THE WONDERFUL PAINTINGS OF GERTRUDE CATO
In her apartment in the Dakota, Ruth Ford had many paintings hanging on the walls; so many visitors often commented to me that they felt as if they were visiting a fine art gallery. Ruth and her husband Zachary Scott had enjoyed collecting art for many years, and they enjoyed the friendship of many artists as well.
|Potrait of Charles Henri Ford by Gertrude Cato|
The walls of Ruth’s apartment were especially full of paintings by Pavel Tchelitchew, the longtime companion of her brother, Charles Henri Ford. But there were also many paintings on the walls done by Gertrude Cato, Charles and Ruth’s mother. Ruth had her mother’s paintings hanging in most of the rooms in her apartment, very special paintings that never got much attention. Gertrude Cato did have one show in New York, at the Blanche Bonestall Gallery in 1946, but other than that, the paintings remained part of the Fords’ private collection at home, and over the last fifty years they have not been seen outside the Dakota.
The paintings are all signed “Gertrude Cato.” She never used her married name of Ford when signing any of her work. Some of her paintings are of cats, particularly interesting-looking, surreal cats, whose faces became very familiar to me with over the many years of seeing them in Ruth’s apartment. In addition to the paintings on the walls, Ruth had many more of her mother’s paintings and drawings stored away, some unopened since the days when they were wrapped in the 1940s and ‘50s.
|Painting by Gertrude Cato|
Gertrude Cato was born Minnie Gertrude Cato in Copiah County, Mississippi, on September 27th, 1886, to Henry and Ruth Higdon Cato. She married Charles Lloyd Ford in 1907, and their two children were named after her parents. The Fords owned several hotels in various towns in the South, so while they might not have been fabulously wealthy, they were certainly not poor and Charles and Ruth both went to good private schools as children.
Gertrude always enjoyed the pleasure of traveling and she had a taste for adventure that she shared with Charles and Ruth. She first took them to visit New York City some time in the early 1920s, and it has been written that there were arguments between Gertrude and her husband, Charles Lloyd Ford, over her spending money on frivolous trips that would have been better spent somewhere else, or saved. She was not a typical mother of her time, and her bohemian spirit was inherited by her children. When they were grown, She loved spending time with them, in interesting places. Pavel Tchelitchew gave her painting lessons and encouraged her work, which flourished, although it doesn’t appear that she was particularly ambitious about “success” but painted more for the pleasure of doing it. As an artist Gertrude Cato lived in the shadow of her much more successful children, but there is no evidence to suggest that she minded.
Not long ago Jonathan Rabinowitz, publisher of Turtle Point Press came to visit along with Rose Burlingham, who is presenting an exhibit of Gertrude Cato’s paintings in the gallery of the Harlem Jazz and Gospel Getaway on West 123rd Street. We opened some of the wrapped drawings that had been stored for so long the wrapping paper had turned brittle and crumbled as we opened them. Thankfully the bright, lively drawings inside were just as pristine as the day they were wrapped. Gertrude Cato’s style is full of color and the pictures are like dreams. One can look into the face of one of the cats and see Charles Henri Ford’s eyes. Jonathan Rabinowitz looked at a painting of three faces together and guessed that they were meant to be Gertrude, Charles and Ruth.
|Gertrude, Charles and Ruth|
When I forwarded to my email list the press release from Rose Burlingham announcing the show, including a photograph of Gertrude taken by Pavel Tchelitchew, I got an interesting response from a close friend of Ruth’s in Mississippi, named Maude Schuyler Clay. She is an established artist herself, with some of her beautiful photographs of the Mississippi Delta published in a recent book called Delta Land. In her email she wrote:
“Thank you so much for sending the notice about Gertrude Cato. Do you know I have never even seen a picture of Mrs. Ford? And the one you sent is fabulous. This was the lady that my grandmother (Minnie Maude McMullen May) was so frightened of; that her daughter, Ann May (later Eggleston, the mother of William Eggleston the photographer) would be "corrupted" by Mrs. Ford in NYC. She said Mrs. Ford "lived like a gypsy." Of course Ann was fascinated when she lived with Ruth and C.H. and Mrs. Ford in NYC and went to Columbia. She said it was possibly the most interesting bunch of people she ever met in her life. Of course it sounds like it would have been!”
From the stories about Gertrude Cato Ford that remain, it seems that nothing she did was ordinary. She once told Charles about the night that she gave birth to Ruth. She was having a dinner party, and in the middle of it, she got up, told the cook to keep things going, and went to her room to have the baby. She said her guests could hardly believe it.
In 1967, a woman named Barbara Izard (co-author of a book called Requiem for a Nun, Onstage and Off about the play that was written for Ruth Ford by William Faulkner) visited Hazelhurst, Mississippi, where Charles and Ruth were children. There she met a relative of Gertrude Cato’s named Mrs. Gillis Cato who was then in her eighties. Mrs. Gillis Cato told Barbara Izard that she remembered Gertrude as an actress. And she said that in her opinion, Gertrude was more talented as an actress than her daughter Ruth.
It is difficult to find much written about Gertrude Cato, but looking at her many paintings and drawings shows a person of imagination and cleverness. She seems to have been a true free spirit, perhaps something of an eccentric. In a diary entry from December 1950, published in Water From a Bucket A Diary 1948-1957 (Turtle Point Press), Charles Henri Ford writes, “Mother says she’ll buy a cattle-ranch or angora goat farm in Arizona if I want to help run it,” adding a few entries later, in February, that Tchelitchew called Gertrude “a great dreamer.” It is easy to imagine that when Charles decided to start his little magazine, Blues, at age 16, he must have had lots of encouragement from his mother.
|A Painting by Gertrude Cato|
In 1957, some months after her death, Charles described a colorful dream he had in his diary: “Mother and I were sightseeing (dreamed last night). Was it an open car we were in? She turned her head to look at something and lifted her tight-fitting hat, which came off with her hair (false hair): underneath hat and hair was her close-cropped head. Further down the road along came a man on an enormous pig; he was wearing an Indian Chief’s headdress. I wondered why Mother had had her air clipped: I asked her but she wouldn’t tell me.”
If she could have seen that dream, perhaps Charles’s mother might have turned it into a painting. Charles and Ruth were very close to her until her untimely death in an accident while traveling in Mexico, on January 28th, 1956. And her presence was always around them as long as they both lived. I hope you will join me in celebrating the extraordinary talent of Gertrude Cato at the opening of her exhibition on Wednesday the 29th of February 2012. You can schedule a viewing appointment by calling (646) 229-0998.
WORKS ON PAPER 1945-50
FEBRUARY 29-MARCH 18
THE PINK ROOM@HARLEM JAZZ AND GOSPEL GETAWAY
2 WEST 123RD STREET
NEW YORK CITY
WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 29TH 6-8