In a top-floor studio apartment in the Dakota Hotel, Indra Tamang, a Nepalese photographer and artist who inherited the estates of Charles Henri Ford and his sister Ruth, has a treasure trove of paintings, memorabilia, books and artifacts. Among them is the art of the Ford's mother, Gertrude Cato, a surrealist who signed her paintings with her maiden name, rather than with her married name of Ford. Jonathan Rabinowitz, publisher of poetry and proprietor of Turtle Point Press, brought me to see her eccentric images: seemingly primitive portraits of women and human-faced cats and owls, placed against lush sweet colored skies.
Through her son and daughter, Cato became part of a rarefied circle that included Charles Henri's companion of some thirty years, Pavel Tchelitchew, Jean Cocteau, Leonor Fini, George Balanchine, Lincoln Kirstein and Edward James--the wealthy aristocratic English collector and eccentric poet who proposed several times to Ruth Ford and was always refused. Later, James designed a spectacular collection of concrete structures amid the tropical vegetation of his Mexican jungle estate, Las Pozas.
Cato may have studied painting in Paris: we found one volume of a French correspondence course: instructions for drawing animals. But although her work has a naive quality reminiscent of Henri Rousseau, she did receive extensive coaching from Tchelitchew, before World War II in a town on the Lac d'Annecy in eastern France and later in Weston, Connecticut, where Charles Henri and Pavel had a house.
Charles's journals, which were published by Turtle Point Press as Water From A Bucket, A Diary 1948-1957, include several entries about Gertrude that were written in February 1951: "Dear Pavlik, giving Mother a painting lesson. Mother: 'Well, I'll tell you--that's the most difficult butterfly.' 'Make it one line' -- (Pavlik) -- 'without interruption. There are lines that go, without interruption; you're making lots of hair lines.....Like that, like that, like that. You see?....Well -- you work.' (Pavlik leaves her at her easel.)"
According to Indra, "After Ruth's apartment was sold, I went around taking paintings down off the walls, and I kept a number of them... Gertrude's paintings are good, but they didn't make her famous."
Another excerpt from Charles's diary reads:
"In spite of Mother's being a practicing artist and surrounded by artists, her ideal of success is a commercial success... she's never developed beyond this idea, typically American. To posthumous glory, she'd choose present riches...Anyway, as Pavlik says, she's a 'great dreamer.'" Her only exhibit was at Blanche Bonestell Gallery in 1946 in New York.
In March 1951, Gertrude bought a fishing camp of thirty cottages on 15 acres in Panama City, Florida ("the Redneck Riviera"), and opened the Baywood Park Motel. After she sold it in July 1954, she moved to Mexico. On a trip from Taxco to Cuernavaca, she died in an automobile accident in January 1956. We hope you will join us to give her a bit of the posthumous glory she richly deserves.