Betty Burdue carries on annual Morris the horse tradition

Published 3:00 am Wednesday, July 15, 2009

You&squo;ve no doubt seen Morris hanging out in the center of town at the corner of Trade and Pacolet, but have you seen the annual prints to commemorate this quirky small town tradition? Betty Burdue has been handed the torch and just completed the 2009 watercolor prints of Morris. I met Betty at her home studio one afternoon to see her watercolor work which fills most of her basement. Do you paint every day? Not every day. Right now I&squo;m pretty busy doing local scenes. I take all these pictures of churches and I thought the local church people would like to have theirs. I just finished this one. This is the United Congregational Church in Tryon. This is the Episcopalian. I just started on it. Morris 2008 watercolor by Betty Berdue This is last year&squo;s version of Morris, and this is this year&squo;s version of it. Oh fun! That&squo;s his birthplace. He&squo;s gone for a trip to look at his birthplace at Tryon Toy Makers. I&squo;m happy with it. These are note cards I have throughout town. I love the sunflowers. As we sat down on Betty&squo;s back patio to continue our conversation she handed me a copy of an article explaining the history of Morris the horse. Morris has become a symbol of Tryon and the equine size recreation of the most popular toy created in 1928 by the Tryon Toy Makers & Woodcarvers shop was given as a gift to the Tryon Riding and Hunt Club. Tryon House on Trade Street has a collection of original, not for sale Morris horses as well as new local Morris horses made by local artists including Betty&squo;s husband. They also display the collection of Morris watercolor paintings from previous years. I&squo;ve been checking into the history of these Tryon Toy Makers. This article was in Our State magazine and it tells all about Eleanor Vance and Charlotte Yale. I didn&squo;t know they were missionaries. I had never heard that. It told how they started. They went to England where they studied with a famous wood carver. They were up in Asheville for so long. The back part tells about the Tryon Toy Makers when they came down here. I found this very interesting. &dquo;&squo;Tryon has always been an unusual place,&squo; says art historian Michael McClure author of The Tryon Toy Makers and Wood Carvers. &squo;When Vance and Yale moved here, women could not sit on the jury in the Columbus Courthouse, but just down hill in Tryon they were running the town.&squo;&dquo; They joined a thriving artist colony, which I&squo;m sure you&squo;re familiar with, which included many creative independent women from New England and elsewhere. They&squo;d come on the train each summer and stay around in through here. Then it mentions all the famous people that were artists, and teaching young boys and girls to be weavers. They were here until the Second World War and they decided they had enough. They must have been pretty elderly by that time because they were talking about the turn of the century being up in Asheville. 1869-1954 was Eleanor Vance&squo;s life and Charlotte 1870-1958. Eleanor Park Vance learned her wood carving at the Cincinnati Art School and she met Charlotte Yale at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. They both prepared for missionary work. I don&squo;t think either one of them married. When they came down to Tryon all these wealthy women wanted toys for their children and grandchildren. The First World War was on and they couldn&squo;t get these things from Germany or Europe. That&squo;s why they had the ladies make all these things. It became something national. It says here, &dquo;World War I had disrupted the flow of hand crafted toys from Germany and Austria. Visiting New England blue bloods like Anna Cabin Putnam and Madelyn Yale Lynn president of Deerfield Industries in Massachusetts actively marketed the toys among their wide circle of friends and to Marshall Field in Chicago and other big stores. Company catalogs emphasized that the purchase of toys would help struggling mountain crafts people.&dquo; Eventually they came down here to take care of these &dquo;struggling crafts people.&dquo; &dquo;With the approach of World War II the dynamic duo ran out of steam. They were getting along in years and decided to retire closing up the Toy House as a retail outlet in 1940.&dquo; It says two different young couples took over shortly thereafter, but they didn&squo;t have the marketing connections so it just fell by the wayside. It looks like with these letters there&squo;s a joy and affection with the people they correspond with and the later letters written by others are more business oriented and to the point. It&squo;s amazing how much your tone in terms of written communication impacts your business. That&squo;s right. I mentioned they have new wooden Morris horses made by local artisans now. My husband is one of them. He was the only one until just recently. They&squo;re Christmas ornaments. Morris on the Golf Course watercolor by Betty Berdue When we came to Tryon, we belonged to the Tryon Country Club and they found out that I was an artist. Marc Brady the pro there said, &dquo;Could you paint a picture with Morris the horse on our golf course? We&squo;d like to have it maybe on hole number nine with the club house in the background.&dquo; I said, &dquo;Yeah, I can do that.&dquo; So, here it is with that look on his face. He sold quite a few of these and he mentioned it to Mary at Tryon House. She said, &dquo;Oh, would you have her stop in and see me. We don&squo;t have anyone that can do the Morris the horse annual picture any more.&dquo; I thought, &dquo;Well okay.