WESTPORT — Many years ago, Jerry Day Mason wrote a poem that she titled “Impropriety.”

It begins:

“My spirit doesn’t know it’s old

enough to do as it is told.”

Those words are apt for Mason. By any measure, she’s an old woman. But her spirit doesn’t know better.

Mason lives alone at age 91 in a house the color of fog alongside a winding, muddy tidal creek. She goes about the business of being an artist in a loft studio that overlooks an old mill down by the creek.

Finished paintings are stacked along the edges of the room. Jars of brushes stand at the ready. Tubes of half-used paint lie on their side.

As a concession to a worrisome case of angina, Mason doesn’t paint every day anymore. But she remains active enough that assembling work for a current retrospective exhibition proved challenging. There were simply too many paintings to consider.

“We’ve been going through paintings for months,” said Leila Percy, a longtime friend who helped organize Mason’s current exhibition, “A Backward Look,” on view at the Chocolate Church Arts Center in Bath through April 16. It includes about two dozen paintings, mostly oil-on-canvas, that Mason has completed since as far back as the 1940s.

Many she had to borrow from collectors. Others came from her personal collection.

Mason is a narrative painter. She paints what she loves, what touches her heart. “I’ve been through abstract and out the other end. Now I paint what matters to me, which is what’s around me,” she says.

There is a lot of Westport Island in her work. Mason has been coming to Maine since she was 6 weeks old, and has lived at Westport since moving up from Salem, Mass., to raise a family decades ago.

She fell in love with the uncomplicated pace of life along Long Cove and how it empties out at low tide twice each day, draining away into the Sheepscot River. There’s a rhythm to life out here, and it has informed Mason’s view and perspective for as long as she can remember.

Last year, on the occasion of her 90th birthday, the Maine Legislature honored Mason as a Maine treasure with an exhibition of her work and a surprise party at the Capitol.

Her life is a throwback to another time. Mason studied English and the arts as a young woman, first at Oberlin College in Ohio and later at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan.

Her life is an open book on the arts. She’s an accomplished musician, and has a grand piano and harpsichord in her living room. The piano she plays regularly; the harpsichord not so much. She’s a published poet. Her 1989 volume, “Speaking to Strangers,” is proof of that.

And she’s a bit of an actress.

As part of her exhibition, the Chocolate Church is presenting a staged reading of the Tom Ziegler play “Grace and Glorie.” Mason plays Grace, a 90-year-old cancer patient who is sent home to die. Percy is reading the role of the hospice nurse, Gloria.

This play is meaningful to Mason. She performed it at the Chocolate Church in 1997, when she was in her late 70s. Her performance proved popular, and audiences have asked for it back over the years.

At first, she declined. “I didn’t think with my bum heart if I could be under that kind of tension,” she said. But she warmed to the idea, especially when director Bob Reed agreed to present the show as a staged reading instead of a fully staged production.

“When I did the play originally, I had to pretend to be older,” she mused with a laugh. “Now I have to pretend to be younger.”

But painting has always been her abiding love.

Mason’s paintings tell the story of her life. They are a journal of the people and places important to her — a portrait of her late husband, Dike; the nearby mill, which has framed her view for all these years; the picket fence out the kitchen window.

One of her latest favorites is “The Vol Patrol,” a portrait of her beloved and recently deceased cat, Rosie.

“This place,” she said, reflecting on her life in this quiet, isolated space, “has been very good to me. It’s just been a happy place to live.” 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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