Milwaukee County Historical Society

Milwaukee, WI


This essay was originally published in Milwaukee History, Vol 16, No. 1 (Milwaukee, WI: Milwaukee County Historical Society, Spring 1993), pp 22-28. Reprinted from Milwaukee History, by permission of the Milwaukee County Historical Society. ISSN 0163-7622


Elsa Ulbricht: A Career in Art

by Peter C. Merrill


Elsa Ulbricht taught art education in Milwaukee, influencing an entire generation of local artists and craftsmen. At the same time she spent her summers at Saugatuck, Michigan, where she had a long connection with the Ox-Bow Summer School of Painting. She was a versatile artist who painted in both oil and watercolor and also did prints, lithographs, and drawings. She was also a master of many crafts, including pottery, handweaving, and bookbinding.

Elsa Ulbricht grew up in Milwaukee, where she was born March 18, 1885. She never married and lived almost her entire life in the house at 915 North Twenty-eighth Street which her father, a lumber dealer, had built in 1893. Her grandparents on both sides of the family were immigrants from Germany who became pioneer settlers of Milwaukee. Henry Buestrin, her maternal grandfather, became a successful building contractor in Milwaukee after arriving from Pomerania in 1839. Several of the buildings he constructed in Milwaukee are now local landmarks, including the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Building and the municipal water tower which overlooks Lake Michigan. She donated one of her paintings, Felicity and the Grandmother, to the Milwaukee Public Library to honor her grandparents, the Henry Buestrin and Oswald Ulbricht families, for their civic contribution to Milwaukee.

Elsa was originally trained as a kindergarten teacher at the State Normal School in Milwaukee with the class of 1906. Much later, in 1930, she received an art degree from Milwaukee State Teachers College.

Miss Ulbricht worked as a kindergarten teacher from 1907 to 1909 but simultaneously received art instruction at the Wisconsin School of Art, a school operated by the Wisconsin Art Students League. There she studied with the school's director, Alexander Mueller, and with George Raab, Louis Mayer, and Gustave Moeller, the most prominent among the city's artists. All four teachers were Wisconsin-born artists who had begun their training in Milwaukee under the German immigrant painter Richard Lorenz and had then gone to Europe for further study. What they had to impart to their students was a mixture of the German academic tradition as taught in Munich and Weimar together with influences such as art nouveau to which Raab, Mayer, and Moeller had been exposed in Paris. Mayer's work, in particular, reflected the influence of the contemporary American art scene, and Moeller's teaching probably contributed something to the brightly colored landscapes which Miss Ulbricht would later paint, By 1909 the school had also introduced instruction in china decoration and leatherwork by Martha Kaross, who later become Alexander Mueller's wife. Elsa Ulbricht certainly knew Martha Kaross, but it is not clear whether she was ever one of her students.

In September 1909 Elsa Ulbricht become a student at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, from which she received a degree in art education two years later. Much happened during her absence from Milwaukee. For one thing, the State Normal School moved in 1909 from its original location west of downtown to a large new building south of the campus of Milwaukee-Downer College, a women's college at the northeast edge of the city. Alexander Mueller converted his independent art school into a semi-autonomous unit of the Normal School and renamed it the School of Fine and Applied Arts. Upon her return to Milwaukee in 1911 Miss Ulbricht joined its faculty. By 1914 she was teaching such subjects as basketry, weaving, mechanical drawing, bookbinding, clay modeling, and public school teaching methods. Her art colleagues in the early days included painters Alexander Mueller, Gustave Moeller, Albert W. Elsner, and Albert Otto Tiemann as well as sculptor Ferdinand Koening. In 1923, however, when President Carroll G. Pease resigned, it lost its special status and became simply another division of the college. Elsa Ulbricht was to have a long career in art at her alma mater, retiring in 1955.

Another new development in Milwaukee was the organization in 1909 of a theater group called the Wisconsin Players. The founder of the group was Laura Sherry, a native of Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin who had been an actress in New York. She sought to create a new type of theater -- intimate, experimental, and non-commercial. The idea soon swept the country and similar "little theater" groups sprang up everywhere.

Among its activities the Wisconsin Players had its own school of dramatic art. Upon her return from New York in 1911 Elsa took up the study of acting, diction, pantomime, and dancing. She soon became deeply involved in the activities of the Players, designing sets and costumes and appearing in many of the group's productions. Through the Players, Ulbricht become associated with Zona Gale, the local color writer from Portage, Karl Knaths, an Eau Claire artist who moved on to the Provincetown Players, and Dudley Crafts Watson. Miss Ulbricht continued her involvement with the Wisconsin Players until 1935 and served as its president for seven years.

Miss Ulbricht started her academic career as an instructor of art education at the State Normal School. In 1943 she was appointed to take over the Art Division while the regular chairman, Harold Thomas, was on leave. By the time she retired in 1955 she had succeeded Thomas as head of the division.

