A Life: Harriet Frye, 1914 — 2013; ‘When She Told You Her Stories, You Didn’t Want to Leave’
Harriet Frye teaches an art class in Virginia in 1989. (Family photograph)
Harriet Frye, taken in Virginia in 1995. (Family photograph)
White River Junction — Harriet Frye dropped anchor in the Upper Valley late in a long life of adventure and creativity — and, early on, showed her new neighbors that she was just warming up.
“She participated in a number of exhibitions here between 1999 and about 2004 or 2005, and right from the start, she had a remarkable presence — feisty, energetic and curious,” Bente Torjusen, director of the AVA Gallery in Lebanon, recalled last week. “Every time she came in, you knew you had a special visitor. You always felt like she had more to do in her life and her art. I can see her coming in here, and I can see that marvelous expression on her face — curious, engaged, full of life.
“She was filled with an urgency that was rare to see.”
Her daughter Ellen Frye learned from her mother’s tales — and linoleum-block prints — of her trip in a houseboat down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers during the depths of the Great Depression; of family bicycle journeys around England and northern Europe in the 1950s, and the sketches and paintings with which she recounted those expeditions and from the many paintings and children’s book illustrations that Frye produced — particularly of Chesapeake Bay fishermen and other aquatic subjects.
And that tide of urgency rarely ebbed — from the moment that Harriet and John Frye moved from Virginia into a house down the street from Ellen in White River Junction in 1999, until Harriet Frye died this past Aug. 22 at age 99.
“There was a tool shed with windows, which she immediately turned into her studio,” Ellen Frye said. “Most of the boxes (from Frye’s previous home in Virginia) hadn’t been unpacked, but the canvasses were.”
Canvasses and sketchbooks, onto and into which Frye would continue to translate ideas, impressions and emotions from her and John’s voyages of discovery before, and their compromises after, they moored at several assisted-living facilities and nursing homes in the Upper Valley.
“After Harriet passed away, Ellen let me keep a sketchbook of sailboats from back in Virginia,” family friend Joan Snell, of Hanover, recalled. “Some of the sails look almost ghostly. There are flocks of boats and flocks of birds that almost look alike.”
Of the paintings that Frye used to contribute to AVA’s annual art auction, Torjusen particularly remembers “her seascapes. They were really special.”
The Mariners’ Museum of Newport, Va., and the Virginia Institute of Natural Sciences found Frye’s oil paintings of fishermen on the Chesapeake special enough to hang in its permanent collections.
“When I told her about it, I asked if she’d like to see them,” Ellen Frye said. “She said, ‘No, I’ve seen them.’ She didn’t care about seeing them again. She cared that they were up where people could see them.”
She was also too busy continuing to create, and to share the power of creation.
During their Saturday-morning drives around the Upper Valley, “Harriet taught me how to sketch trees in the winter and early spring,” Snell remembered. “And churches, too. She could take over after I’d drawn two or three lines and turn it into a church.
“When she fixed somebody else’s picture, she could turn it into a living thing.”
The teaching instinct followed Frye to her final home, at Genesis Healthcare’s Lebanon Center.
“She helped our rehabilitation and activity department run an art class for a while,” Lebanon Center administrator Martha Chesley said. “It was very well received. She shared her knowledge, shared her enjoyment. When we had art shows, she would proudly explain that ‘This was this,’ and ‘this was that.’
“She was very full of life. She was a great example of somebody who kept moving forward.”
Harriet and John rode their houseboat from Cincinnati to New Orleans with their then-toddler son Keith in 1937.
“We powered from the wharf, past a dredge and, just beyond Cairo Point, turned off the engine,” Frye wrote in Riverdrift, the unpublished book she co-wrote with John and illustrated, shortly before relocating to the confluence of the White and Connecticut Rivers. “We looked upstream. The Mississippi looked like the tributary. We looked downstream. The big stern-wheeler D.R. Weller was pushing her barges toward the Ohio. Brown froth stretched behind her, a dirty petticoat.
“Then something gripped the Hattie Belle. A great traveling vise under the water tightened on the little boat. There was no turning back. The Mississippi would take us until it tired of the sport.”
Frye, who was born in Omaha, Neb., and grew up in St. Joseph, Mo., a town along the Missouri River, never tired of telling stories, even after time eroded her powers to brush and to draw them into life.
“She had her typewriter, and she’d be writing away,” Ellen Frye said. “She was the keeper of the family stories — the ancestor in 1809 who died on the high seas, that kind of thing. I thought at first that she told those stories because family was important. But I think she also dwelt on the ones who were adventurous.
“She was drawn to them.”
Drawn as surely as she drew viewers and listeners to her work. And to her.
“When you looked in her eyes, she had these beautiful blue eyes,” Chesley said. “You knew what she was saying came from deep within. When she told you her stories, you didn’t want to leave.”