&dquo; 2008 was the first year you painted the official Morris the horse painting? I&squo;ve taken over doing it. Last year she did fabulous with the prints. I think she sold 58 of them 16 x 20. It has worked out so well. Has painting been your profession, or is that something you&squo;ve just done in your free time? It was just a pastime. I went to night school. Enjoying myself, let&squo;s put it that way. In the summer&squo;s there, over the last fifteen years or so, we had the weekends with the white tents and the fine artists and I did those. My husband was my gofer. It&squo;s nice to have a gofer. You have to have a gofer. We had a boat that we went to every weekend, a Carver Mariner 33 footer. I noticed there was a lot of nautical influence in your paintings upstairs. Oh yes, I did every lighthouse in Michigan and all these nautical things with the boats. They sold very well at those shows, especially at Algonac which was right on the water. If you looked across the river Ontario was there. We were between Ontario and Michigan on this little island called Harsens. I got to do a lot of painting there too. So you&squo;ve found a niche painting the Morris pictures and you didn&squo;t even seek it out, it found you. You&squo;re right. I worked for 32 years in a school system in business. Did you teach? I was the administrative clerk of finance. I did all the investments for the school paychecks every two weeks. I had to deal with the banks and CDs and all that. My husband was in the newspaper business. He worked up in Romeo in Michigan at the Romeo Observer which was a little weekly magazine. This is all entirely different for us. We&squo;re only here six months of the year. We spend the other half in Florida. When we get old, then we&squo;ll be here full time. I&squo;ve found this new thing to do here with the cards and all. How did you find Tryon in the first place? We had these dear friends that lived up in Rochester Hills, Michigan with us and they played golf with Jay and all of a sudden they disappeared. Nobody knew where they had gone. One night about nine o&squo;clock the phone rang and it was Bruce. Bruce and Sandy who owed the property where there&squo;s the new restaurant out on 108. Giardini? Giardini. They bought the property from B
ruce and Sandy, but that&squo;s getting ahead of my story. He said, &dquo;Hi, I miss my buddies.&dquo; Their son had told them, &dquo;I found this wonderful town, Columbus, with mountains in the background, a stream running through, and a for sale sign on this piece of property. Dad, you&squo;ve got to come down and look at it.&dquo; This was just what they needed. They packed up the car, came down, looked at it, bought the property, and were here for fourteen years. Bruce said, &dquo;You&squo;re never going to come visit us.&dquo; We said, &dquo;Yes, we will.&dquo; On our way from Florida to Michigan we would stop by and fell in love with the whole area. We did it for three years. Finally the third year we found this place, and here we are in Tryon. Then our friends Sandy and Bruce had a buyer for their property which was the Giardinis, and they went back to Michigan. Oh, no. You finally get settle here and they leave? Do they come down and visit you now? We&squo;re trying to talk them into it. Did you study watercolor in your free time? In my free time until I retired. We have two daughters. One is a teacher in Michigan. She teaches autistic children. The other daughter had to move to Washington D.C. Her husband is a White House correspondent for National Public Radio. We had two daughters in college for three years, so it was very necessary that we both work throughout our marriage. Since we retired, life has been wonderful. Our health has been good, and we&squo;re pursuing our interests, which for me has been painting. Down in Florida we live in a lovely town on the gulf side of Venice called Nokomis after Hiawatha&squo;s grandmother. Venice has a fabulous art center there and I take a lot of classes just to keep myself busy. I noticed your father&squo;s painting was oil and you have some oils you&squo;ve painted upstairs in the house, but most of what you&squo;re doing is watercolors. Is there a reason for choosing watercolor over oil? The funny thing on that, I did oils when I got into the art shows in Michigan. My husband would sit and watch the people carrying packages by and he said, &dquo;You know, they&squo;re all admiring your work, but they&squo;re all buying watercolors. They&squo;re cheaper.&dquo; I said, &dquo;Well, I guess I could learn how to do watercolors, but it&squo;s supposedly an unforgiving art.&dquo; I took up watercolor painting and have been doing it ever since. Why are the watercolors less expensive? You can have prints made of them is the main reason. With oil, that&squo;s the original and that&squo;s that. With watercolors you can get prints made and they&squo;re on paper rather than on canvas. We took a break to travel down to Tryon House and visit with Mary and see the display of Morris watercolors. Who started the Morris watercolor series? Mary: Paul Keenan. How long did he do them annually? Mary: The paper used to do huge write-ups about him so there&squo;s a lot of history there. He was a Tryon artist, but he actually lives in Saluda now. The earliest one I see is 1993. He stopped two or three years ago then? Mary: Yes, as he got older. I have all of the number one prints except for three. If you can find the Tryon First Settlers, that one goes for about $250. Betty: You used to be the only store that could sell Morris the horse items right? Mary: This store has the trademark on receptacles, trash cans, mailboxes, jewelry, and apparel. We do not have the trademark on the wood carvings, because the whole thing is the result of the Tryon Toy Makers. When I bought the store part of the purchase price was for the trademark. People got over being upset about the lady in 1983 just deciding to trademark things that were being made for years, but nobody contested it, they let her do it. When Larry and Vicki purchased it, people liked them and they just understood that this was the only place that the wood carvings were sold. People were real loyal with that. Morris 2009 watercolor by Betty Berdue Betty: That&squo;s why The Bookshelf can carry the paintings and some of the wood carvings. Vines and Stuff has some of my note cards, but they don&squo;t have Morris on them. You can stop in to visit Mary at the Tryon House and see the series of Morris prints for yourself. Betty Burdue&squo;s Morris 2009 prints are now available for purchase to continue this fun tradition commemorating the history of artists and crafts people in our community.

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