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Rose Labrie Found Primitive Success

Rose Labrie


If at first you don’t succeed, take a lesson from "Seacoast Rose". Rose Labrie spent 25 years with the help of five literary agents, but could not crack the national literary market with her book and story ideas. Then she turned to painting and in her primitive "Grandma Moses" style, she became a popular folk artist. 



Rose (Cushing) Labrie
(1916 – 1986)
Journalist, poet, children’s writer and primitive painter

Rose Labrie was born Aug. 31, 1916 in Dorchester, Massachusetts, of an Irish immigrant father (a cousin of Richard Cardinal Cushing) and a mother from Nova Scotia. Her mid-life careers as writer and, from the mid-1960s, a "primitive artist" had their creative roots in the deadly influenza of 1918.

To avoid the pandemic, her whole family moved to rural West Hartford, Vermont. "Try to see all this as a bewildered Boston tot saw it suddenly" she later recalled about her experience, "big, blue skies, houses a mile apart, tall fields of waving grass, calves and colts as familiar chums. Fresh eyes, fresh sights, bright, bold impressions on the mind." Her memories of the next dozen years were deeply etched.

Sample Labrie primitive workIn 1930 the family moved to Concord, N.H. and, during the Depression, Rose graduated from high school and then Margaret’s School of Beauty Culture, where she worked until in 1936 she opened Rose Ramona’s Beauty Shoppe there. She married in 1939 Alfred A. Labrie, an electrician, who found work at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard during WW II. He, Rose, and three children ranging from one to eight years relocated to Kittery, Maine. In just a few years Rose began taking classes at the University of New Hampshire, and soon established herself as a local freelance writer.

Her first published effort, a poem titled "Rocks of Nubble," appeared in the Portsmouth Herald March 16, 1949 – a theme to which she returned as both a writer and artist for many decades. In 1954 she printed "The Rocks of Nubble Light" poem with illustration by New Jersey artist and friend David O’Neil. Sold in local gift shops (plain or framed), she told one novelty company "each shop sells from one dozen to three dozen pictures" each season. She wrote a popular brochure, Sentinel of the Sea: Nubble Light. A History of Cape Neddick Light Station, (1958) also illustrated by O’Neil with photographs by Douglas Armsden. In 1961 she added The Story of Pemaquid Light to her offerings and in 1967, "The Man of Camelot" was also published as a large postcard.

Meanwhile, Rose began to sell stories to local and regional newspapers and magazines even before the family moved to Middle Road in Portsmouth when in 1952 Fred became electrical supervisor for the Schiller power plant. She also began to take photographs, winning first prize in the 1954 and 1955 New York Herald Tribunes "Fresh Air Picture Contest. " These images show "Fresh Air" city children on summer vacation with the Labrie kids –stimulated by Rose’s own childhood memories of Vermont. She also took classes from Doris Marston, a journalist and writer from Cape Neddick, Maine.

In 1954 she started creative writing and English extension classes at UNH with Carroll S. Towle, Robert Grant, and Edward Cortez. A 1957 course from the University of Wisconsin held at the new Pease Air Force Base let her formally study journalism. But she was already an accredited photographer for the Religious News Service, sold stories through World Press Association, and was founding secretary of the Pease branch of the Armed Forces Writers League. She claimed to have written some 500 published stories, magazine and newspaper articles, and announcements over her career.

To further her interest in storytelling, Rose enlisted the aid of a series of five New York literary agents from 1952 to 1978, each of whom tried to help her write for a national market. Looking back on these years she declared: "I’ve loved every minute of it, rejections and all." Despite her agents’ best efforts, she collected rejection slips for more than 40 stories, plays and book ideas; her husband remained understandably skeptical about her writing.

After 1965 she redirected her creative efforts into becoming a "primitive artist" – what many later called "New Hampshire’s Grandma Moses," although she always pointed out she was much younger than Anna Mary Robinson Moses and copied no one in her naïve efforts. The painting began when the owner of a gift shop asked Rose to illustrate her Nubble history. Having been ejected from her high school art class as disruptive—using too bright colors and forgetting all perspective – she was amazed to discover that modern artists found her mature work in this vein exciting and –more importantly –saleable!

Her last twenty years were devoted to storytelling and to children. Founder of the Strawbery Banke Children’s Art Festival, progenitor of the Prescott Park Arts Festival, which she ran from 1966 – 1975, Rose also wrote plays like "Melissa and the Frog Prince" and "The Goose Girl" adapted from a Grimm’s fairytale. While major publishers rejected drafts of children’s books based on her Vermont childhood, her paintings of those childhood memories increasingly attracted a national audience in the Contemporary Folk Art market.

Rose was a member of the York Writers Association and many history groups, serving from 1977 – 1981 as president of The Seacoast Writers Conference. Unsuccessful in crashing the national juvenile book market, she took her stories to regional presses. King: The Leprechaun Pony, first published in 1978 told the story of an abused Shetland pony, while Dancer’s Image in 1982 revived the tale of Peter Fuller’s controversial Kentucky Derby winner. Randy the Rooster, written years before for her daughter Christy, was the only Rose Labrie story based on her rural childhood that appear in print. It was published just as she passed away.

Copyright (c) 2006 by Richard M. Candee

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