A Long Road Traveled for a Local Artist

From "New Yorker" covers to public murals, 72-year-old Gretchen Dow Simpson boasts a lifetime of work


If life is a highway, Gretchen Dow Simpson has been driving it her whole life long. In Simpson’s case the highway is I-95, and it’s taken her from Massachusetts to Rhode Island, then to New York and Philadelphia before bringing her back to the Big Apple and finally home to Rhode Island.

Perhaps Tom Cochrane had Simpson in mind when he sang, "Through all these cities and all these towns, it’s in my blood and it’s all around." Simpson’s “it” is art, but the road she’s traveled isn’t your typical fast and furious freeway. Rather, it’s a combination of highways and byways that took her artistic journey from architecturally inspired photography to papier mache jewelry, then oil painting on linen, those coveted covers for the illustrious The New Yorker magazine and a commission by Governor Lincoln Chafee for the highway beautification project.

Simpson received her artistic education at the Rhode Island School of Design. She left RISD in 1961 clutching her newfound life purpose: to create a professional life that was both meaningful and satisfying. Simpson’s purpose was only one piece of the puzzle. But in addition to her innate desire to express herself artistically, she was also stricken by a stifling indecision about which artistic path to pursue.

Simpson may not have been in the high-speed lane, but there was no doubt that she was in control. Her first stop was photography circa 1964 during her tenure as a tour guide at New York’s World Fair. Drawn to the uniqueness of its architecture lines and proportions, Simpson snapped photos of the buildings around the Fair. Her keen eye helped her sell her photos and eventually landed her a job as a photographer for an ad agency.

Photographer by day, craftswoman by night, Simpson fed her insatiable drive to create by making papier mache jewelry. What started off as a casual endeavor transformed into a jeweler’s dream – a 12-page spread of her jewelry in Vogue magazine. A local company wanted to buy Simpson’s designs and turn the paper mache jewelry into vinyl. Simpson, in true fashion of a woman behind the wheel, declined.

The next exit was The New Yorker, only it would take nearly a decade to reach. “For nine years I sent The New Yorker my cover designs and for nine years I was rejected,” explains Simpson. That was until a new art director, Lee Lorenz, took the helm. During a meeting, Lorenz instructed Simpson to paint a realistic subject matter while retaining her abstract composition. She fondly recalls her exchange with the man she “credits with everything” saying, “I asked him what to paint and he replied, ‘paint what you like.’”

So she did. Simpson combined her adoration of architecture with her penchant for photography, translating the photo into an oil painting. Her first submission using this new frame-work was accepted and since then it’s been pedal to the metal. For 20 years, Gretchen worked for The New Yorker, designing nearly 60 iconic covers.

Simpson, age 72, has not slowed down. For starters, she’s working on her second mural for Route I-95, as part of the highway beautification project. The first mural, designed by Simpson and painted by muralist Johan Bjurman, measures 1,367 square feet and sits on I-95 in Pawtucket, near the Massachusetts line. She also sits on the board of the Pawtucket Arts Collaborative where she’s gearing up for the 2nd Annual Arts Marketplace on September 7-8, which she co-chairs with Nancy Gaucher-Thomas. Most recently, she was elected as a council member for RISCA. If that’s not enough, she still finds time to spend four to five hours in her studio every day.

Simpson has not only created a professional life that’s both meaningful and satisfying, she’s cultivated a personal life that’s more of the same. She credits her two daughters and her grandchildren as being the most satisfying and meaningful experiences. Then, there’s her newlywed status. In May, she married her long time beau and retired Brown University chemistry professor, Dr. James Clyde Baird, at the Manning Chapel on the Brown campus. Their romance, a story in itself, was featured as the only color wedding announcement in The New York Times under the quirky headline, “His post-surgical care: French Custards.”

See all of Gretchen Dow Simpson’s artwork on her website. You can also catch her at the 2nd Annual Arts Marketplace at the Pawtucket Armory Arts Center on 172 Exchange Street in Pawtucket on September 7-8.


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