When she returned after the war, Elaine Michelsen brought home some strange ideas. Unknown, foreign, from outside. Ideas suggested in pictorial form, alluded to in spoken word. Gathered from somewhere in the the wide world, she brought them to her Rocky Mountain home in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Michelsen, born Elaine Stevenson in Fillmore, Utah in 1905, grew up in a privileged, upper middle-class, Latter-day Saint family in Salt Lake City. The second child of local physician Lester Alson Stevenson, she received lessons in drawing and painting as well as ballet. As a teenager she shared her talents at vaudeville shows and missionary farewells, held at her LDS ward in the heart of Salt Lake City’s Avenues neighborhood. High school was followed by classes at the nearby University of Utah, where James T. Harwood was chair at the art department and a young Mabel Frazer added a dose of modernism to the class offerings. The Lambda Phi Lambda sorority provided Michelsen a social life and, at times, an artistic outlet. A work posted to the art site liveauctioneers.com provides a look at what may be one of Michelsen’s earliest works. “Sei Quartetti,” signed “Elaine S.” and identified by the seller as a work by Michelsen, has the surface quality of a cubist painting, though not necessarily its analytical rigor. It might be part of the “cubist decorations” she was responsible for designing at a University event when she was a sophomore, in 1925.
Her co-chair for the decoration committee was Walter Michelsen. Two years later the couple married. A pair of sons and Walter’s successful practice as a physician followed soon after. By the mid-1930s, after the boys had started school, Michelsen was again studying art, taking watercolor classes from Joseph A.F. Everett at the Lion House, continuing her studies with Frazer and working in oils with Edwin Evans. With a special emphasis on floral paintings, without which no home of taste and sophistication in Salt Lake City could do without, she began establishing a reputation for herself among Utah’s younger generation of artists. She exhibited at the Utah Art Institute’s annual juried exhibitions and in group shows with the Associated Utah Artists. In 1939, by the time a third and last child (a girl) had joined the family, Michelsen’s art and sense of design were the focus of a feature in the Salt Lake Telegram. Described as having “taffy-colored hair and striking blue eyes,” she showed the reporter around the “ivory, blue, pink and champagne” toned rooms of her home at 1117 Michigan Ave., each decorated with purposely created works of art. Two years later, she was honored with her first solo exhibition at the Art Barn, the heart of Salt Lake City’s art community. At 35 she was a proud mother, a fashionable socialite, and a well-respected artist. Life was everything a young Elaine Stevenson might have hoped for.
Then came the disruption of the war. As is it did for so many Americans, the war uprooted the Michelsens from the places they had known since childhood. Beginning in August 1942, Walter’s work for the war effort launched the family on a peripatetic lifestyle that lasted for five years and transported them from one coast to the other. Along the way, Elaine studied, taught and became involved in the local art colonies (Lowell, Mass., Kansas City, Westport, Conn., San Francisco, Richland, Washington). Somewhere along that route, her ideas, and her art, began to change.
When the family returned to Utah in 1947, she found her hometown was changing as well. The Michelsens returned to Utah on the heels of the 1947 Centennial Exposition, a months-long celebration of the arrival of Mormon pioneers in 1847. It should have been a time for celebration within Utah’s art community, but an exhibition organized for the Exposition from New York’s Whitney Museum and Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was weighted heavily by modernist works, stoked underlying tensions within the community, upending the relatively conventional Utah art world. Camps formed and they publicly, and not always politely, hashed out their differences in the pages of the Deseret News (see our article). It is within this tense climate that Michelsen chose to exhibit what she called her “ideoscapes.”
