Professor Scanlon Revisits a Unique Group of Women Printmakers

Jen Scanlon, with the Folly Cove Designers print, "Sugar Bush"

Jen Scanlon, with a Folly Cove Designers print, “Sugar Bush,” by Libby Holloran

For nearly 30 years, between 1941 and 1969, a diverse group of women in Cape Ann, Mass., produced elegant, original prints, many depicting scenes of rural New England. Using carved linoleum blocks, the women printed table linens, draperies, clothing, greeting cards and wallpaper.

The printmakers, who were known as the Folly Cove Designers, are now largely forgotten, despite having achieved both interesting designs and an unusual art collective in a pre-feminist era.

Jen Scanlon, the William R. Kenan, Jr. professor of gender and women’s studies at Bowdoin, recently spoke about the Folly Cove Designers at one of the college’s weekly faculty seminars. At these seminars, professors share the fruits of their research with colleagues. Scanlon’s paper on the printmakers,“Art, Craft, or the Space Between?”, will appear this summer in The Massachusetts Review.

Scalon inherited her research project from Penny Martin, a retired Bowdoin education professor. Martin, in the 1990s, conducted hundreds of hours of oral interviews with former Folly Cove designers. A few years ago, Martin asked Scanlon whether she was interested in using the recorded, transcribed interviews for her own research. Scanlon took on the project because of the questions that the collective raised about the difference between crafts and art, and about the gendered nature of artistic work.

A children’s book author and illustrator named Virginia “Jinnee” Lee Burton Demetrios founded the Folly Cove art collective when she and her husband moved to Cape Ann. Demetrios first offered challenging design classes to local women, believing that “every person had artistic potential,” Scanlon said. “It was a way to give them art in their everyday lives.”

Women joined the collective from all walks of life, from local working class women to transplanted upperclass Bostonians. At its biggest, the collective had about 50 women. “Many of [the members] stayed with it for decades,” Scanlon said. After Demetrios died in 1968, the collective disbanded.

The group has not received scholarly attention, up to now. While she has began that process, Scanlon believes the best person to look critically at the collective’s work and its communal creative process should have a well-developed understanding of design as well as of the social history of the period. “Maybe a Bowdoin student will choose this as her honors project,” she proposed.

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