Mary Paulina Corbett lived her entire life in Delaware County on the family farm until an injury triggered her permanent move to a nursing facility in 2013 at age 83. Two boxes containing 714 drawings—mostly double-sided colored pencil and watercolor renderings on letter size paper—were found in her attic and sold in an estate sale while she was still living. The new owner tracked Corbett down and gathered context from her that illuminated the artworks’ stories. She acknowledged being glad that her drawings had been conserved and would be shared publicly, even though she kept them for herself all these years. Corbett created these pictures during her years as a solitary teenage girl and young woman, between the age of 12 and 21. They encompass a ten-year practice, from 1942 to 1951, loosely divided into three time periods that indicate progression and development. Themes uniformly relate to the adventures of The Catville Kids. The cast of characters is represented in scenes of daily life, including parties, romantic exchanges, group reunions, and other forms of leisure. Corbett’s narrative combines her own experiences growing up on the farm, with an aesthetic backdrop drawn from American popular culture – films, children’s literature, and TV shows from the first quarter of the 20th century, like Hit the Saddle (1937), Ramrod (1947), and The Street with no Name (1948). A recurrent character is the masked Lone Ranger, who fought outlaws in the American Old West. In multiple scenes, he interacts with a gallery of more than 24 fictional characters inspired by Corbett’s farm animals and family members. Another remarkable feature is the presence of human-animal hybrids – generally cats and dogs – casually interacting with the other subjects. These may be references to Corbett’s beloved pets on the farm, relationships that animated her relatively reclusive life.
Text by Valerie Rousseau, Senior Curator, American Folk Art Museum, New York