February 24, 1986 12:00 PM

Before Elizabeth Layton of Wellsville, Kans. drew her first self-portrait in 1977, she could see her likeness in the mirror only as a sagging mass of spotted flesh around sad eyes. For decades Layton had been plagued by deep bouts of depression. When her sister urged Layton to take an art class because it might cheer her, Elizabeth, then 68, was skeptical. But when she finished her first portrait, depicting herself as an old hag, she couldn’t stop. “I don’t know where it came from,” she says, “but I had this sense of urgency to keep drawing.” Within the next year, Grandma Layton (as she signed herself) saw a more serene face in her mirror, and as her depression gradually lifted, she began to draw herself as a confident, lively woman. “The visual process was a catharsis for her,” says Robert Ault, a Menninger Foundation art therapist who has studied Layton’s work. “By drawing her feelings, she could get them out of her.”

Layton’s drawings released another hidden, life-changing quality: talent. In 1977, free-lance writer Don Lambert, then a budding newspaper reporter, was so moved by the Layton drawings he saw in a student exhibit that he convinced the artist to let him show them to museums. Many of them, put off by the disturbing nature of her work and unwilling to take a chance on an unknown, turned Lambert down. But in 1980, the Wichita Art Museum sponsored a one-woman Layton show, and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City gave her first prize in a show featuring 600 artists. Suddenly, Grandma Layton’s experiment in self-therapy had brought her raves in the art world. When New York magazine art critic Kay Larson saw a 1983 exhibit of distorted self-portraits at Manhattan’s Soho 20 Gallery, she wrote, “Considering her background, I am tempted to call Layton a genius.” Another one-woman show, recently at the Chicago Public Library and this month at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, will tour the country well into 1987.

Except for her late start, Grandma Layton bears little resemblance to Grandma Moses, who mastered the nostalgic style of American primitivism. Layton’s crayon and colored-pencil drawings show a wit and symbolism that is anything but pastoral. Distraught over the death of one of her five children in 1976, Layton drew herself a year later as an old woman nursing a baby while her husband’s hand reaches down with a tiny handkerchief. Doubt and frustration about old age and about women’s issues overshadow her early works, while portraits painted after her outlook improved address those subjects with triumphant hopefulness. Favoring self-portraits, Layton has depicted herself as Carry Nation, Mona Lisa and the Virgin Mary: The humor and pathos come from the incongruity of her wrinkled face in such heroic roles.

For most of her life, Layton’s inner turmoil contrasted strangely with the peacefulness of Wellsville. As a shy teenager, she felt her privacy invaded because her father, Asa Converse, ran the Wellsville Globe and her mother wrote columns about the family. At 19, Layton left for Colorado and married a milk deliveryman. But after a series of separations she returned to Wellsville in 1942, without her husband, and ran the family paper for 15 years.

During the four years after her eventual divorce in 1953, Layton’s chronic depression, accompanied by severe headaches, became unbearable. She underwent 13 shock treatments and with new hope married businessman Glenn Layton, who later served as the town’s mayor. Elizabeth then began a decade of psychotherapy and antidepressant drug treatment, but her anguish remained. She spent days hiding in her closet. “I felt unworthy for life,” she once said. After her son’s death, Layton hit bottom.

She credits her recovery to a modified form of “contour drawing,” a technique in which the artist looks at the subject while drawing, glancing at the paper only occasionally to get her bearings. Contour drawing, the style taught in Layton’s beginning art class, is also used by therapists because it makes drawing more personal and revealing. It allowed Layton to release long-suppressed emotions. “You are nonjudgmental when you don’t look at the drawings,” she explains. “Things pour into them which you get not by thinking but by feeling.” Says Robert Ault, who is amazed by Layton’s progress without an art therapist: “She went beyond therapy.” But Layton won’t sell her works. “If I do,” she says, “maybe the miracle will quit.”

Today, the Laytons’ two-story white frame house looks much the same as it did during all the difficult years. The same patterned wallpaper, sheer curtains and photos of children and grandchildren decorate the rooms. None of her own quirky drawings is on display. “I like my work,” says Layton. “But I don’t have any hanging around the house. I’d just as soon look outdoors.” For a woman who once hid in closets, that may be the biggest miracle of all.

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