Our Maine Woman: LC Van Savage and her Story Bowls

Posted Wednesday, August 31, 2011 in Features

Our Maine Woman: LC Van Savage and her Story Bowls

"Claudia Rose," story bowl by LC Van Savage

by Avery Hunt

Move over, Grandma Moses. You have some serious competition from another self-taught American folk artist. And, unlike you, she is still alive and kicking, and living right here in midcoast Maine. Her name should be familiar to many, as she is none other than New Maine Times columnist LC Van Savage. She too is a grandma, and paints in a primitive style, but there the similarities end.

To make her art more interesting, LC does not paint on canvas or any other conventional surface, but rather on ceramic bowls. That’s right, bowls. She uses this unusual medium to paint small, primitive renditions of a special family memory. The way she works is very personal. A potential client will be interviewed about the specifics of the family story that he or she would like to have memorialized. Then LC creates a fanciful, primitive piece of art – inside a shallow bowl or a deep platter.  She calls them “story bowls.” Never heard of such a thing? Neither had I. But take a look at a few of her pieces, and you will be hooked.

For many years LC painted entire life stories for people all over the country, and a few in Europe, as traditional paintings, but in her unique, primitive style. “They were huge — some as large as 4 by 5 feet — incredibly detailed paintings, and while I loved doing OPS (Other People’s Stories) they eventually became too overwhelming. Now I'm happily doing one simple story — on the insides of bowls.”  Why such a crazy idea? “Bowls have a universal appeal; they are amongst the most ancient, necessary and appealing of implements.”

LC has one major rule for all her clients: “I'll paint people's personal stories on my bowls or theirs, as long as they understand that they can't put food into them, ever. Once painted and varnished, a story bowl is a NO FOOD ZONE forever! And don’t throw your keys in there either; the paint could crack.”

LC keeps a stash of bowls in her crowded basement studio. She collects them on forays to the local Goodwill and Salvation Army stores, and sometimes from flea markets, but she limits any such purchase to “four bucks a bowl; that’s it!” Plain white vessels are the preferred background, for obvious reasons. 

Her technique is simple. First, a white primer is painted on the entire interior surface, to roughen it up a bit. Then she paints a “story”  with tiny brushes, using bright acrylics in primary colors. Over all that, she then slathers protective clear varnish. The result is a one-of-a-kind, funky piece of art.

For instance, a friend’s son was about to be married. LC painted a wedding couple in full marriage regalia, arms entwined, sitting on an apple-blossom swing, which hangs from a whimsically bending apple tree. They are barefoot and smiling. Her satisfied customer was Peggy Siegle of Brunswick. She raves that “LC made a ‘wedding bowl’ for my son and his fiancee for a bridal shower. My future daughter-in-law claimed it was the most unique gift she got. The rare folk art that LC does amazed everyone who saw it and they loved the fact that it was so personal.”

Or hear from another highly satisfied customer, Susan White, also of Brunswick: “My husband Charlie and I look at 'Mitten's Bowl' every day. It sits on our kitchen table and is a wonderful likeness of our sweet black kitty; it even includes his favorite toy — a piece of rope! When I found out that LC had a new talent, we wanted her to memorialize this very special guy. I sent her several photos, one of him next to a pumpkin, and she even incorporated that into the bowl. LC went to extremes, and spent considerable time making sure we'd be happy with our bowl. We certainly are!”

Sherri Bartlett of Harpswell was stumped for what to get for her mother’s birthday and finally had the inspiration to commission LC, having seen samples of her charming bowls. “I told her my mother’s favorite passion was anything witha  Western motif. She loves all cowboy/cowgirl things. So LC painted the interior of her bowl a deep red (atypical!) and put my mother in a white fringed cowgirl outfit, on a fabulous rearing black horse, her cowboy hat held high. She even painted in my aunt and me waving to her. My mother just loves that story bowl. It brings our family so much joy. It’s become an heirloom already!”

Martha Mayo of Bath came upon LC’s talent in a different way. As director of the Chocolate Church's biennial “Hot Chocolate Jubilee,” she approached LC, who was working for the Times Record newspaper, to do an article on the show. They got to chatting and Martha asked her what sorts of things she was doing. “Nothing as important as you,” answered LC modestly. But when pushed, she did talk about her newest venture, the story bowls. Martha pounced on the idea, saying that would be a perfect surprise gift for her husband, former Maine legislator Arthur Mayo, on his upcoming 75th birthday. LC asked what was their favorite thing and Martha told her about summers on Squirrel Island, outside of Boothbay. That was enough to get LC started. The imaginative result — a happy, silver-haired couple sitting on a deck, holding hands and gazing out at the busy blue sea — was a huge hit. LC even added the special whimsy of a tiny coffin floating in the water, as a nod to Art’s family funeral business in Bath.   

A little background on our artist, whose list of accomplishments, notwithstanding her self-deprecation, is impressive: She and her husband, Steve (aka Mongo in her various columns over the years), have lived in Brunswick since 1974. They’ve been happily married for 53 years, have three sons and six grandchildren. LC wrote a weekly column called “LC’s Take” in the Times Record for over 28 years. She also writes poetry, and published a book of her own poems. She sometimes does readings around Maine from her poetry book, columns and books. 

Speaking of books, she has written several collaboratively, with a specialty on Hollywood stars of yesteryear. One, a few years back, she wrote with Marilyn Monroe's first husband, Jim Dougherty: "To Norma Jean with Love, Jimmie." She also hosts a local TV show on the  Maine Public Broadcasting Network called "incredibleMAINE," in which she and her crew travel all over the state to film interesting shows about Maine people and the things they do. These shows appear every Saturday at 10:30 a.m. on MPBN.

Despite her vast writing experiences, today she admits that painting has always come first. “Many years ago I tried to learn how to paint ‘properly’ but the primitive-naive-outsider style of painting was where my heart has always been, and I've never been able to lose the appeal that style of painting has for me and happily for my customers.”

The name of LC’s “company” is We Really Should Look Into This!, "because I thought people would put these bowls on a table or low shelf so they could look down into them. But some people actually hang them, or prop them upright."

The cost for a story bowl ranges from $75 upwards, depending on the size and complexity of the work. A good-sized platter with a lot of detail, for instance, can entail more than 10 hours of work.

LC’s artwork, including bowls, can be found on the website, www.galeriebonheur.com/american/elsiesavage/lcsavage.htm, or contact her through the New Maine Times.  

What is her dream for her bowl creations? “I have this fantasy that 100 years from now, one of my pieces turns up on 'Antiques Roadshow' and some expert will say, ‘Oh yes, that’s an LC Van Savage story bowl and it’s worth gadzillions!' "

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