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Maurice River Recollections Project
River Reaches
Debra A. Barsotti
Research Journalist
Citizens United to Protect the Maurice River
and Its Tributaries, Inc.

The Maurice River Reaches Project - River Recollections
Pat Witt
Capturing the Essence of Place

A life-sized canvas begins to take on color when Pat Witt talks about her life experiences. The backdrop for the story is the marshes, meadows, farms and bluffs along the Maurice River - and the barn, which serves as her art studio and her home.

Today the spaces of the barn look more like the set from a movie - there are props and costumes and canvases and file cabinets. A carousel horse, a tin man, a wheelbarrow spilling over with wildflowers. Filtered natural light and dusky shadows. And artwork - in all stages and sizes, everywhere. The tractor room has served as the classroom - and so have the little garden alcoves and the grassy knoll. All of this the inspiration to the several generations of art students who have come to Witt to awaken their creativity and hone their skills.

Witt said that being a farm girl prepared her for living in the Barn. The rustic structure has four stories - and it is not insulated. One of the back rooms is named the "Klondike room" because in the cold of winter, a glass of water would freeze. Witt recalled that same chilly phenomenon would occur occasionally at the farmhouse where she grew up.

Witt acquired her inspiration rooms from her cousin, Edith and her husband Floyd "Chalky" Clunn, who were living in the barn dwelling when it caught Witt’s fancy.

Witt’s daughters, Carol Ann and Nancy, befriended the daughters of Clarence Wolf, owner of a local sand mining company. The Wolf family lived right across from the barn. While the girls played, Witt spent time there with her cousin Edith. By the time the Clunns put the property on the market in 1962, Witt had succumbed to the charms of the old place. She purchased 2 acres - and the rural dwelling. It wasn't long before the corners were filled with artists and artwork.

Witt's journey up until then had meandered through phases of married life, motherhood, and emerging artist. She studied art, directed art programs for children and was a darn good substitute teacher for a period when her daughters were in school. But after she opened her Barn Studio of Art with her first class of just three students, the world took on new hues that saturated her little corner of Millville and seeped down to the furthermost reaches of the Maurice River.

She became known as the "Wetlands Painter" and gained recognition for the way she inspired the budding artists of the region. The melding watercolor of her life's experiences inspired her work - and her students.

Witt grew up in the embrace of loving family - on acres of fertile land bordered by shimmering ribbons of rivers and streams - and one special ditch. The family farm, the Hampton Farm, was a place where other children "from the city" of Millville, would love to visit. Just three miles from the center of town, life there was different - full of farming activities, open spaces, and her grandmother's good cooking. As a young girl, she often spent time at her father's family farm, the Vanaman Farm down where the Manumuskin River meets the Maurice River. That's right off of Ferry Lane, near "Captain Ghene's Ditch." That's what Witt's father Alfred Vanaman called the little run that emptied into the Maurice River there at the Vanaman farm.

She said that her father would ask, "Patsy, what is it about this ditch?"

"I love that ditch," Witt said. She's featured Captain Ghene's Ditch in some of her paintings. She still goes there - to the ditch and to the Vanaman Meadows. It is one of her favorite places on the river.

Some of her other favorite Maurice River places are the Burcham Farm - and the Maurice River Bluffs - and the old Fralinger barn - and the marshes. "There isn't one place I haven’t painted along this river," Witt said, laughing. "I was going to make art schools everywhere, even in Allie Fralinger's barn. I would have had art schools all along the Maurice," she said, confessing that she even had a name for her art institute - "The Maurice River Academy of Arts and Environmental Studies." She admitted she was so serious about the idea of an art school that she even set up a bank account in that name. "Really!" she said, smiling about what could have been.

Witt has colorful memories of her river experiences. As a child she remembers climbing up in the silo at the Hampton Farm." I always liked to look at that sparkling river." She kept watch for the long barges that carried wood to Millville. The captain would toot the horn. "He would give 3 blasts, and people would come running to the banks…"

She recalled the day something fell out of the sky. The Hampton Farm was exactly across from the Millville army airfield. Witt recalled that there was always some kind of activity going on over there. Witt recalled one particular day. "I was out in the fields. I think I was gathering eggs,” she said. “I looked up and saw an airplane. It looked as if somebody had fallen out. I went tearing into the house, yelling about what I saw. Pop and my dad said 'Patsy, you're crazy!' (I was always Patsy in those days) But they got on the tractor and went over to the woods. Sure enough, there was a propeller that had fallen off of the airplane. Dad came in and called the army airfield. They said that they'd come right over. 'Don't touch it,' they told him. They came out, examined it and left it up against a tree, saying that they would come get it later. They never did. If you go to the airfield museum, there's a photo with the prop - with my brother and my father standing next to it."

The seasons of life along the Maurice River brought simple pleasures. Witt remembers ice skating on the pond created when her grandfather dammed up a run off the Menantico River for the youngsters each winter; a patch of daffodils that sprung up outside the kitchen of the farmhouse every spring; the spring and fall painting classes when the students of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and their teacher Morris Blackburn, would join Witt on her beloved Maurice River. So many memories…

The Hampton farm is now part of a preserve. "Every now and then I drive back in there, and, you know, those daffodils still bloom in all that ruin," Witt said. "The foundations are still there. The silo, barn, house, and sidewalk are still there. I go there…to where the daffodils were planted, down there in that lower garden by the kitchen window. And they still bloom. That will tear your heart out…,” Witt said.

"Nostalgia is an amazing thing," Witt said. Looking back, she realizes that her strength and independence came from her early days.  Her mother and aunts had tried to steer her towards a teaching career. Even though she was young, she rejected that path. Eventually, the older women gave in, helping her to travel to Philadelphia to begin her journey as an artist.

While Witt often had her eye on the clouds- a sign of the creative impulses that were embedded within her, she said, she learned the value of persistence and hard work. And the value of the encouragement she got from her father and grandfather. She tells the story of a day that her grandfather acknowledged her dream. "You want to be an artist?" her Pop asked her. "Then go paint the barn…"

Witt said she thought he literally wanted her to repaint the old barn, and she asked "What color?" Her grandfather chuckled and said that he wanted a picture of the barn. Witt still has this very early work. "Very primitive….," she laughed, cherishing the memory.

There are many more recollections: her art school days in Philadelphia; her coursework in other subjects at Glassboro State College; her brief absence from the Maurice River early in her marriage when she moved to her husband Bill's hometown in Georgia; her return home to her elderly and ailing grandparents; her own family home, "in town" - and then in the Barn surrounded by her daughters and a new community of artist friends and students; and even her short role as celebrity teacher on a television art show, which she quickly decided was not for her.  Over all of these years, Pat Witt has become part of the Maurice River landscape that she paints.