Ann Riley


This weekend I began taking seriously the notion of decorating my studio - now that I've had some time (a year...) to settle in, which led me to pull out the large trove of drawings and paintings I have by my Great Grandmother Ann Riley, thinking I'd have a few framed.

I spent a few hours on the floor pouring over sheaf after sheaf of century-old paper (remarkable paper too - toothy and leather soft - unlike any made today) and found it such a personal way to connect to an ancestor - to touch a piece of art they made, a record of what they saw, how their hands moved...

I grew up looking at Ann's paintings (the only original artwork hanging in my parent's house) - being told as I developed an aptitude for drawing that the artistic gene ran in the family - but until a few years ago, I hadn't seen most of the extant work of G.G. Ann, which include many paintings completed in her maturity, but also a huge amount of student work, sketches and studies.  

Anna Tully at 21 - Perhaps just after graduating from Pratt Institute


I was, very fortunately, given these drawings to safeguard by my cousin Elizabeth Riley Bell, the educator and Scotch expert (a taste for which is another gene that seems to run in the family...). Smartly, Elizabeth retains the true masterworks of Ann's oeuvre, which she kindly allowed me to photograph - and perhaps I'll eventually share some here.

However, it's these pencil drawings that I reached to as I cast about for something to adorn my walls.  I've had, each time I look at these images, the most profound sensation - one of conspiratorial intimacy with the artist (the telepathic quality of viewing observational art - seeing through someone else's eyes) - of admiration at the skill and precocity of such a young woman (she was 19 when she completed many of these) - and a sense of my own smallness yet belonging in time (which is, after all, what family and history give us) - but most remarkably, an uncanny recognition of myself, like a shared family handwriting quirk, in the mark making of this woman, who died before I was born, and yet without a doubt, perceived as I do and responded with the same inclination toward hatching, value assignment and shorthand.  

This is something I've never felt looking at another artists drawings - as though I'd drawn it myself and forgotten I'd done so. Its a dreamlike illusion. It feels like a strong argument for nature over nurture - even in the arts, which are so dependent on practice and attention. We certainly have many differences as artists, her strengths are not necessarily mine, and vice versa - but there's a similarity I can't ignore and I have to conclude its a comforting feeling. Art is so often about being alone - feeling alone. Great grandma Ann's art makes me feel less alone - and that is a profound epitaph for any artist.  


A world traveler late in life - Ann Riley exploring antiquity in Greece.

I'd love to write up a more complete biography of Ann someday - She led a remarkable life, not only traveling and teaching as an artist, serving as a leader in the arts in her community and of course painting, but also raising 3 boys through the ordinary trials of life and the unique torments of the mid 20th century (All 3 went to war and her oldest son died fighting in the Pacific). But today - I just want to share a few of her drawings and describe some of the reactions I've had living with them and the connections they stir in me.  

I hope you can feel some of the same things I do when you see them.