We all need to know more about Polly King's "Portrait Ladies."
But first, we need to know a bit more about Polly King.
You walk inside the Polly King Art Gallery at 670 Chilton Ave. and you can't help but be overwhelmed by the paintings. Though I never had the chance to meet her, it's easy to see a bit of her soul when you stand in the rooms where she used to live and work. Light and color burst from every image. It's hard to spot a painting that is not compelling.
I have been a fan of Polly King's work since I first saw it. Full disclosure, one of her grandsons is a longtime friend of my husband and he and his family are dear to me, but that's not why I'm captivated by her work. There's a secondary story about her son, Don, battling his whole life to get his mother her due.
The quantity and quality of her work is unimaginable until you see it with your own eyes. There are thousands of paintings hanging on all the walls, standing in racks and filed in cabinets, but most impressive to me are the ladies.
Starting in 1926 through to her death at age 91 in 1993, Polly painted women who lived in Niagara Falls, some of note, some of interest only to her. The paintings themselves are amazing but just as fascinating is a book being compiled about the lives of each of the women in the portrait series.
Recently, I visited the Polly King Gallery and met Sandra Rutkowski, a retired nurse who met Polly at the artist's 90th birthday art exhibit.
"I bought a little watercolor she had painted and I was immediately taken with her," Rutkowski told me. "She lost my check and called me about it and when I went over with another check, she invited me to stay for tea."
The two became friends and, in December of 1991, Polly called Sandra and said: "Come over here and bring a hat, I'm going to paint your portrait."
"She did my portrait in watercolor and it took her less than an hour," Sandra recalled. "She was really just amazing."
Polly's legacy was left in the hands of those who loved her.
"When Polly died, there were over 200 portraits in her house and I was curious as to who they were,” Sandra told me.
She set on a mission 22 years ago to find out who they all were and that involved library visits, interviews and a hunt for personal details that resulted in five huge binders with the stories of as many of the women as she could find.
The depth of the project is immense, but each time Rutkowski digs up a new detail, it’s a little triumph. She's especially curious about 20 or so women she can't identify and how many more portraits there are out in the community, that the artist gave away. The hunt goes on.
If Sandra is successful in getting the book published, she plans for proceeds to go to scholarships for high school art students, in the name of the “Portrait Ladies.”
"It's important to involve the younger generation,” she told me. “A lot of them don't know about our local history and our local artists. A lot of the ’Portrait Ladies’ are artists and that is what is exciting about the books.”
Sara Capen, director of the Niagara Heritage District, the driving agency behind the wondrous Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center, is a also a big fan of Polly's work, especially the "Portrait Ladies." She hopes to assist efforts to create an exhibit of the ladies.
Capen says an exhibit would give voice to the stories of so many women who've been a part of this city's history.
"We can't go anywhere and see the story of the women of Niagara Falls. That whole story is invisible," she told me, adding that Polly's portraits and the books about the ladies are telling a multitude of untold stories.
The city's history abounds with patriarchal champions of industry, she told me, but we don’t really see the women behind the scenes who were making a difference in our community.
Those stories are being brought to life through Sandra Rutkowski's work.
"There’s a wonderful quotation out there about doing the humblest of work and making it noble and you find those stories in the work of Polly King," Rutkowski said.
Michele DeLuca can be reached at 282-2311, ext. 2263 or via email at email@example.com.