“Down into the swirling seas of their own weird paintings go the surrealists and abstract painters who have been confusing Americans — and sweeping down upon the galleries and exhibits of the lands comes the newest art movement up to date — ‘ideographs’ or ‘ideoscapes’ — an upsurge of religious-philosophic art form …” is how the not entirely sympathetic writer at The Salt Lake Tribune announced Michelsen’s return to the Art Barn for a two-week exhibition in March,1948. (Though generally considered Utah’s more progressive paper, the Tribune remained skeptical of modern art trends until a young James Fitzpatrick came on as the arts writer in 1950; by contrast, through the 1940s the LDS Church-sponsored Deseret News had a champion of modernism in Gail Martin, who was succeeded in 1947 by a sympathetic observer in Merwin Fairbanks). Michelsen’s exhibit was split between 24 of her “ideoscapes” and 21 landscapes and still lifes. A photograph accompanying the exhibition shows Michelsen with an example of each: an oil painting in a traditional style depicts what looks like a small New England hamlet; beneath, a completely different work shows the profile of a head floating in a bright encircling form. “What some people try to convey in written form … I try to convey visually in painting,” Michelsen explained of her new works. “All of us are wandering in a world torn and beaten, searching for a better way of life. I consider these ideoscapes as painted essays on philosophy.” As the Tribune writer explained: “Since the war turmoil a vast number of artists have turned to [the] visual expression of thought — cosmic art” (The Salt Lake Tribune, 28 Feb. 1948, p. 10).
“Cosmic” was a term in vogue after the war, predating but related to its use in the Pop, hippie and futuristic art of the 1960s. Whether looking to the past or the future, it implied a tapping into unseen forces, a going beyond the mundane, physical world, an ushering in of a new age of understanding. It was already a term popular within esoteric groups in the early 20th century. An advertisement in the Los Angeles Evening Citizen News in 1946 announcing a Rosicrucian lecture spoke of ancient knowledge, endocrine glands and psychic development. “Are there points within the human body where cosmic forces are transformed into nervous energy, vitality and inspirational powers?” the advertisement asked (21 Sep. 1946, p.5). “Cosmic” was also the term used to refer to the paintings of Dutch artist (some said con-artist) Jozef Rulof, who toured the United States in 1948. A famous medium in spiritualist circles, Rulof claimed to produce his canvases in one sitting, “in a trance,” under the influence of “the Cosmos” (Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, 05 July 1948, p. 15). “Cosmic” also absorbed connotations from the modern scientific age of Einstein, Hubble and Curie. New York artist and coiffeur M. Louis used the term to refer to both his art and his hairstyles. The Italian-born artist created nonobjective sculptures and paintings of curvilinear forms and intersecting planes. He incorporated this imagery into the styles he taught at his Hair Design Institute in New York. “[Louis] believes in adjusting hair style to the new age of supersonic speed and atomic energy—the cosmic world!” announced Danville, Virginia’s The Bee (13 nov 1947 p. 26). Articles on the artist/coiffuer turned up in newspapers across the country in 1947 and 1948, including The Salt Lake Tribune.
Articles on Michelsen’s exhibit in both The Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News referenced Raymond Frank Piper, a Syracuse university philosopher researching the subject of “cosmic art.” The Deseret News quoted his explanation of Michelsen’s work: “Imagine the difficult problem which the religious-philosophic artist encounters in creating a visual language which will convey to others what he himself has experienced. How to produce the miracle of translating an abstract idea or feeling into concrete visible forms and colors which will convey the same feeling to others?’’ (Mar. 8, 1948, p. 6). As Piper framed it in the book he published in 1956, cosmic art was a movement that sprouted spontaneously in several parts of the world in the beginning of the 20th century. It had both scientific and religious branches and was part of a spirit of change and renewal. His enthusiasm for the subject could turn poetic and, we might say — borrowing a phrase applied to Michelsen’s work by one Utah museum — had “a New Age bent.” “As lovers of Cosmic Arts sharpen their responsiveness to artistic creations which radiate overtones and auras of significance and worth, they progressively acquire a kind of third eye of illumination, a ‘cosmological eye.’ This is a convenient name for their growing power to discern spiritual values in certain works of art and to trace the thoughts of God in the vast realms of nature” (Piper, Ramond F., The hungry eye: an introduction to psychic art, DeVorss & Co., 1956, p. 133).
The artists Piper studied and corresponded with were bound together by various threads, one of which was the idea that these artists were, in one form or another, working “under inspiration.” Michelsen was already in correspondence with Piper in 1948, and, as she explained to him in a letter, her ideoscapes were infused with spiritual connotations. “‘… [W]hat happens is this: I pray unceasingly, and I believe my paintings are the ‘overflow’ of gratitude to God and his goodness to me. I believe it comes from Him and goes back to Him as inflowing-outflowing praise: ‘the Father abiding in me.’” Michelsen wrote of herself as a sort of artist medium: “God is so near to me that I trust the revelation of Cosmic forms and I feel the enveloping security in the extension of his power, using me as a channel to give to others the closeness of God with his creations. I usually paint to music, and the worlds’ great composer live again to convert their message of insight into Divine harmony in all things” (The hungry eye, p. 75).
