There once was a day when the fingers of Grace Bruton Crews raced over the piano keys to the strains of "Tiger Rag," seemingly without effort. They could also manage a delicate embroidery needle and produce beautiful penmanship. But a strange, creeping stiffness slowed those fingers in the 1940s. Sometimes, every joint in Grace’s body ached. She went from one medical center to another in Missouri, Minnesota and Arkansas. A strange, new "cement" seemed to seal her joints. The diagnosis was rheumatoid arthritis.
Grace had steam baths, extensive dental work and her tonsils removed, but the stiffening worsened. She had to give up things she loved - flowers, dancing, entertaining and playing the piano. She and her husband Leslie spent a winter in Arizona. The warm sun gave temporary relief, but the pain and stiffness remained. She then had drastic treatments - gold shots, bee stings and experimental drugs, but Grace and Leslie had danced their last waltz, and she would never play "Tiger Rag" again.
Fern Reid and I did Grace’s spring cleaning while Leslie and our husbands moved furniture. Grace directed us from her wheelchair. Then she wrote a list of things for the men to buy in town. Fern and I remarked about her beautiful penmanship. Others, too, observed how unusual it was - in spite of the awkward way her gnarled hands clutched her fountain pen, Grace’s beautiful handwriting was not changed by the arthritis that kept her from walking.
She was restless and tried to lose herself in soap operas, but she was a 1912 graduate of William Woods College and wanted to do something challenging.
"I just got to wondering if I could paint," she said. Leslie bought her a beginner’s set of oil paints and supplies. From the start, Grace began to paint flowers and landscapes. She liked to paint flowers by looking at real ones. Friends brought color photographs of beautiful scenes from the Missouri Ozarks and Leslie set up a sort of art studio in a glassed-in porch that had good lighting. She painted religious pictures for Olivet Christian Church, where she and Leslie worshipped. When Olivet had its first "Lord’s Auction," a friend suggested that Grace might donate some paintings. She asked, "Oh, do you think that anyone would pay money for them?" Several of us encouraged her to give it a try. Yes, friends and strangers bought all six of the pictures she donated. Grace was convinced that painting was more than just a way to "pass the time away." The enthusiastic bidding sent her to her studio with renewed confidence and enthusiasm.
Later, she entered a Columbia Art League show, where 57 artists exhibited 94 pictures. Approximately 800 viewers voted for their favorite paintings. Several awards were announced, and then it came down to the final one. The announcer said, "The viewers’ choice of favorite painting, ‘Autumn,’ by Grace Bruton Crews." Leslie proudly rolled his "Gracie" forward in her wheelchair. People stared at her twisted hands, wondering how those twisted fingers could have even held a paintbrush. Recently, a Crews friend donated "Magnolia" to Olivet. The painting will be sold Saturday by silent auction.
"Magnolia" is 23 inches wide by 17 inches high and is in its original wooden frame. It is signed "Grace Crews, 1957." Bidding starts at 7 a.m. on Saturday and ends at 2 p.m. If the winning bidder is not present, he or she will be notified by phone. The church will also be holding its annual garage sale that day. Olivet is five miles east on Route WW.