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Edward M. Catich: Rock, Paper Scissors, Glass -- a Selection of Works from St. Ambrose University

March 17 - May 13, 2007


60 works of art on paper, of paper, on stone and in glass celebrate the artistic expression and spirit of the twentieth-century American artist, Davenport teacher and internationally known calligrapher Edward M. Catich (1906-1979). The exhibition will introduce, expose and explore aspects of the Catich oeuvre (primarily taken from the St. Ambrose University Collection) that reveal the artist as an individual -- one of faith and with a sense of humor -- who had a defining mission -- to teach. (right: Edward M. Catich, ca. 1970, teaching at St. Ambrose University, Davenport, Iowa)

While intended for a general audience, the exhibition may particularly appeal to institutions, art educators and families interested in providing an entry level experience of art for viewers of all ages. Visitors will learn how an artist's talent was utilized to express an idea and how his chosen imagery and signature style combine to produce a unique vision in a variety of materials-paper, stone and glass. The organization of the objects and accompanying texts will invite and inform the visitor to discover the use of and relationships between the universal elements found in all artistic expression: line, color, form and light.

The exhibition consists of multiple groupings of works chosen for their unity of subject, symbol or theme -- each grouping to include works in paper, stone (or tile) and glass. For example, in one grouping the face of Christ would appear in a variety media -- on paper in ink, on scratchboard, on a broadside intended to show various calligraphic styles, in ink as a calligraphic letter, on a holy card, on a slate tablet, in stained glass, the same for the image of Mary, the family, the symbol of the fish or the boat, the subject of sports, and so on. To help tell the story of this artist as it informs the meaning and practice of art, works by Catich have been selected for their form, their meaning, and their playfulness. Catich often engaged the viewer (the student) by striking the universal chord of humor; thus the title of the show, an adaptation of the children's game, "Rock, Paper, Scissors."

The curator for the exhibition is Elisabeth Foxley Leach.


Brochure text for the exhibition by Elisabeth Foxley Leach

Drawing almost exclusively from the Catich Collection at St. Ambrose University (where the priest-artist-teacher founded the art department and taught for many years) the Figge Art Museum pays tribute to an artistic genius nearly one hundred years after his birth. This exhibition follows Drawing a Path: Edward Catich-From Sketch to Art (Catich Gallery, St. Ambrose, October 6-December 1, 2006). The earlier exhibition, curated by artist Kristin Quinn, showed the relationship between the artist's sketches and his art. Here the intention is to show the surprising variety of his skills, recurring themes and "Father's" puckish sense of humor.

The art of Edward M. Catich (1906-1979) is not mysterious or hard to understand. It is straightforward and deceptively simple in form and production. It is also innovative. His carving of letters and figures into slate was innovative. His depiction of Christ and other religious figures as every day people was, in its time, innovative and controversial. His inquiry into how letters came to be shaped was brilliant.

How do you tell the story of an artist and his work?

One way is to select works by date -- when they were made, or to group them by genre, subject matter or theme-landscape, Mother and Child, nature. Still another, is how they were made and in what materials. Finally, you might compare them to the art of others working at the same time and place-mid-twentieth century America -- or of another time, such as Ancient Roman or Medieval-comparisons Edward Catich's work invites.

This exhibition is organized by subject matter, and within groupings, by how they are made. It is hard to organize Catich works by date because he did not date (or even sign) most of his work. Worthy subjects for this prolific, vital man are: making art, playing music and sports, helping others, beauty in nature, faith and family. The materials he thought worthy were rock, paper, glass, metal and things at hand. His tools were virtually all the tools that one associates with artists: brush, pen, chisel, the humble scissors, and, again, things at hand. Finding it more balanced and effective, for a time he substituted a wooden bowling pin for the carver's traditional wooden mallet.

And as for comparing Catich to others, we might view him as we would a Roman Imperial carver atop scaffolding working on the inscription of a triumphal arch, or a medieval monk hunched over the Biblical texts of an illuminated manuscript, or closer to our time, Grant Wood (1891-1942), another joyful (and Midwestern) craftsman and teacher of art who also used ingenuity and things at hand in his art -- a coffin lid as a door for one.

The selection of 60 some objects is a panoply of works, large and small, artistic markings in color or black and white -- always with some reference to the real world, inspired by the spiritual world, and usually with an emphasis on the artistic element to which this consummate artist responded most, the artistic element of line.

There are the unique stone carvings.

These fine grained, slim but weather impervious plaques (some are rescued schoolhouse blackboard fragments) bear figures or letters that are first laid out in paint then expertly carved with a _ inch carbon alloy tipped chisel (always at a 30 degree angle reflectivity) painted in color or gilded (with 23 karat gold leaf). Catich slates serve as Stations of the Cross, such as the set (one of eleven made) which hangs in the newly renovated Christ the King Chapel at St. Ambrose, or, as signage, announcing place names (both church-related and secular) throughout Iowa and Illinois, and in states ranging from California to Massachusetts. Smaller Catich tablets made as gifts or sold as art spell out entire alphabets, bear Latin inscriptions or amuse with original Catich quips.

