Marian Spore Bush (1878-1946) had an unusual career path; she began as a dentist and transitioned to a spiritualist artist inspired by ghosts, while marrying a tycoon along the way. Although almost forgotten after her death, Marian Bush’s unusual artwork, predictions about the future, philanthropy in New York City, and late-life marriage made her a celebrity during her lifetime.
She was born Flora May Spore in Bay City, Michigan, and graduated from the University of Michigan College of Dentistry in 1899. Flora then opened a dental office in Bay City in 1901 and became the first female dentist in Bay County.
Flora Spore never took a drawing lesson and had no interest in art until after the death of her mother in 1919. Soon afterwards, Flora claimed to be receiving psychic messages from long-dead artists who communicated with her from “beyond the veil,” possibly through the spirit of her deceased mother. She referred to the spirits as ‘these People’ or ‘They’ and claimed that they told her which paints to buy, how to mix the colors, and how to apply the paint to the canvas. “It is simply telepathy between my mind and the minds of these People,” she wrote. “These unseen People are using my hand, obedient to their own thought and concept.” The result was a dramatic life change; she gave up dentistry, rented a studio in Greenwich Village in New York City, and dedicated herself to painting.
She developed a distinctive style in which she would paint flowers, temples, ships, birds, and mountains at a rapid pace. She loved impasto, sometimes applying paint to almost an inch in depth. Her back story, her spiritualist connections, her vivid coloration, and her thickly applied paint all brought positive attention from art critics and the national press. Her paintings were exhibited in prestigious galleries in New York City where large crowds flocked to see them. A Boston Sunday Post article of the time was entitled, "Ghosts guide her hand when she paints.”
In 1927, Marian (she dropped the ‘Flora’ around this time) opened a soup kitchen in New York City’s Bowery area. She worked there several days a week, dispensing food, medicine, clothing, and even false teeth. The endeavor helped thousands of people and Marian Spore became known as the “Angel of the Bowery.”.
While engaged in her charity work, she met Irving Bush, a millionaire who was listed in the very first Forbes “Rich List” in 1918. Bush was the founder of Bush Terminal Company, an enormous pier and warehouse complex in Sunset Park in New York City. The pair were married in Reno, NV in 1930, an hour after Bush's divorce from his second wife; the wedding made the front page of the New York Times.
And then, yet another change. In the 1930s, she discarded her vivid palette and began to paint huge stark canvases in black and white that bordered on surrealism. “They do not wisht me to make small paintings.” she wrote. “They seem to require large spectacular canvases which will attract attention to the message.” Many of these large paintings, such as “Crucifixion of the Jew” , or “World Aflame” , seemed to predict world events. “In June 1943, Time Magazine wrote a feature article on her that called her a “prophetess.”
She died in 1947 but after a large retrospective exhibition, her work seems to have been forgotten. She wrote a semi-autobiographical book, entitled They and published posthumously in 1947, that explained her interactions with the spirit world in great detail. Of her painting process, she wrote, “They move my hand up and down and onward...Then, all at once, They make a rudimentary sketch or perhaps They begin to paint without any sketch or outline at all. They work rapidly and never fail to reprove me when I do not respond readily or if I am in any way inattentive.”
Marian Spore Bush’s story continues to fascinate. Her reputation as an artist remains tied to the large surrealistic ‘war’ paintings she created in the late 1930s and 1940s. A critic wrote in 1943 that “the large black and white canvases seem at once crude and powerful...All the war paintings are symbolic in nature. Their impact is sharp and disturbing.” The description still applies in the twenty-first century.