Two small pastel works created at the time and since donated to the Springville Museum of Art by Michelsen’s son-in-law, provide a glimpse of these works. Executed with the immediacy of pastel, both are small, brimming with light, forms emerging from darkness and rising up into an enveloping form, providing a sense of oneness and security. In “The Upward Spiral: The Key to Life Reveals the Trinity of the Soul,” three figures at the bottom reach upward, where they meld into a spiral shape. Almost unnoticed on the dark background is a small, ringed planet, suggesting — and it’s hard to use any other term — a cosmic setting. This encircling, blending motif is repeated in “The Sun and the Circle,” where multiple small figures seem to rise up and be embraced by a larger gold figure.
Michelsen’s titles don’t align strictly with a specific religious or philosophical tradition, although they resonate with the movements that were providing many Americans at midcentury an alternative to traditional Christianity. These included Spiritualism, Rosicrucianism and Theosophy. Under what has become the generalized term “New Age,” these strands of esoteric knowledge and philosophical thinking would fertilize several new offshoots in the postwar period. Michelsen’s interest in these movements is suggested by the description of her method in her letter to Piper. “Praying unceasingly” is Biblical, but was also a term common among spiritualists: Juliette Pressing used it in an admonition to her readers of the Psychic Observer in June 1943, where she also taught, “we are all being weighed up on the scales of Cosmos.” “The Sun and the Circle” of Michelsen’s title has associations with astronomy and freemasonry. “Upward Spiral” was a term for increasing knowledge and understanding, but also reincarnation; the “trinity of the soul” is a phrase used by Christians as far back as Augustine, but also by the 18th-century scientist and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg; it can also refer to the ancient Egyptian concept of the soul (comprising Ka, Ba and Akh), and is a term used in Spiritualist circles: it was the subject for a sermon at the Church of Psychic Light, a Spiritualist organization active in Los Angeles in the early 1940s.
Michelsen’s method of working by channeling unseen forces was not uncommon in the artistic avant-garde at mid-century — one need only think of the automatic techniques of the Surrealists. More closely related might be Michelsen’s Utah contemporary, Grace Solomon, who experimented with “music paintings” at midcentury. Nor was Michelsen’s interest in Western esotericism unique: other artists were similarly trying to give physical form to religious and philosophical concepts. Another of Michelsen’s Utah contemporaries, Gertrude Teutsch, was attempting to give visual form to the ideas of Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy, though she never identified her works publicly as such. It’s not hard to see visual similarities between Michelsen’s ideographs and the “desert transcendentalism” of Agnes Pelton, an artist interested in neo-theosophical movements who lived in Sacramento and exhibited at Salt Lake City’s Art Barn in 1944. Without suggesting any sort of direct influence by an artist then relatively unknown, we might also detect some similarities — in objective if not completely in style — in the work of Hilma af Klint, who had attempted to create physical representations of the ideas of Theosophy. In other words, Michelsen’s methods and aims were part of a rich, if little-known, group of artists, many of them female, expressing philosophy and spirituality through their art in the first half of the 20th century. By no means, however, were these ideas and methods part of the mainstream culture in Utah.
Considering Michelsen’s less-than-conventional works and ideas, it may have come as a shock to some — maybe even a betrayal? — when, the following year she was chosen to succeed the recently deceased Alice Merrill Horne as curator of the exhibits at the Tiffin Room. A restaurant located in the ZCMI department store in downtown Salt Lake City, the Tiffin Room was a popular, upscale gathering place, and, for at least the preceding two decades and under Horne’s curation, one of Utah’s main exhibition spaces. Ever since controversies over new modes of art had first erupted in the late 1930s (when the WPA came to town), Horne had viewed modernism as an invasive species and had made the ZCMI tea room a citadel for championing Utah’s naturalistic tradition. She curated the space until her death in October, 1948.
In accepting her curatorial role at the Tiffin, Michelsen attempted to appeal to both sides of the artistic debate: the policy of the gallery would be to curate shows from the “spectator’s viewpoint” (a nod to the popular desire for the “beautiful”), but she also indicated she wanted the public to “see values through the eyes of the artists” (especially, one can assume, those working in experimental styles) (Deseret News, Jan. 16, 1949 p. 37). “I believe there is room in Utah for all theories of art as expressed by artists of sincerity and integrity,” she told The Salt Lake Tribune. “I want to make the point that there are many levels of consciousness. And that artists paint for the type of people who understand them” (Jan. 8, 1949, p. 10).