Elsa Ulbricht's busy teaching career did not prevent her from frequently exhibiting her own work. During the 1920s and 1930s her creations were often shown at the Milwaukee Art Institute, particularly at the annual shows held there by the Wisconsin Painters and Sculptors. She exhibited at the Wisconsin Salon in Madison in 1938 and at the Milwaukee Art Institute in 1952. An important retrospective show at the Charles Allis Art Library in 1973 featured sixty-eight oil paintings, ten watercolors, and twenty-four graphics. The show was organized by Jeune Wussow, a former student, who restored and mounted a number of early paintings which had been taken out of storage for the exhibition.

Miss Ulbricht was the recipient of several honors during the course of her career, including the Bradford Memorial Prize at the Milwaukee Art Institute in 1925 and other prizes in 1926 and 1930. In 1966 she received a Wisconsin Arts Foundation Award for service to the arts, and in 1973 was designated Alumna of the Year by the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee Alumni Association.

Throughout her career in Milwaukee, Elsa Ulbricht played a pivotal role in the activities of local professional associations of artists. She helped organize the Wisconsin Society of Applied Arts in 1916 and served as its president in 1936, at which time it had a large workshop at 628 North Broadway. In 1922 Miss Ulbricht was the treasurer of the Wisconsin Painters and Sculptors and in 1942 was the first woman to be elected its president. She was reelected in 1944. At one time Elsa was on the board of the Milwaukee Art Institute, which served as both a gallery and art school between 1916 and 1955. Miss Ulbricht was also a board member of the Wisconsin Artists Federation, an umbrella organization established to coordinate policy decisions between the Wisconsin Painters and Sculptors, the Milwaukee Printmakers, and the Wisconsin Designer Craftsmen. In 1937 the other members of the board were Santos Zingale, Stella Harlos, Howard Thomas, Robert von Neumann, and Alfred Sessler. The list reads like a Who's Who of the Milwaukee art scene of the Depression era. Several became prominent art educators in Milwaukee, while Zingale and Sessler joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

In 1935, Milwaukee, like the rest of the country, found itself struggling with the effects of the Depression. The Works Progress Administration, or WPA, was a federal agency charged with providing jobs for millions of unemployed workers. Harriet Clinton, the director of the WPA's Women's Division in Milwaukee County, was trying to find ways to provide jobs for women who lacked occupational skills and in many cases had never worked outside the home. One of her ideas was to set up a project in which unemployed women would be taught to work with their hands. She turned to Elsa Ulbricht for help and advice. Elsa thought the idea was feasible and agreed to set up and direct such a project while continuing her activities at the Teachers College. She insisted, however, that the highest design standards should be maintained and that a qualified instructional staff should be hired to provide training.

The program came to be known as the Milwaukee Handicrafts Project, or as WPA Project 1170. It opened its doors on November 6, 1935 with two rooms provided by the Veterans Administration. Although Elsa and her assistants were at first swamped by what the project was growing into, they soon rose to the challenge. Additional space was acquired at several locations, including a large workshop at 793 North Jackson Street in downtown Milwaukee. The project ultimately provided jobs for some 5,000 people over a lengthy period of time, including fifty skilled craftsmen who were employed as instructors and project supervisors. Elsa was assisted by two supervising directors, Mary June Kellogg and Anne Feldman. Kellogg had been one of Elsa's students at the Milwaukee State Teachers College, and Feldman, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, was then teaching evening crafts classes at the Teachers College. Among the department heads were Helen Clarke (dolls), Julia Loomis (quilts), Harold Milrath (toys), Barbara Warren Weisman (blockprints), and Aaron Shansky (bookbinding).

The Milwaukee Handicraft Project turned out a variety of useful products, including toys, rugs, and printed fabrics for draperies. The items were all for sale, but only to tax supported institutions such as schools. The products were soon in such demand that they were being purchased by public institutions all over the country. As time went on the artists began to carry out major interior decoration jobs, studying the spaces to be furnished and designing the furnishings.

Some of the women who had entered the program with no manual skills became so proficient that they were later promoted to become project directors. For a long time only women were employed by the project, but when it was decided to manufacture furniture, the project began to hire men with cabinet-making skills.

In February 1937 an exhibit of the project's manufacturers at the Milwaukee Art Institute opened to favorable notices in the local press. By now the project was attracting national attention; and when the Western Arts Association held its national convention in Milwaukee the following year, its members had an opportunity to see what the craftswomen were accomplishing. Federal officials at the national level became increasingly enthusiastic about the project's success. Florence Kerr, the WPA's national director for women's and professional work, was a frequent visitor to the Milwaukee project and recommended that similar programs be set up in other states. In 1938 Aaron Shansky and Julia Loomis were sent from Milwaukee to Des Moines, Iowa to set up a project modeled an the one in Milwaukee.

