Hoosiers in Taos: The Woolsey Brothers

by James E. May




Jean Woolsey moved to Taos in midsummer of 1928. He and Carl rented the former studio of Kenneth Adams, and it was there that Jean opened his first frame shop. The rest of the family followed in August. Charles became a partner in the frame shop and began to manage Carl and Wood's careers. Wood dedicated himself to becoming a "real" artist. He made the transition quickly and within six months after moving to Taos was accepted into the 1929 National Academy Spring Show.

The frame shop could not have been a better idea. Jean found himself in nearly an ideal situation. His skills were in high demand. Everyone in Taos seemed to need frames built, including his own brothers. Having a highly skilled craftsperson in town was invaluable and the frame shop flourished. Jean's fortune only improved once he started to build shipping crates as well. By 1929, he was filling orders from across the country and had moved the shop to Pueblo Road in town. The new shop allowed for more business and doubled as a sales gallery for Carl and Wood's work.

What Jean described in his shop brochure as "being cranky about quality," kept the business on a scale where all of the frames could still be hand-carved. In true Woolsey fashion, the entire family helped with the enterprise including sister Mary Jane. While in Taos, Jean married his first wife and had a daughter. Mary Jane, affectionately known as Maja, briefly married the son of artist O. E. Berninghaus. Carl and his wife had two more children. Overall, the Taos' years were good.

Jean was not the only successful Woolsey. The first two seasons that Carl and Wood were together in Taos they sold seventy-five of eighty paintings. Their success in the major annual juried exhibitions continued unabated. They exhibited in either the National Academy, the Hoosier Salon, or both during each year from 1928 through 1936. Charles, as their manager, scheduled exhibitions in Indianapolis, Chicago and at the Milwaukee Art Institute. Carl showed at the Corcoran Gallery and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Wood exhibited at the Phoenix Art Association.

Taos was a place where the family was happy. It was not so much that life there was easy; there was no electricity and no pavement. It was more that the community itself sustained them. Wood Woolsey connected with the people of Taos most directly. Unlike Carl who was primarily a landscape painter , Wood rarely painted a scene that did not include a figure. He never married and spent all of his life, until their deaths, living with his parents. He was, however, quite personable and able to link with his subject on a human level that is sometimes missing in the work of his brother.

As a young man in Indianapolis, Wood studied from the live model. According to Maja, he regretted not being better trained. Even so, his figures were highly refined, and he far exceeded his brother as a draftsman. Of the two, Wood was also the painter who lapsed into metaphor more easily. He very often juxtaposed opposites within the same canvas. In Romance and Potatoes, he restricted the composition to polarities. The foreground shows an elderly Pueblo woman dressed in black engaged in the all too mundane activity of peeling potatoes. Behind her, drenched in sunlight, sits a young Pueblo woman dressed in white who is lost in her own contemplation while reading. The practical is held up against the imaginative.

Wood similarly juxtaposed opposites in Old Juan. In the shadows of that composition sits the subject, a withered old man presumably named Juan. He sits idle, entirely inactive, obviously in his declining years. From this figure, following the line of the weathered plank at the right, the artist focused attention away from Juan toward the sun-drenched, courtyard behind. In that patch of sun a new green plant is just beginning its life. Wood was at his strongest when he could build these subtle layers of narrative into his paintings. "Place" often became as important as "person" in these scenes, but for Wood Woolsey the "place" was never defined satisfactorily without its relationship to those who occupied it.

His images of Native American men, women and children usually lack the intense frontal gaze of traditional portraiture and fall more comfortably in the realm of genre painting. Nevertheless, he did paint numerous straight portraits. One of his most intimate is called Jim and was painted in 1932. The subject is Wood Woolsey's closest friend while he was in Taos, a Pueblo man named Jim Mirabel.

Though Wood spoke little Spanish and none of the Taos dialect, he developed a strong relationship with Jim and painted him at least a dozen times. In a letter to one of his patrons, Wood described Jim this way:

Jim is of the Taos, N.M. Pueblo and was my best friend among the Indians while I was there tho' he, as most of the older people spoke very little English.... We seemed to sense each others ideas, however and got along nicely.... He has posed also for Phillips, Ufer, Fechin and others. This was only a sideline with him however as he diligently cared for his section of the communal farm.... His Indian name meant "Sun-Lightning" and he was a worshiper of the Sun as he said most all Indians are tho' superficially Christians.[2]

In contrast to Wood, Carl Woolsey focused on landscape painting. The occasional figure does appear over his career but usually it is incidental to the larger vista. The exception to this rule is a small body of works done in miniature, as small as three inches by three inches. These tiny paintings range from straight landscapes to cowboy scenes and even portraits. In the miniatures Carl's technique of applying small dappled brush marks worked very effectively and allowed him to remain loose even in such restricted space.

The dappled brush can be found in even the large exhibition size canvases. A critic for the Indianapolis Star wrote about his technique, "It seems to partake of the nature of both painted surfaces and surfaces that are the result of carefully wrought needlework-a sort of tapestry in paint."[3] The primary stylistic difference between the brothers' work is their technique. Wood relied on carefully drawn scenes that were then modeled and defined. Carl was more of a painter's-painter and applied his pigment more spontaneously. The surviving family notes that the topic of who was the better painter was always a matter of discussion for the brothers. Wood insisted he was, but Carl disagreed.

Carl's true strength as a painter was in his handling of light. In his 1930 Houses of Earth, he intricately arranged a complex grid of lit and shaded vertical and horizontal planes. The flat walled and roofed adobe buildings of Taos became the framework for the painter's delicate color modulations and transparent shadows. It was not just New Mexico's intense sunlight that fit well with Carl's technique. After his return to the Midwest, he adjusted his palette to fit the more subdued and atmospheric light of Indiana. November Fields, painted around 1940, is a landscape infused with the golden light found in Indiana on late evenings in the fall.

Despite their successes while in Taos the Woolsey's never gained major national attention and as a result were never more than comfortable, financially, while there. However, in Taos no one needed a whole lot to be comfortable. Almost the entire town was made out of the native soil. Living was comfortable but primitive. Water came from open wells and you were as likely to find a burrow as an automobile. As the Depression hit around 1930 it was barely felt because, "those who were already quite poor didn't notice any change and everyone else was having such a good time they didn't pay any attention." [4]

Carl went to work for the WPA for which he received a monthly stipend. [5] He and Wood both continued to exhibit, but as the economic crisis in the country continued, the Woolseys began to feel the pinch. Charles decided it was time to return to the Midwest. No one knows the reason exactly. It was perhaps because as the business manager for the boys' careers he decided that their patron base was there. Most of the big early collectors of Wood and Carl's work were in the Midwest.

From all accounts, it seems that Carl wanted to stay in Taos, but the dominant personality of his father won out and he, his wife and children, Wood, Charles and Marie returned to Indiana in the spring of 1934. The relationship between the brothers and their father is odd and unfortunately not entirely understood. Even as men in their thirties they deferred to his decisions often reluctantly but nevertheless categorically. Jean stayed on in Taos a bit longer trying to keep the frame shop open but eventually was forced to close it. He returned to Indiana sometime in late 1935 or early 1936 after he and his wife divorced. Maja followed as well.

In Indiana, the family settled in Morgan County near the town of Martinsville, just thirty miles southwest of Indianapolis. Jean first settled in Indianapolis where he worked in the WP A office as a graphic designer but eventually opened a frame shop in Martinsville. That first year back he published How to Make Fine Frames. In it he offers informative, easy to read instructions on building and finishing various types of frames. He restarted his national sales now calling his business the Jean Woolsey Company instead of Taos Frames.



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