Portrait of My Grandmother

BY LOIS SHAW, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR


There’s a grandmother hanging on a laundry bag in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. I saw her there two days ago, and then I heard the story of her grandson’s dream to paint her portrait. 

Archibald Motley was a teenager growing up in South Side, Chicago, and a most unlikely artist. Archibald’s father was a porter on the passenger trains that roared in and out of Chicago and didn’t make enough money for luxuries like canvas and paints for his son’s unusual requests. It burdened him that he couldn’t provide this for his son. 

One day as Archibald’s father was putting away the laundry for travelers on the train, he realized the back of the laundry bags were just right for an artist’s canvas. And so it happened that Archibald painted the portrait of his grandmother. Her dignity, her hands and fingers, so elegant, but clearly weathered by time and work.

Archibald went on to become a famous artist during the Harlem Renaissance, but the painting that hangs today in the National Gallery is the one painted with love and honor of Emily Motley—on the back of a laundry bag. 

Today on Mother's Day, I pay tribute to the legacy and strength of grandmothers and mothers and the sons and grandsons who honor them well. Sometimes the finest stories are those that find expression amidst the grit and grace of life.   

 
 
Portrait of My Grandmother by Archibald J. Motley Jr. (image via Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University)

Portrait of My Grandmother by Archibald J. Motley Jr. (image via Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University)