World War II and the end of the Depression brought drastically changed economic conditions, so that the WPA was entirely discontinued in 1942. With the withdrawal of federal support, the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors decided to continue a limited program under its own sponsorship. Eventually it became a small vocational rehabilitation program for the disabled. In 1970 the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee commemorated the thirty-fifth anniversary of the project with an exhibit featuring examples of its workmanship.

In 1910 the Chicago artists Frederick Fursman and Walter Marshall Clute started a summer art school near the resort town of Saugatuck, Michigan, where there had been a summer art colony since the turn of the century. The school was at first known as the Summer School of Painting and was later called the Ox-Bow Summer School of Painting. Elsa Ulbricht began to spend summers in Saugatuck in 1913. She studied figure painting with Fursman and landscape painting with Clute, Albert Krehbiel, and George Senseney. Fursman, in particular, was to become an admired teacher and close friend. He later became a faculty colleague in Milwaukee, commuting from Chicago three days a week to teach classes at the State Normal School. When Clute died in 1915, Fursman became director of the school in Saugatuck, remaining so until his own death in 1943, by which time he had retired from his position in Chicago and had made Saugatuck his year-round home.

Fursman's home in Saugatuck was a historic building, dating from before the Civil War. Elsa Ulbricht often stayed there as a guest during summers in Saugatuck, and she purchased the home and studio after the death of Fursman's daughter in 1948. Along with the studio she acquired a number of Fursman's paintings which were stored there. Many of these were subsequently restored and found their way into retrospective exhibitions of Fursman's work held in Milwaukee in 1968 and 1991. She spent more and more time in Saugatuck after acquiring the home there. She liked to entertain, particularly with cookouts and costume parties.

Miss Ulbricht began to teach at the summer school in Saugatuck by 1941, even managing to be on hand in 1945 and 1946, although she spent the early summer in those years teaching Crafts workshops at Gatlinburg in the Great Smoky Mountains of eastern Tennessee. Under the auspices of the University of Tennessee, teachers from some twenty states gathered at the Settlement School in Gatlinburg for six weeks instruction in handweaving and other crafts. In 1945 she was invited to inspect the famous handicrafts program at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky, where Harriet Gill, one of her former students in Milwaukee, was now teaching. Gill joined her as an assistant at Gatlinburg the following year. During the summer of 1945 Elsa also made a tour of North Carolina, visiting several crafts programs in operation there.

Saugatuck played an important part in Miss Ulbricht's life. For sixty years she spent her summers there and painted landscapes, outdoor figure studies, and portraits. Their color and bright illumination reflect Fursman's influence, but the two-dimensional style of the portraits is a personal characteristic of her work.

From 1947 to 1958 Miss Ulbricht was director of the summer school in Saugatuck. In 1964 she returned to serve as director for one more summer. The crafts program at Saugatuck was expanded under her leadership, and in 1955 its faculty included two specialists in ceramics, Angelo C. Garzio and Bruce Breckenridge.

Late in life Elsa became something of a local dignitary in Milwaukee, a much-honored grand lady of the local art world. The Milwaukee Sentinel reported in 1976 that she was still busy at the age of ninety and had been making cassette recordings of her remembrances of the early days. She had, of course, outlived many of the people who had figured prominently in the art world of that time. But there were still a few survivors, people like Alfred George Pelikan, who remembered her as a liberated young woman of the flapper era wearing her hair bobbed and smoking in public. Joseph Friebert, who knew her at the Teachers College in the 1940s, remembers her as a petite, energetic woman with an instinctive sympathy for the underdog.

Elsa Ulbricht died in Milwaukee on March 13, 1980, a few days before her ninety-fifth birthday. She is remembered principally as an inspiring teacher whose influence touched the lives of hundreds of students, colleagues, and other associates. Secondarily she is remembered as a skilled and energetic administrator who successfully ran the Milwaukee Handicraft Project, the Art Division of the Milwaukee State Teachers College, and the Ox-Bow Summer School of Painting in Saugatuck. Although she exhibited great mastery of such crafts as handweaving and pottery, this type of work tends to be ephemeral and does not weigh significantly in trying to establish her importance as an artist. Her reputation rests on her work as a painter and printmaker. In these areas Miss Ulbricht deserves to be recognized as a significant regional artist whose work possesses a certain interest as a reflection of her time and place.

About the Author:

Peter C. Merrill, who currently resides in Boca Raton, Fl, was born in 1930 in Evanston, IL. He was affiliated with the Department of Languages and Linguistics, Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, FL from 1968 to 1998, retiring as a full professor.

Dr. Merrill received a B.A. in Anthropology from Yale University, a M.S. in Linguistics from Georgetown University and a Ph.D. in Linguistics from Columbia University.

He is an expert on 19th-century German-language writers in the U.S., the German-language stage in the U.S. and German immigrant artists in the U.S.

Dr. Merrill has authored four books on related subjects and written forty-three articles and numerous book reviews and professional papers.

Image of Dr. Merrill and his biographical information courtesy of the author.


For further biographical information please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

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