The fascinating story of the Folly Cove Designers

A new book by Elena M Sarni sheds light on 40 women who, led by their friend Virginia Lee Burton Demetrios, established themselves as one of America’s most prolific printmaking collectives

In 1941, American illustrator and children’s book author Virginia Lee Burton Demetrios founded the Folly Cove Designers in Massachusetts, an all-women collective of artists, designers, and craftspeople. This unassuming group, made up predominantly of Demetrios’ neighbours and friends – many of whom had no previous training – would work together for the next 28 years, producing an extensive body of work and in the process becoming one of the longest-running artist guilds in the US.

In a new book published by Princeton Architectural Press, author Elena M Sarni tells the amazing story of this often overlooked group of women. Titled Trailblazing Women Printmakers, it recounts how an intimate network of friends and close acquaintances went on to become masters in their craft, creating original artworks that have acted as sources of artistic inspiration for many contemporary practitioners.

Top: Head of the Cove by Louise Kenyon; Above: Smith College by Louise Kenyon; Both images by Peter Morse, courtesy Peter and Bobbi Kovner
Polyphemus by Eino Natti; Image by Gary Lowell, courtesy Sandy Bay Historical Society

Through more than 250 black-and-white and colour photographs, Trailblazing Women Printmakers reveals in detail the work, history, and community of the Folly Cove Designers. Included in the book are over 300 original designs, each made by a member of the collective and block printed onto fabric. Serving as their primary medium, block printing was taught under the guidance of Demetrios, who urged the women to “draw what they knew and to sketch their subjects over and over again until they made them their own”.

The designs themselves were often based on the flora and fauna of the surrounding area – specifically Cape Ann, a rocky peninsula in northeastern Massachusetts. Unlike other artists and artist collectives at the time, many of whom were embracing a movement toward modernism, the Folly Cove Designers focused on capturing subjects from life, drawing them as realistically as possible.

Writing in the book, Sarni explains: “While there are some similarities between the Folly Cove Designers and other printmaking groups, they are generally unlike any of their contemporaries in style or subject matter. This individuality was part of their appeal.”

Finnish Hop by Virginia Lee Burton Demetrios; Image by Gary Lowell
Robin Hood by Virginia Lee Burton Demetrios; Image by Gary Lowell, courtesy Sandy Bay Historical Society

It was this appeal that led Sarni to begin making the book 13 years ago, which she describes as “a pure labour of love”. Never tiring of the subject, and ceaselessly fascinated by the group’s legacy, she worked for over a decade to bring it to life.

“Even now I continue to learn new things about the group and its members,” she says. “I hope that my years of work will satisfy Folly Cove fans and at the same time expose a whole new audience of pattern lovers to the Folly Cove Designers and their incredible work, thus furthering the legacy of this dynamic but often historically underrepresented group.”

Gossips by Virginia Lee Burton Demetrios; Image by Gary Lowell, courtesy Alex and Angela Subach
Old Sturbridge Country Store by Lee Natti; Image by Gary Lowell, courtesy Kathryn Soucy
Jazz Age by Aino Clarke; Image by Peter Morse, courtesy Peter and Bobbi Kovner
Atomic Age by Aino Clarke; Image courtesy Cape Ann Museum

Trailblazing Women Printmakers is published by Princeton Architectural Press;