Florence Griswold: The Keeper of the Artists

by Deb Adamson

Illustrated by Annie Zimanski

($9.95, paperback, 36 pages, with 22 color illustrations)

($16.95, Hardback, 36 pages, with 22 color illustrations)

Florence Griswold: The Keeper of the Artists by Deb Adamson, illustrated by Anne Zimanski, is a wonderful book. It tells the story of Miss Florence Griswold, who is credited with making American art history by establishing the Lyme Art Colony, the epicenter of U.S. Impressionism, which still exists today nearly 100 years later. Florence called herself, “The Keeper of the Artists” and through the late 1800’s and early 1900’s played hostess to some of the most famous artists in American history. It was artist Henry Ward Ranger who initially established Griswold House as a Barbizon art-colony but then years later with the arrival of Childe Hassam it was transformed into one of the largest and most famous, American home of Impressionism.

The artists never really minded the run-down appearance of Griswold House. They enjoyed low rent and beautiful scenery, which was what drew them to be together there year after year, encouraging each other and going on to sell more and more paintings valued by city people.

Florence Griswold’s home and story can be experienced today by visitors to Miss Florence’s house. After her death, in 1937 her artist friends founded The Florence Griswold Museum, located in Old Lyme, Connecticut. [www.florencegriswoldmuseum.org]

This museum tells the story of Miss Florence’s days living amongst her many cats and dogs, two or three, hosting famous artists and even a future president of the United States and his artist wife. Visitors get to see a turn-of-the-century art colony and those famous door and wall-panel paintings, all left as forever gifts to her, the woman The New York Times called, “The Patron Saint of Artists.”

Miss Florence’s reputation as a gracious and generous woman is exemplified in the story of artist Willard Metcalf’s offer to gift her, as payment for boarding, a painting of The Griswold House called “May Night.” Miss Florence refused because she told him it was his best work ever. As usual, she was right. And yet, Miss Florence continued to struggle financially. That is, until the artists surprised her, paying her overdue bills, and then dramatically renovating her home, giving it, and her, new life.

Press review:

“Mystic’s Deb Adamson wrote a picture book for kids about Old Lyme arts icon Florence Griswold” by Kristina Dorsey [see below]

Press Review

Mystic’s Deb Adamson wrote a picture book for kids about Old Lyme arts icon Florence Griswold

by Kristina Dorsey

While plenty of books have been written about Florence Griswold over the years, Deb Adamson realized there was an omission: no children’s picture book.

Adamson has written children’s picture books before and, since the Old Mystic resident is such a fan of the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, she decided to take on Miss Florence as her next subject.

The interest comes to Adamson honestly. She says the Florence Griswold Museum is one of her favorite museums “absolutely anywhere … It’s such a gem.”

When her son was young, they would often trundle over to the site.

“They have great programming there for kids. He loved the story (of Florence Griswold), and I loved the story,” she recalls.

A couple of years ago, she wrote the Griswold manuscript and began pitching it to a lot of publishers. She says that while a lot of big editors loved it, they thought Florence Griswold was more of a regional story.

Taking that into consideration, she changed her tack and pitched it to Little Red Tree Publishing, a small publishing company that used to be based in New London. It was founded by Michael Linnard and Tamara Martin in 2006, and the married couple and their company have since moved to Nebraska.

“I think he missed this area so much that he felt like this is a story that meant a lot for him to be told,” Adamson says.

And so “Florence Griswold, The Keeper of the Artists” was recently published. The book is illustrated in mixed-media style by children’s book illustrator Annie Zimanski, and it is aimed at ages 5 and up.

Adamson is donating a portion of her proceeds to help support education programming at the Florence Griswold Museum. Representatives from the Florence Griswold Museum reviewed the manuscript but otherwise weren’t involved with the book.

Part of what propelled Adamson to write about Griswold (who lived from 1850 to 1937) was her role as the heart and driving force behind what became America’s best-known Impressionist art colony.

Adamson references a 1926 quote from travel writer Clara Walker Whiteside: “It is around ‘Miss Florence’s’ house that most of the art life centers, or has originated. Every painter who has ever been to Lyme knows Miss Florence Griswold. She takes good care of them, is interested in their work, and they find there that intangible thing, an art atmosphere.”

Imagining Florence’s childhood

In writing a children’s picture book about a famous figure, an author has to whittle down a life to something understandable and digestible for youngsters. And Adamson will do the same type of thing with her next nonfiction biography for kids, “Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag,” coming out in spring 2021 from Starbright Books.

“You really need to try to engage and not present in a curatorial manner where it doesn’t pull them in. There’s a little bit of a fun twist to this where we imagine Florence’s childhood. We don’t know exactly what Florence was like as a young child. We can only assume that from the type of woman she was when she was older, she just seemed like the most amazingly warm, wonderful person,” Adamson says, noting that Griswold took in cats and dogs and, of course, opened the boarding house that provided a place for artists to stay.

“My whole take on writing this story about her (was) you don’t have to be somebody who’s a big personality and has dreams of grandeur to make your mark on the world. Florence is a person who had a big heart, and that’s what runs through the story as well. She loved animals and she loved people; she brought them into her home. And she created what was one of America’s best-known impressionist artists colonies. It’s just an amazing thing that you can be somebody who doesn’t have a grand education or a grand goal in life other than to be a welcoming person who brings people into your home,” Adamson says.

In “Florence Griswold, The Keeper of the Artists,” Adamson imagines that Florence took in dogs and cats when she was a child, just as she did in her adult years.

In the book, Adamson writes that Florence “had a heart so big, wide, and welcoming.” She details how artists began congregating at Florence’s boarding house, painting landscapes and having great fun — playing baseball and racing to the Lieutenant River.

The storyline turns when Griswold, a generous soul, finds herself owing money on overdue bills. The artists band together to pay her bills and to spruce up the Griswold House.

The back book cover is where more of Griswold’s history and impact are detailed, along with information about the Florence Griswold Museum.

Adamson sees “The Keeper of the Arts” as a great teaching tool, for both teachers and parents; kids could benefit from reading it before or after visiting the Florence Griswold Museum.

The road to writing

Before this latest chapter in her career, Adamson was a radio news director from 1986 to 1991 and worked in public relations at Mystic Aquarium from 1991 to 2001. She then wrote a syndicated column about homeschooling her son, which was in more than 250 newspapers.

Adamson started teaching essay and memoir writing a half-dozen years ago at Three Rivers Community College in Norwich. She then did the same at Mystic & Noank Library and, for the last three years, has been teaching writing for older adults at Stoneridge senior living community in Stonington.

“That has been the most wonderful experience for me. I love those people. I love the stories that they share. I’m a story lover, and that’s why I love telling Florence Griswold’s story, too. I just love hearing people’s stories,” she says.

Adamson, who grew up in Brockton, Mass., says her mother was instrumental in inspiring her to write. When Deb was a child, they would spend hours at the library, and their house was full of books.

Adamson says that her mother didn’t think of herself as a writer but “my sisters and I have dresser drawers full of beautiful hand-written letters from her that bring her voice back to each of us.”

That brings her back to why she loves teaching memoir at Stoneridge so much.

“I personally know that the written word can help those we love live on, spanning generations, sharing family voice and history,” she says.