But there is more.

Catich was a master calligrapher and hands-on maker of printed books, including his own. He operated his own printing press under the name Catfish Press. Rebelling against lettering designed by mechanical precision, he believed that evidence of one's hand in lettering would be one of the last remaining indicators of individuality in our computer age. He created his own fonts -- Petrarch and Catfish. As a teacher and illustrator, he showed he could be as deft with the paint brush and other tools as he was with the chisel and the stylus -- demonstrating how to draw anatomy with medical textbook precision, to capture watercolor translucence in rendering things from nature, and to produce the vivid clarity and directness of a woodcut with scratchboard.

And more.

There is the whimsy of his organic, and at times gymnastic, alphabets in pen and ink, the devotional aspect of a glittering mosaic, an oil or a gouache, the jewel-like precision of a silver chalice (accompanied by a Catich composed and printed testimonial. Even the actual cast Father made of an inscription from the Trajan column in Rome -- an early relic of the priest artist's ambitious and courageous investigation into Ancient Roman lettering -- are all gathered here.

Edward Catich was not only a man who made letters but a man of letters, a sought-after speaker and published scholar on the history behind letters. He was an artist of his time, firmly embedded in twentieth-century American art, which could be both modern and romantic, leaning towards abstraction but also founded in realism. Notice the simplicity and musicality of a Catich calligraphic line on slate or in ink, or the flattening of shape and reduction of form in a group of Catich abstracted buildings in Stone City, 1933. There is no question that the maker of these works was a man of (and aware of) the art of his time as well as his antecedents. And, as wit the palm over palm game, "Rock, Paper, Scissors," it is hard to know which of Catich's art forms comes out on top.

--- Elisabeth Foxley Leach


Selected brochure back cover text

Edward M. Catich designed and made liturgical art from small paper holy cards honoring Christian saints to church-size stained glass windows depicting the life of Christ. Here two figures, one of whom may be Catich himself, are silhouetted against the Crucifixion at a church in northwest Iowa.
Slate signage carved and gilded by Edward M. Catich appear at the entrances to educational and liturgical institutions all across the country. This sign is one of many that can be seen in the Iowa-Illinois area. Slate carvings by Catich may be found in the Newberry Rare Book Collection in Chicago and the Houghton Library at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, among other collections.
Edward M. Catich (American, 1906-1979)
Edward M. Catich was born the third of 6 children in Butte, Montana. His Croation father, a copper miner, died young as did his mother; at age 11, he and his three brothers were taken in by the Loyal Order of the Moose, Mooseheart, in Aurora, Illinois. After high school, the future priest-artist-teacher-scholar sought outlets for his interest in music and art in Chicago, playing in bands, studying art at the Institute, and making a living as a writer of signs. Committed to learning, Catich arrived at St. Ambrose College in 1931, worked as the leader of the school band, graduated in 1934, received a masters degree in art at the state university in Iowa City and then went to Rome to study for the priesthood; while there he also studied archaeology and paleography. Ordained in 1938, Catich began teaching at St. Ambrose, created the art department, and taught for the next 40 years. From this home, Father Catich launched a career parallel to his teaching -- as a leader in liturgical art (once serving as the head of the Catholic Art Association), producer of hundreds of classical incised carvings (as signage or as works of art held in museum collections all over the country), printer and inventor of fonts (producing by hand his own treatises the art of lettering) calligrapher, scholar and illustrator of national renown. Called a "genius" by his peers, Catich stands as tall as Iowa's other twentieth century genius in the arts, another musician, Bix Biederbeck. As with his scratchboards, this exhibition manages only to scratch the surface of Catich's life and art.
Edward M. Catich "stands at the top of the world's best."
-- Philip Hofer, former Curator of Printing and Graphic Arts, Houghton Library, Harvard University as quoted by testimonial on the occasion of Catich's winning the Frederick W. Goudy Award, in honor of Melbert B. Cary, Jr., Rochester Institute of Technology, 1988.

(above: Edward M. Catich (1906-1979), Lobster Slate, n.d., incised and painted slate, collection of Linda Kelty)


(above: Edward M. Catich (1906-1979), Stone City, 1933, watercolor on paper, collection of St. Ambrose University)


(above: Edward M. Catich (1906-1979), Face Image of Jesus, n.d., stained and painted glass, collection of Bob O'Hare)


(above: Edward M. Catich (1906-1979), Madonna with Blonde Hair and Christ Child, n.d., glass on concrete mosaic, collection of St. Ambrose University)


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