Her goal achieved, painter settles down at 96

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Saturday, March 6, 1993
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Her goal achieved, painter settles down at 96

"Painting was as necessary to me as eating and sleeping. I had to paint."- Painter Constance Sampson, 95

By Tom Weber
Associated Press
Toeterville, Iowa
After retiring from teaching in 1955, Atlanta Constance Sampson had just one goal: to display her paintings in a one-woman art show in New York.

Despite the years gnarling Sampson's hands and diminishing her sight, for three decades the paintings kept piling up on her one-room New York apartment. The Lyle, Minn., native, now 96, lived on Social Security checks and painted on paper bags when she could not afford canvas.

Relatives in Iowa pleaded with her to return home.

"Every summer she'd come home and say, "I want to retire to this town," said Fred Langrock, Sampson's nephew from Toeterville, in northern Iowa 4 miles south of Lyle. "But for 20 years she kept saying, 'I have to go back because I'm so close to that one-woman show."

In 1987 Sampson called to tell her family she was coming home for Christmas- to stay. She'd gotten her one-woman show, held in 1988 at the National Arts Club, when a businessman saw some of her paintings in a deli across the street from her apartment.

Sampson now lives in a nursing home in Iowa where, like anyone her age, she has good days and bad days.

"I can't see well anymore," she said. "I've got hearing aids, but they don't help much either."

Painting, Sampson said, was God's plan for her life. "Painting was as necessary to me as eating and sleeping. I had to paint," she said.

Sampson grew up on a farm where, as a child, she painted pictures of the hollyhocks and other flowers that grew around the farmhouse.

As an art student, Sampson rode the train from Lyle to the Twin Cities, stopping for two-hour layovers in Hayfield, Minn. During such a layover, she painted a striking picture of Hayfield's main street.

After earning her degree in art education, Sampson moved to Detroit to begin a career as a teacher. Her niece, Marilyn Rockefellow, remembers Sampson returning in Lyle each summer.

"She would paint portraits of us," Rockefellow said.

Dozens of works from Sampson's long art career are on display at the Unionhurst Gallery, located on the edge of Toeterville. Langrock built the gallery and framed most of the pictures. The ranch-style house is furnished only with Sampson's paintings; they hang on every wall in every room.

The gallery contains watercolors, oils and charcoals in a style that gradually became more abstract over the years.

"Shoppers in the Market," dating from the 1950s, is one of the first paintings Sampson did in New York. Several views of her home church, the Six Mile Grove Church, date from the 1920s. Also displayed are some abstract paintings inspired by the film "Lawrence of Arabia," which Sampson saw in the 1970s.

Langrock plans to go to New York in June to bring back more original oils. On his return, the Unionhurst Gallery will hold 500 to 600 Sampson originals. Proceeds from some sales of Sampson's paintings- several sold in New York for a few thousand dollars each- are being used to buy an old bank in Toeterville that will be turned into a permanent gallery for her work.

Sampson no longer is able to paint, but what seems important to her is that she persevered. She repeats what an old art teacher told her decades ago: "You must paint. You must keep on. You must not quit."