Checking Our Accounts
Tom Alder Is Still Hanging Out With Old Dead Guys
I hope a few of you will welcome the return of my column this month in observation of 15 Bytes’ 10th Anniversary. Since some of you will be remarking, “I thought we got rid of this guy Alder and his bits," I should note that my return is by invitation: any complaints should be sent to editor Shawn Rossiter (who I enthusiastically congratulate, along with my other colleagues, who have devoted so much time to growing this online magazine, so vital to all of us who have an interest in fine art).
As most of you know, I abandoned my long mortgage banking career in favor of becoming a partner in Williams Fine Art. When I started writing for 15 Bytes, I was still working for Chase Manhattan Bank and later Zions Bank, plus finishing my masters in art history. People would ask me, “Tom, so what are you going to do when you receive your masters?” to which I would reply, “Oh, I’m going into art history where all the big money is.” Half would laugh while the other half would remark, “I didn’t know there was money in art history.” I conceded that the real reason I was getting the degree was strictly for me. Ironically, one week while the mortgage market was tanking, my degree showed up in the mail (unceremoniously), and Clayton Williams called and said, “I’m 80 now and want to do something else. I think you should buy the gallery.” Doors closing and doors opening. That is why I am where I am.
If you haven't seen any of my columns in 15 Bytes it's because running a gallery, and trying to surf this wild economic wave, has kept me pretty busy. Also, I was invited to co-author a new Utah art book with the working title, Painters of Utah’s Valleys and High Plateaus, along with Donna Poulton, curator of American and Western Art at UMFA, and Vern Swanson, long-time director of the Springville Museum of Art. Unfortunately, for the book I have to back up everything I write with facts and references, a tough proposition for a guy who loves to research and report urban legends about quirky Utah artists of bygone days. The book will be in the can (as in movie lingo, not garbage can) by the end of this year and is scheduled for release in September, 2012. It is the counterpart to the earlier Painters of Utah’s Canyons and Deserts, also by Poulton and Swanson, which featured the art and artists of roughly the southern half of Utah. Included will be the history of the Pioneer-era artists, the second generation—those who were born between 1850 to 1870—and those who frequented the Wasatch Mountains, like Alfred Lambourne and George Ottinger, painting canyons and lakes as well as naming many of the latter after their grandmothers, aunts and other kin.
Getting that art history degree has also got me into teaching - at the U, through the Osher Institute. Interestingly my curriculum has been, in large part, derived from my 40 or so 15 Bytes columns. In a way I guess I’m finally getting paid for all that research I did here as a volunteer. Plus I enjoy teaching all these facts and folklore to interested people in the community.
Rereading all of the columns that I authored, I am still dazzled with some of the facts surrounding long-gone artists around this state. Some of my favorite stories center around LeConte Stewart, whose works are on exhibit right now at the UMFA and LDS Church History Museum (see Ehren Clark’s review to the right); the fine examples of his work on display make the quirky stories about Stewart even more provocative. I continue to smile when I think of Stewart’s time spent with Maynard Dixon, a heavy drinker who, when he would visit his friend LeConte in Kaysville, would tote his large bottle of whiskey with him and set it on the dinner table. Zippora, LeConte’s straight-laced, non-imbibing wife, objected strenuously, but ultimately allowed him to bring the booze to the table provided the potables were blessed along with the rest of the food. My favorite story about LeConte remains how he approached the annual inspection of his cars. One day his lawyer son Birge caught him producing a small painting that resembled the Utah Inspection sticker that in those days was required to be affixed to everyone’s windshield. When Birge asked his father why he was painting it Stewart replied that he could do a better job than the state, plus -- LeConte being a bit of a tea partier avant la lettre -- he wouldn't have to pay the government the $5 fee. He couldn’t be bothered to paint one for each car, though, so he transferred the original between cars, wedging it between dashboard and windshield with a glove.
Stewart was one of our most influential and prolific artists and I continue to marvel at the Stewart paintings that find their way out of closets and private collections to be appraised or sold. Just this week I appraised three “new” LeConte Stewarts, two of which would have been good enough to go into the current exhibits had they been known of several months ago. The first, “Purple Mountains,” |0| is an unusually large (for Stewart) landscape, completed likely in the late 1930s or early 1940s, arguably Stewart’s strongest period. The second, a very linear “West Kaysville” |1| was painted in 1933 and displays an intriguing rutted road through the center of the painting. Maybe the current exhibits helped coax those paintings out of obscurity. When Dr. Donna Poulton publishes her new book, LeConte Stewart: Masterworks (which will feature over 300 color plates, many of which have never been seen by the public) I'll probably have to appraise some more. The book is due out before Christmas so plan on putting one under the tree.
