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Siren of the Sea: Painter Elizabeth Mumford

Siren of the Sea

In “The Odyssey,” Homer’s classic tale of Greek mythology, the hero Odysseus asks his crew to lash him to the mast so that he could hear the beckoning calls of the Sirens of the Sea but not submit to their enchanting temptations. The story presents these half-woman, half-birdlike mystical creatures as beauties whose songs render a trance-like effect upon sailors, who will abandon everything in order to immerse themselves in a fantastical world of carefree happiness and contentment.

For decades, residents and visitors to the Cape similarly have been lured by the charm of whimsical mermaids, sea creatures and cheerful folk depicted in Elizabeth Mumford’s paintings. Given the keen understanding of colonial life in New England that Mumford deftly portrays, most might be surprised to discover her roots are firmly planted in the cornfields of Indiana, where she was raised as a child. As she talks about her love and discovery of art in the third grade—where she taught herself to draw three-dimensional Indians, teepees and creeks with crayons on paper—the vernacular of her Midwest sensibility still rises to the top, like cream from fresh milk. “When I asked my mother for glue, she handed me flour and water and told me to mix up some paste. I wanted Elmer’s! But we lived an hour out of town and we weren’t running in to town every whipstitch just to buy glue,” she explains. Ninth grade found her in an all-girls school that offered life drawing, and Mumford eagerly looked forward to learning how to draw trees, flowers and other elements of nature. To her surprise, she discovered life drawing refers to live, nude figure drawing. In tenth grade, it was decided she was taking too many art classes and singing in the choir was added to her creative endeavors. Thus began her long career of a life of learning, discovering and mastering a myriad of artistic expression.

Today she lives in her grandmother’s home, which was her family’s summer haven from the time she was a child. It is a modest 1870s farmhouse cottage, nestled into the enigmatic enclave of Hyannis Port, and she is surrounded by art of all varieties, mostly created by her. In the gabled end of her oversized kitchen, a medieval gold-gilded painting of a beautiful maiden looks down over the many friends and family that enjoy Mumford’s warm company and spirit. “I created that on my dorm room floor at Smith College,” she says matter-of-factly. Peeling away the details, it turns out she not only painted the piece while studying medieval painting with a teacher, but she also picked up some gilding techniques from her as well, and since she was also learning wood carving from renown sculptor Leonard Baskin, she reveals that she used her grandfather’s wood block carving tools to create the ornate frame that embraces the angelic renaissance creature. 

A large three-season porch is Mumford’s favorite space in which to create. Two walls of windows give way to vistas of some of the most famous real estate in the country and finally to the iconic breakwater and Nantucket Sound beyond. Sailboats, power boats, ferries to  Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket and paddleboarders bob and weave through the waves and swells, suddenly causing the realization for the viewer that Mumford’s folk scenes that she is known for are not a fantasy at all. “I paint what I know,” she explains. “I painted my son’s life. He would play on the lawn or the beach with his friends, there was usually a dog or two running around, and the scene always seemed happy to me, to see the kids enjoying the Cape.” 

Citing Ralph and Martha Cahoon as significant influences in her work, Mumford paints what is simply described as folk art, but like the Cahoons, her work is not only an archetype of New England’s history, but also an allegory of our present and hopeful future. Mermaids, sailboats, New England architecture—they are all regular elements of Mumford’s work, but her thoughtful inclusion of unexpected items or historic landmarks are the details that keep the work from being too saccharine.

The scores of scenes Mumford has created, most originals in oil and then reproduced as giclee prints, are too numerous to count, but several exist in the collective conscience of lovers of the Cape and Islands. “Cape Cod Dogs” depicts a lascivious Yellow Labrador sitting at the bar of a tavern eyeing the available female clientele. “Cape Cod Girls” and “Cape Cod Boys” present a bucolic childhood that involves inventive use of Mother Nature’s bounty as though the children’s whole world was full of magic, forts and fantasy. The paintings are embraced (literally) by Old World adages that deliver the final punch with Mumford’s distinctive humor. 

Her humor is as essential an element to her work as the oil, brushes and canvasses that fill the corners of her space. Her bright and inquisitive spirit is the driving force of what can only be described as a very special life. Her love of history, art and culture is evident in her work, but for anyone who is lucky enough to know her, that is certainly not a revelation. Because just a simple conversation with Mumford, with her blues eyes sparkling, will involve a story that provides a glimpse into true Americana, and like most good stories, a bit of humor provides the memorable flavor.

That richness of spirit and humor is perhaps her greatest weapon against a recent turn of events. In 2008, Mumford was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. For more than a year, her simple yet regular routine was smashed against the rocks in exchange for trips to Massachusetts General Hospital, the kindness of strangers and professionals, and a wheelchair for a short stint. However, the insidious disease has met a foe unlike any other in Mumford. A multi-year period of success and health has been countered by another round of undesirable diagnoses in the last year, but she seems to be unwavering in her mission to move forward.

Today, she paints almost every day. She battles against the seaside bunnies in her courtyard garden, and she and her devoted Black Labrador Lucy admire the endless varieties of birds that visit her feeders and walk the beach in search of treasure. She sings on Sundays in the choir of St. Peter’s in Osterville. She is involved with a dizzying list of nonprofits and local organizations; she is organizing a historic archive project. She teaches her painting techniques through various local art organizations and private groups. Somehow she still finds time to work on her golf game. “I have a high handicap so I’m lucky,” she states with her signature optimism. And to celebrate an extraordinarily good day recently that included a positive diagnosis and the sale of a couple of original paintings, she bought herself a stand-up paddle board.

The song that emanates from Liz Mumford and her work is not dissimilar to Homer’s Sirens. But unlike their alleged ill intent, the attraction to her paintings and her beguiling nature is an inclination you want to follow. Her world, after all, is full of mermaids, sailors and smiling, laughing children. What a wonderful way to live.



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