Mary Cassatt, Grandma Moses, Talitha Botsford. Perhaps Talitha doesn’t have the same name recognition of Cassatt or Grandma Mosses, but she was a much beloved artist in our community.
In honor of the Festival of Women in the Arts we are hosting Talitha Botsford: Elmira’s Lady of All the Arts. In addition to personal belongings, the exhibit includes 46 paintings, which were loaned to us by community members.
Talitha Botsford (1901-2002) was the youngest and fourth child of William and Talitha Botsford. The family lived in Millport until 1907 when William moved the family to Elmira. Eventually William built a house at 1718 West Church Street, which would be Talitha’s home for the rest of her life.
Music was part of the Botsford household. Like her siblings Talitha took piano lessons. Though she would play the piano for the rest of her life she chose “a Gypsy instrument for serious study” - the violin. Her mother had other plans for her, but according to Talitha “my mother’s idea of a school teacher in the family gradually faded. A musician seemed to be developing." As part of Elmira Free Academy’s Class of 1918, Talitha was a member of the school orchestra and wrote the class song. She received a scholarship to attend the Ithaca Conservatory (now part of Ithaca College). She graduated in 1922 and after the ceremony, a fellow male student was congratulating her and wished her great success with her teaching. “Teaching,” Talitha recalled. “I hadn’t even thought of teaching. Music was to play and enjoy. ‘What else is there for you to do?’ he asked as though there were nothing else for me to do. He wasn’t going to teach. He was anticipating a career as a concert violinist for himself and his manner implied certainly I wasn’t in his class. I certainly wasn’t but I wasn’t going to spend my life teaching if I could manage any other way.”
So she became a traveling musician. As part of the Vaudeville and Lyceum circuits she played in theaters, school auditoriums and churches; had engagements at hotels and health spas; accompanied silent movies; and played between acts for stock theater companies. Whether as a duo, trio or multi-piece orchestra, Talitha would play music in 26 states. She briefly had her own act with five other female musicians and with a tap dance named Phil Porter. The group was called the Wedding Band (the women wore bridesmaids’ dresses in pastel colors, but I have no idea what Phil wore).
|Sunshine Trio at the Mark Twain Hotel (left to right - Ruth Peckham, Talitha Botsford and Kathryn Catlin).|
Despite being on the road Talitha found time to compose music. The Schirmer Music Company would eventually publish five of her compositions, which Talitha called the proudest accomplishments of her life. Her compositions included Danse de Ballet and On the Village Green. In 1960 Talitha was elected to the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.
After her father’s death, Talitha gave up traveling far from home to stay with her mother. She found so much work playing the piano for local establishments (like the Mark Twain Hotel, Hickory House, Langwell Hotel, Strand Theatre and the tea room at Izard’s) that she gave up playing the violin. For 43 years she weekly accompanied the Elmira Kiwanis and wrote the chapter song.
Talitha never knew when she started writing poetry, but she would eventually write over 1,000 short verse poems. In January 1964 she even began a weekly column for the Sunday Telegram (a verse accompanied by one of her sketches). Several of her verses were published in Reader’s Digest. She also published three books of poetry, Short Stems, In Other Words and Unnoted Quotes.
Like poetry, art became another hobby for Talitha. She once said “I don’t know anything about art. I just do what looks good to me.” Fond of painting in sets, she went from pen and ink sketches to water colors. Her sources of inspiration were the people and places of the Southern Tier. Perhaps she’s most known for her hand-painted postcards. Talitha never wanted to sell her paintings because she preferred to give them away as gifts. She was eventually convinced to release her work as prints and postcards. In fact, Talitha would buy her postcards in lots of 100 and write messages on the other side before sending them. When the August 1972 issue of Hobbies: The Magazine for Collectors included her in an article about postcards depicting Mark Twain’s life her postcards became collectible.
Musician. Composer. Poet. Painter. When asked what she considered herself, Talitha replied “A musician, first and foremost.” I think and hope others will agree that Talitha Botsford was truly a lady of all the arts.
A special thank you to Rita Rhodes for coordinating the exhibit.