Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on August 25, 2009 with permission of the author and the Indiana State Museum. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the author directly at the Indiana State Museum, 650 West Washington Street, Indianapolis, IN 46204 at either this phone number or Web address:



 

Making It in the Midwest: Artists Who Chose to Stay

by Rachel Berenson Perry

 

Noted Indiana artists T.C. Steele (1847-1926), William Forsyth (1854-1935), J. Ottis Adams (1851-1927), and Otto Stark (1859-1926), as well as Cincinnati's Lewis Henry Meakin (1850-1917), and Frank Duveneck (1848-1919), all chose to return to the Midwest from their European training. They wanted to artistically interpret their familiar home territory, claiming it to be as visually interesting and worthy of representation as more dramatic coastal or mountainous terrain.

The leading artists in the Midwest had rejected the option to simply move East because, individually, they were inspired by the notion of bringing the subtle beauty of their natural surroundings to the attention of the nation. Motivated by their passion for plein air painting, T.C. Steele, J. Ottis Adams, William Forsyth, and Lewis Henry Meakin were the first to create a demand for their "Western" landscapes. Despite unstated tenets, they were the pioneers who pushed across the nation trying new subjects and modified styles that were original and innovative.

Their desire to live in familiar surroundings may not have been solely based on aspirations to paint what they knew best. Steele's palpable love for southern Indiana sustained his passion for painting en plein air, and he was never happier than when faced with a blank canvas overlooking a rural panorama. Otto Stark, William Forsyth, and Frank Duveneck, however, guided and inspired dozens of younger artists. They dedicated their best years to teaching while raising their families in their equable Ohio Valley communities. Their extended families, patrons, and recognition were all based in their home states.

These professional artists of the early 20th century structured their lives to enable them to paint in an environment where they and their families felt content. Each found a degree of professional success that sustained their creative energy.

Some art historians believe that Hoosier Group artists T.C. Steele, William Forsyth, and J. Ottis Adams never individually painted as well as when they spent time painting together. And some also believe that each of them would have built more notable careers had they moved to New York and continued to share ideas and techniques with the large pool of working artists there.

Making art can be a solitary pursuit fraught with uncertainties. In addition to being vulnerable to fickle consumer preferences and economic volatility, artists must continually set their own standards for quality control while experimenting with new methods. Although plein air painters frequently paint together and participate in group critiques at the end of a productive day, and those involved in the academic world may gain inspiration from their revolving classes of students, other artists work alone with no critical input during the creative process.

The camaraderie and inspiration of working among other artists in an open-minded environment may have been the motivation for many artists to reject their Midwestern roots and head for the Big Apple. Perhaps the best known native-Hoosier artist, William Merritt Chase (1849-1916) moved to New York and became an influential teacher in addition to creating his own celebrated works. Will Henry Stevens (1881-1949) from Vevay moved to Louisianna to teach, and William Edouard Scott (1884-1964) settled in Chicago after exploring his artistic identity in France. Victor Higgins (1884-1949), Olive Rush (1873-1966), Carl Woolsey (1902-1965), and Wood Woolsey (1899-1970) all headed out to experience the community of artists in Santa Fe. More recently, feminist artist Mary Beth Edelson (b. 1935), and African American artists Carl Robert Pope Jr. (b. 1961) and Felrath Hines (1913-1993) all spent their early years in Indiana prior to leaving for New York. Constructivist Don Gummer (b. 1946), David Smith (1906-1965), and controversial sculptor Daniel Edwards (b. 1965) moved on from the Hoosier state before establishing their art careers.

Although blame for lack of support was (and is) often directed at the Midwest population's supposed general disregard for the arts, gaining museum support for local artists has always been a challenge. Even in the East, the Metropolitan Museum in New York City rejected two paintings by renowned artist John H. Twachtman in 1907 that were later purchased singly by the Carnegie Institute of Pittsburgh and the Boston Museum. While the limited market combined with the debatably ambivalent attitude toward art by Midwesterners can create an environment discouraging to living artists, just as it did at the turn of the last century, enterprising artists do not confine themselves to local galleries and exhibitions.

Twenty-first century Indiana is home to hundreds of visual artists who have chosen to live here. The reasons for their location preferences vary -- family ties and quality of life; appreciation of Indiana's understated landscapes; job or relationship prospects; low cost of living, or lack of resources to relocate, to name a few. These professional artists devote extensive time and energy to making art in warehouses, studios, make-shift spaces at home, or the great outdoors. However, the actual creation of art consumes only a part of their individual efforts. Getting their work seen and purchased by the public is crucial.

It is rarely easy to make a living as an artist, particularly when first starting out. Historically in America, those who gravitated to large urban centers had a better chance of making a name in national art circles and reaching a wider art market. The Midwest remains a place where artists who depend upon a local market often rely on a day job or a supportive spouse in order to make ends meet.

Despite the much-lauded Internet access to a world-wide art-buying public, even the most appealing website will fail as a selling tool if no one knows to seek it out. Many artists also feel that their work is not adequately represented via reproductions, and that the surface quality, size, and subtle color variations can be fully appreciated only by seeing the work in person.

The artwork's uniqueness and interest, technical quality, and relevance to today's viewers and trends are important. But national and international fame continue to depend upon "a perfect storm" of circumstances. Getting the attention of museum curators, gallery owners, or influential patrons; developing and advertising a fitting image; showing in significant exhibitions and garnering critical reviews; inclusion in publications, news and publicity in all media; establishing auction prices and strong secondary markets; and the artist's own participation in his or her art community all play important roles in the pathway to prominence.

Current Indiana artists use a variety of methods to carve out niches in the art world. A few have hired marketing agents or full-time public relations partners. Some are blessed with supportive spouses who handle the commercial side of their business. Others have concentrated on getting their work represented in galleries throughout the nation, written grants to initiate individual projects, joined with like-minded people to operate group galleries, entered regional, national, and international juried exhibitions or invitational paint-outs, and personally schmoozed in urban art centers to increase name recognition. Some artists, focusing primarily on their individual processes of creating art, have adapted their lifestyle needs to accommodate modest incomes.

Artists who have chosen to live in Indiana have been selected for the Indiana State Museum exhibition, Making It in the Midwest: Artists Who Chose to Stay, to tell their stories. Their stories represent the variety of ways that current artists find their own measures of success in the Midwest. Each of these artists has found his or her balance of creativity and sustenance to master the art of living.


About the author

Rachel Berenson Perry is the fine arts curator for the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis. She has written numerous articles for the American Art Review, Traces of Indiana and Midwest History, Outdoor Indiana, and Southwest Art Magazine. She provided the introductory essay for Painting Indiana II: The Changing Face of Agriculture and "An American Art Colony" in The Artists of Brown County, published by Indiana University Press. Her books include Children of the Hills: The Life and Work of Ada Walter Shulz, published by Artist Colony Inn and Press, and T. C. Steele and the Society of Western Artists 1896 - 1914, released by Indiana University Press in 2009.

 

About the exhibition

For more information about the exhibition Making It in the Midwest: Artists Who Chose to Stay, please click here.

 

Resource Library editor's note:

The above essay was reprinted in Resource Library on August 25, 2009, with permission of the author and the Indiana State Museum, which was granted to TFAO on August 20, 2009. Ms. Perry's essay pertains to an exhibition, Making it in the Midwest: Artists Who Chose to Stay, which is on view at the Indiana State Museum June 20 - October18, 2009.

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