Jessie Luther worked with Grenfell
2, 1999, Gazette)
Dr. Ron Rompkey
artist to craftsperson to pioneer occupational therapist, Jessie
Luther had the talent and skills to change peoples lives.
The Providence, Rhode Island, native worked with Wilfred Grenfell
to change the lives of many of the people of coastal Labrador
and northern Newfoundland. She also wrote a journal which captured
the rhythm and flow of those lives during her time among them.
Ronald Rompkey has recently completed an annotated edition of
that journal about Jessie Luthers life and her work with
He said he didnt choose Jessie Luther as his subject. She
When I was working on the Grenfell biography back in the
late 80s, I read an awful lot of documents, peoples
letters and so forth. At that time Jessie Luthers family
in Massachusetts told me about this and told me I should have
a look at it. In some cases its the only record we have
of certain things going on in his (Grenfells) life from
one persons perspective. But as I was reading through this
I thought this is interesting in and of itself.
Luther grew up as an artist, studying in Europe, with the best
artists of her time. She then turned to the new arts and crafts
movement as a vehicle for her talents. Her life changed when,
while recuperating from an illness, she discovered that crafts
could benefit a persons recovery.
embraced the idea, said Dr. Rompkey, that crafts
could help psychiatric patients, and became one of the earliest
pioneers of occupational therapy in the United States.
Rompkey said that part of the appeal of Jessie Luther is her
unique view of the Northern Peninsula and Labrador from an artists
was living in a very small community of only about 200 people
on the north coast before electric lights or anything like that
... only two years after the agreement with the French government
over giving up French fishing rights on the French Shore and
giving a day-by-day account of what life was like.
journal was written between 1906 and 1910, when Ms. Luther taught
arts and crafts, particularly weaving and rug hooking, to local
people. She began the hooked mat industry when she discovered
local women making mats with basic geometric and floral patterns.
Luther decided to teach new designs based on those she knew were
selling in New England and then sold them to American markets.
The designs had a plain centre and a border showing local images
such as seals, walruses, deer, rabbits and other animals, as
well as people in winter dress.
was a very outdoor woman. She lived to the age of 92, did a lot
of hiking, outdoor painting, that sort of thing. So visually
and physically she loved the Newfoundland and Labrador coast.
During that time of her life I think she found it pretty exciting
having a whole small industry that she was really running herself,
said Dr. Rompkey.
said at that time Ms. Luther was happy with her life in Labrador
and the positive effect the crafts were having on people. She
saw it fulfilling its purpose, which was to give fishermens
wives a way of working out of the home and at the same time introducing
a cash flow.
Rompkey said it became obvious while reading the journal that
Ms. Luthers feelings of satisfaction and contentment deserted
her about the time that a Mrs. Grenfell arrived on the scene
and took over the crafts industry.
was no longer a single man, and I think she was rather interested
in him. The other thing is that she was out there because she
was on leave from the Butler Hospital in Providence, and she
eventually had to go back to the United States.
Rompkey believes part of the charm of Jessie Luthers accounts
of her experiences in St. Anthony and in Labrador comes not only
from her artists eye, but also from her identity as a woman.
is a womans journal. So often travel journals in the north
are written by men. Theyre adventurers, theyre travellers,
theyre hunters, missionaries and clergymen. You dont
very often get women (like Susanna Moody), so its a womans
point of view. Shes interested in such things as what people
are going to eat next, how they will be cared for, what is to
be done about the orphanage children, what is happening with
education, those sorts of issues.
Rompkey said Ms. Luther sometimes had to worry about things like
where the next meal was going to come from at the St. Anthony
hospital, especially since there was an orphanage next door,
with 10 children in it. She was called upon to do a little bit
of everything, whether making clothes, cooking for the staff,
or even assisting at operations in the hospital.
Rompkey said Ms. Luther had a different perspective and a more
complete picture of everyday life because she was involved and
interested in those sorts of issues. This made her journal quite
different from that of a man such as Grenfell himself who might
be interested in recounting tales of adventure.
journal of Jessie Luther is expected to be published in the fall
of next year.