According to the Deseret News, the inaugural show of January 1949 was received with “many a raised eyebrow.” It offered the greatest variety in years, “everything from the abstract and impressionistic to the conventional still life of flowers before a lovely drape” (23 Jan. 1949 p. 37). Works by seasoned favorites like Lee Greene Richards, Florence Ware and Cornelius and Rose Salisbury were hung alongside several younger artists like Alvin Gittins, Arnold Mesches, William Parkinson and Gertrude Teutsch.
For the second exhibit, Michelsen showcased 40 paintings from the Logan Artists Group, composed mostly of the art faculty at Utah State Agricultural Collecge (now Utah State University). In Utah at the time, USAC’s was the most modern of the art departments, and among its faculty were some of. the most vocal proponents for modernism in the debates of 1948. Whether by personal design, or from pressure by outside parties, the exhibits that followed were more tame in style, though Michelsen continued to experiment: she brought in artists from outside the state, exhibited with fiber art and curated an exhibit devoted exclusively to men, whom — and this leave the 21st-century reader gobsmacked — she felt needed encouragement. Michelsen framed her exhibitions with an educational bent, and on the occasion of the Easter show in 1949 told the public, “… I am ready and willing to go to any home and consult with a family regarding the right sort of pictures for its walls. My interest is as deep as that!“ (The Salt Lake Tribune, Apr. 10, 1949, p. 70).
Michelsen’s work at the Tiffin Room continued until the fall of 1951, when she accepted a job at Westminster College, replacing Teutsch, who had taken a maternity leave. For more than a decade Michelsen was an enthusiastic researcher and educator, responsible for developing the small liberal arts college’s art program. She initiated its art history program, sponsoring field trips to exhibitions in Salt Lake City and beyond. She also began its permanent art collection. In the fall of 1951, she visited Frank Lloyd Wright and convinced the architect to come to Utah the following year to speak on his work and to design a new complex for the college: a chapel and facilities for the departments of religion, art, drama and music. (Wright did come to Utah, twice, but the Westminster complex was never built). In 1953 she went to Mexico to study the Mexican Muralists before giving lectures on the subject in her classes. During the 1954-55 school year, she arranged a long term loan from the Guggenheim Museum for the exhibition of 15 paintings, including works by Picasso, Kandinsky and Klee. She was president of the Utah Art Education Association and in 1957, sailed to Paris as Utah’s delegate at the International Congress of Art Educators. Throughout the decade, she lectured on a variety of art-related topics at venues along the Wasatch Front.
Her work at the college did not curtail her own art and she continued a prolific studio practice in the 1950s. When she showed with the Utah Associated Artists in 1951, she exhibited two pieces: a flower study and a work called “Jungle Rhythm,” in which three figures are seen through a screen of foliage — a “dramatic color sense with a severely formal design” is how James Fitzpatrick of The Trib described it, saying both works showed the artist’s “unmistakable interest in abstract art” (Apr. 29, 1951, p. 67). In an article that appeared later that year, the accompanying painting shows Michelsen was experimenting with a nonobjective style: semi-transparent planes overlap each other on a dark background. In 1953, she took on a major project for the newly created neuropsychiatric department at Ogden’s Thomas D. Dee Hospital, developing a color plan for its rooms meant to soothe the patients. (Color theory was a subject she explored and discussed for several years). She also created a mural for the project. In 1954, her “Dynamics of a Canyon,” a stiff, angular mountain scene with cubist shading won first place in its division at the Pen Women’s Art exhibit at the Smithsonian. It was also part of a one-person show at the Salt Lake Public Library and again a three-person show with Erika Paulsen and Myra Powell at the Art Barn in 1956. She exhibited a group of works created in Mexico, characterized by “calligraphy and cubism,” at the Tower Theatre in 1957. The summer of that year, after her trip to Paris, she went to Salzburg to study with with expressionist painter Oskar Kokoshka. In 1959 she created a mural on the healing arts for the newly created Stevenson Clinic, at 935 E. South Temple. That same year, works from her new Golden Age series were exhibited both at the University of Utah and at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.
