seriously until she enrolled in an art class at Ottawa University in September 1977.
"I had this terribly urgent feeling," she says. "With depressions, you have kind of a manic period. I would go and draw and draw. I don't draw that way anymore. I don't have that urgency. I never work over eight hours a day . . . Before I was so full of stuff I was trying to say . . . I draw feelings as expressed in your face and body. You know how sometimes there are pictures in newspapers of people in grief and readers say, 'Oh, why did the newspaper print that?' I make pictures of my feelings and you're free to look at those. I want you to look at those pictures. I don't want you to feel guilty."
That's one reason she won't sell her drawings, she says. She wants them available to the public. And frankly, she doesn't want them on her walls, either. "I just don't think they're exactly what you want to live with," she says.
"On the Death of a Son": An old woman, obviously Elizabeth Layton, with a saddened, shriveled face cradles a dead baby while offering him her breast. From above, a disconnected man's hand reaches down to offer a handkerchief.
"Void": An old woman with plaintive eyes looks skyward, reaching with both hands.
"Husband on Bathroom Scales": Glenn Layton, a slip of a man, is caught by surprise in his underwear as he weighs himself on the bathroom scale, still clutching his clothes. Mortified and sheepish, he flashes a wide-eyed glance over his shoulder at his discoverer.
Layton avoids her shows, and won't be appearing for the Washington one. "We're not sick in bed," she says, speaking for her second husband, Glenn, as well. "We just don't travel well. We're homebodies."
She prefers her big house with the vine-covered porch and swing, the hot Kansas air sweet with honeysuckle. She has lived in Wellsville, a town of 1,600, all her life. Her father published the local newspaper, the Wellsville Globe. After his death, her mother published the paper and Elizabeth Layton became "editor, reporter, floor scrubber." The Globe was later combined with another paper and the Globe name has recently been dropped from the title. Asked what plans she and her husband have for the summer, she says, "We'll probably just sit on our front porch."
In the past six years, she has completed more than 150 contour drawings, using a technique in which the artist looks at the object rather than at the paper. Some are full of pain, the pain of old age or death. But others blend an extraordinary honesty with a feeling of whimsy. The eyes of her figures float big and luminous. The left one may not be as big as the right one, yet in that discrepancy there seems to be wisdom.
"That's your contour," she says. "It turns out funny."
She lives by three rules in contour drawing: "One, draw honest lines. Two, if you make a mistake, leave it. Three, don't lose your line."
Her voice is strong and full, and her conversation is sprinkled with exclamations of "Mercy!" She handles her new-found artistic fame with a disarming charm. Asked for the age of one of her daughters, she responds, "Mercy! I don't know. She was born in '31 or '32. I don't keep track of age."
She's also a bit of a ham. To thank the city of Manhattan, Kan., after one of her shows there, she drew a picture for the city and also wrote a haiku titled "To Manhattan." She recites: "Splendid city, famed for its Tyrian purple royal hues! Right On!" She adds, "It's a college town."
She met her second husband, Glenn Layton, through their children--her daughter, Carolyn, married Glenn Layton's son, Glenn Jr. "His first wife died of cancer," she says. "I thought I needed to protect him from all these other women. We've been married 26 years now. We thought we'd have a year."
Where the depression in her life came from is difficult for her to pinpoint. "I've thought a lot about that," she says. "I don't know. I really had a bad case of inferiority complex. In Sunday school, they used to teach us that they throw the baby girls to the crocodiles . . . You know, they're killing baby girls in China."
She credits her art with eradicating most of her depression. "I don't have much of that anymore. It just came to me about 10 months into drawing--'I'm not depressed anymore. This is therapy.' "
The hardest part of her new career, she says, was going to sign up for the course. "To go down there, with all those kids. It was just tiring. To look across that campus looked like 100 miles."
Feeling inhibited during class time, she went home and drew pictures, often self-portraits, with abandon. Generally, they were not pretty pictures.
"I hated myself that bad," she says. "I had this terrible, terrible self-image. I hated myself." Now she draws herself differently. "I make myself beautiful," she says. "I put eye shadow on. I give myself pink cheeks and nice white hair. I have icky gray hair."
Two weeks into class, on the first anniversary of her son's death, she came home in the late morning, went upstairs to an airy room and drew at her desk until midnight. The result was the wrenching "On the Death of a Son." "Once you get through the anniversary," she says, "you're home free. It served its purpose."
The pictures kept coming. "One day my teacher said to me, 'I don't know what you're doing, but keep doing it.' "
They weren't all sad. She drew portraits of her husband, still one of her most faithful models, coming in the doorway with a rose in his hand. She drew a delightful portrait of herself and her granddaughter Barbara celebrating a messy Thanksgiving dinner of Kentucky Fried Chicken. "I just hate to cook so bad," she says. "I have cooked so many turkey dinners. This was my rebellion."
Her former teacher, Pal Wright, asked to buy her Thanksgiving picture. She declined the offer, but asked if she could buy some of his pottery. He suggested they trade. So Layton compromised.
"I told him I'd will it to him."