As Ruth Major found out soon after starting to dig into her family history, Schenectady, Fort Johnson and Johnstown were very closely connected during the American Colonial period.
What started out as a short look into her family tree has blossomed into a deep appreciation of the Mohawk Valley for Major, a resident of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, and subsequently she has produced a number of colorful paintings to help celebrate both her history and that of upstate New York.
“I really had very little knowledge of this part of New York and my ancestors here, but my daughter and I started a trail that began in New Jersey and then went to Schenectady, Fort Johnson and Johnstown,” said Major, who is bringing 13 paintings to the Mabee Farm in Rotterdam Junction for an exhibit entitled, “Prominent Players: 1754-84.”
“It’s been exciting learning so much about my family and the amazing history here. I wanted to do something to help Fort Johnson after the flooding they had [from Hurricane Irene in 2011]. I saw the pictures, so I decided I’m going to do a painting for this place and let them use the image in some way to help them fundraise.”
That initial painting led to two more images. Like the Fort Johnson work, they are both set in Colonial times. One depicts a scene from William Street in Johnstown, near the home of Sir William Johnson, and the other illustrates the raising of a liberty pole in Schenectady and is titled “Liberty on the Road to Niskayuna.” It is an oil on linen work and measures 24 by 30 inches.
SUBTITLE: ‘From Conflict to Independence in and Around the Mohawk Valley, 1754-84’
WHAT: A presentation of art by Ruth Major
WHERE: Franchere Center at the Mabee Farm, 1080 Main St., Rotterdam Junction
WHEN: 2 p.m. Saturday
HOW MUCH: $5
MORE INFO: 374-0263 or 887-5073
The other paintings, many of them oil on canvas, are portraits of various prominent people of the 18th century such as Johnson; his Mohawk wife, Molly Brandt; Albany’s Philip Schuyler; and British Gen. John Burgoyne, to name a few.
Major’s goal throughout this project has been to produce images as historically accurate as possible and she has gone to great lengths collecting information to ensure the authenticity of her paintings.
Among her many contributors have been Schenectady County Historical Society curator Ryan Mahoney and Grems-Doolittle librarian/archivist Melissa Tacke, Saratoga Battlefield ranger Eric Schnitzer, Peebles Island archaeologist Michael Roets, former University at Albany and current Penn State professor Dean Snow, and city of Johnstown historian Noel S. Levee.
“I was really moved by this whole experience, and it’s been so wonderful getting all this great help from different people,” said Major, whose Mohawk Valley ancestors include the Van Vorsts, the Adamses and the Urquharts.
“I had a steep learning curve because I had never been to that area, but everyone was so willing to help it made things a lot easier for me. Schenectady and the entire Mohawk Valley have a fascinating history.”
Major was born in Maine and moved to Newton, Mass., as a young girl, “and slowly made my way down to the Cape,” she said. She has been an educator and an artist. Before starting her project on the Mohawk Valley, she would typically paint landscapes of the Massachusetts coastline.
“I love all this collaboration I’ve had with other people, so I think I’m going to continue to do historical paintings,” she said.
“But I also do portraits, animal images, flowers and still life. But after this experience, I can see myself doing much more historical work. I was a teacher for a long time, and it’s just great fun to be involved in learning experiences.”
A perfect fit
Major’s work will be on display until Aug. 24 at the Mabee Farm’s Franchere Center. She will offer a short presentation explaining her paintings at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Mabee Farm, which is owned and operated by the Schenectady County Historical Society. Major first contacted Mahoney and Tacke at the society more than a year ago to tell them about her Mohawk Valley project.
“She was telling me about this series of paintings she had, and I thought what better place to showcase her art about the Mohawk Valley than the Mabee Farm,” said Mahoney. “All of her work is directly related to our mission, so it’s a perfect fit.”
The 13th painting Major is bringing along is a portrait of another prominent 18th century figure, George Washington, painted by Major’s aunt, Margot T. Farry, now deceased.
“She was my mentor and my inspiration,” said Major. “She told me when I was 3, ‘You’re going to be an artist.’ She was always inspiring me, so I’m bringing along her painting of Washington, and it also happens to fit in with the rest of the paintings.”
Major’s presentation highlights a busy weekend of activities for the SCHS. The group will hold a gala fundraiser Friday night at the Mabee Farm’s Franchere Center. And on Saturday afternoon at 2 at the society headquarters at 32 Washington Ave. in Schenectady, a reunion of the Civilian Conservation Corps will be held.
The event is free and open to the public. All CCC veterans and their family and friends are invited to attend. Author Marty Podskoch, who wrote a book on the CCC, “Adirondack Civilian Conservation Corps Camps: Their History, Memories and Legacy,” will give a short presentation and invite CCC alumni to share some of their memories. The initial CCC reunion at SCHS was staged in 2010 and has been held each year since.