The Golden Age series kept Michelsen busy well into the next decade. The symbolic series explored aspects of various cultures from the past, including the Chinese, Egyptian, African, Indian, Assyrian, Greek and Byzantine. In each she employed a gold-leaf technique meant to represent “isolation from the material world into the sublime.” The use of precious materials dates back to a trip to Greece, in 1957, when she began incorporating precious and semi-precious stones including opal, jade and pearls. She sourced the stones from all over the world. Her concept of the Golden Age influenced the nine large murals for the Del E. Webb Corp. building in Phoenix in 1964. That same year she donated a work to the newly created Garden Center in Salt Lake City’s Sugar House Park. The 4×8 foot mural depicts six Native peoples holding “gifts of the American Indian”: pottery, jewelry, maize, dancing, hunting and fishing. “We always say what we have done or are doing for the Indians, never realizing how much they have given us” she said (The Salt Lake Tribune, June 28, 1964, p. 66).
Works by Elaine Michelsen in the Utah School District Art Collection
Though no longer at Westminster, she continued to teach and lecture, including at the University of California San Jose, 1963-64, introducing a course on viewing art from a psychological perspective. She worked with the Ministry of Culture in Egypt to encourage creativity in children’s art and sponsored the Michelsen award for creativity in Salt Lake County’s Granite School District.
She still spoke of her work as coming from inner experiences, comparing her method to “the oriental approach … the world of feeling and experiencing nature rather than representing it.” She identified the Renaissance as the point when artists lost their way, becoming materialistic and losing touch with the inner self. “Much of the modern art is on the surface and lacks the content of greatness” (Rocky Mountain Review, May 14, 1964, p.10). Her works were driven much more by design and study than by inspiration, however, and after their initial debut at mindcentury no further mention was made of her ideoscapes.
It is unclear how public Michelsen was about her personal spiritual development when she first exhibited her ideoscapes in 1948 or when she took over curatorial duties at the Tiffin Room in 1949 — though phrases like “many levels of consciousness” may have provided a clue to those who wanted to hear. By 1952, when she gave an address to the First Congregational Church in Ogden, she was public that her spirituality had gone beyond the confines of her LDS upbringing. “While Mrs. Michelsen grew up in the LDS Church, she has had personal religious experiences which make her religious interpretation of life universal in spirit,” is how the Ogden Examiner described it. “I believe the new art to be an image and product of our time with emphasis on the spiritual and uplifting rather than on the confused and material world,” she told them (Dec. 12, 1952, p. 3). That she was able to forge a successful career in Utah despite her unorthodox ideas problematizes the facile notion of a state culture completely dominated by the LDS Church and its members — though it should be recognized that her relative wealth provided her certain privileges, and she found a home at Westminster College, an institution decidedly outside the LDS realm.
Did her “strange” ideas impact her artistic reputation in Utah? It is unclear. She never become a public favorite in her home state. All of her works in public collections seem to have been donated: the two to the Springville Museum of Art, by her son-in-law after his wife’s death, and several works from her Golden Age period to the Granite School District. “I maintain a home in Holladay,” she told The Tribune in 1964, “but I have always made my living outside of the state” (June 28, 1964, p. 66). During her active artistic career in the 1950s and ’60s, she did manage to garner plenty of positive press in the local papers, though must of it was from journalists rather than art critics. Her influence as an arts administrator, however, is undeniable. During a decade of controversy and change, she encouraged a ecumenical approach to curation and established an educational foundation for her home state to explore the wide world of strange ideas.
Michelsen’s “The Upward Spiral: The Key to Life Reveals the Trinity of the Soul” and “The Sun and The Cirlce” are part of Springville Museum of Art’s Mixed Reviews: Utah Art at Mid-Century, which closes Saturday, May 13.
The founder of Artists of Utah and editor of its online magazine, 15 Bytes, Shawn Rossiter has undergraduate degrees in English, French and Italian Literature and studied Comparative Literature in graduate school before pursuing a career in art.
Categories: Before Now | Historical Artists | Visual Arts
A fascinating piece, Shawn. What an interesting woman! And you have contextualized her wonderfully with lots and lots of research.
What a terrific piece of writing Shawn. A real time capsule, and one I am especially interested in. Thank you.