Maybe some new stories will come out of the woodwork as well. I only learned the next story about LeConte after my column on the artist appeared in 2006. In the 1980s, Davis County evidently placed an assessment on all residents for one aspect of their sewer water, and as a result, LeConte protested by dismantling his toilet and displaying it on his front lawn. I asked the current owners of LeConte’s home what he did without a toilet and they responded that he evidently “watered the garden” around his house. In Federal Heights, we sort of do the same thing with our tulips in the early spring to keep the deer from nibbling on them—but that’s a different story.
Along with Stewart, Henri Moser has always been one of my favorites, and looking back at the column I published in 2006, the story of the large mural he painted for his home ward continues to entertain. After his training in Paris and further study in California and Texas, Moser returned to Utah in 1929 and agreed to paint and donate a mural that is situated above the choir seats in the Logan Ninth Ward. It was beautiful, depicting a pioneer, frontiersman, and a Native American scout pointing the way to “Zion.” Later, someone in the ward suggested that Brother Moser paint a shirt on the bare-chested Indian since it was thought by that individual to be inappropriate for the interior of a sacred chapel. The bishop approached Henri and asked if he could remedy the situation. After careful thinking, Moser painted an entirely new mural over the original one, comprised of three Mormon iconic locations: the Susquehanna River, the Hill Cumorah, and the Sacred Grove. That later mural survives and is a beautiful installment in historic Utah art, but also a witness to small thinking.
Recently, you may have seen an article in the Salt Lake Tribune [July 29, 2011] by arts writer Glen Warchol regarding an early Utah “bad boy” artist, A.B. Wright. Receiving his art training in Utah and Paris, Wright was a rather conventional, albeit gifted artist who achieved much, including being the chair of the art department at the University of Utah. As reported in my 2007 column, Wright reportedly had an affair with his model, Myrtle, was run out of town on a rail, and retreated to Paris where he was later detained by the Nazis in an internment camp. Warchol's article expands on the story. The “incident” was reported to then University president, George Thomas who recruited a panel of twenty members of the U’s faculty. According to Kurt Henrichsen of the Church History Museum, the panel proceeded to investigate charges that had been leveled against Wright by eccentric colleague, Mabel Frazer. Remember her? She’s the one who lived in a tiny house on University Street and slept in a piano (see the February 2007 edition). The U investigative board weighed the evidence, including charges by Frazer that Wright had paid for an abortion for one of his models. After reviewing all evidence, Wright was completely exonerated, resulting in Frazer being compelled to write a letter of apology to Wright, who by then (1937) had been art department chair for five years. Turns out that, according to the evidence, the model’s “abortion” was actually an appendectomy. Despite being cleared of charges, the rumors persisted and ultimately Wright left for Paris where he lived and painted until his death a few years after the end of WWII. Wright had some kind of agreement with his wife, who moved to California while the handsome and dashing artist made his way to Paris. Interesting arrangement. Another tidbit is that Wright had a mistress, Jeanne Warnet, who died in 1971 and was buried next to the “artiste Americain.”
Accompanying the Tribune article, a photo of a 1930 Wright painting, discovered in an antique shop by Russ Fjeldsted, shows a portrait in which the face of the model has been rubbed off.|2| I contacted Fjeldsted who believes the erasure was made so that no one could positively identify her—possibly because she factored into the mysterious rumors.
It is these types of stories that keep me intrigued by Utah art history and as I have asserted before, it is difficult for me to separate the artists and their art, from the stories that surround both. When I meet an artist and see his or her art, I quiz them on their motives for painting, and get darned nosey about their lives since I met so few early Utah artists and only get to know most from text and hearsay. I hope you artists are creating your own stories to accompany your wonderful art. Maybe not activities equal to AB Wright, but nonetheless stimulating.
Spirit of an Era . . . from page 1
The great masterpiece in the show is arguably "Private Car," from 1937, a piece that evokes the spirit of the common man.|1| One of a handful of finished pieces that is paired with its initial studies,|2| "Private Car" looks beyond the vulgar ideas of the “hobo,” as Stewart seems to presenting a romanticized version. Here are the migrant-workers at the height of the Great Depression, but in this depiction they seem neither depressed, oppressed or repressed, sailing along in their “private car.” Stewart paints the scene in a cheery sea of yellow and the men look like adventurers; one of them stands with his legs crossed seemingly proudly. They seem to be occupied with each other or in thought, free and moving forward under an open sky. Stewart venerated the common worker and saw a dignity and purpose in what they did. "The Thresher," painted seven years prior to the crash,|3| is not unlike French Realist Jean-François Millet's "Gleaners," 1857, and shares a similar tone with "Private Car": it's a cheerful and busy canvas, colorful and alive with man, nature and work, all happily in unison and everything apparently harmonious from the glorious sky, to the billowing smoke and the blur of human activity. The small faceless figures in their “private car” and the blurred workers in "The Thresher" are the heroes of the show.
In fact, looking at Stewart's paintings of the '30s it's not always easy to see that there is a Depression going on. There are some paintings of shuttered buildings, but for every one of these there is a vision of work and industry. In "Odgen, Becker Brewing" from 1933 it is the heart of the Depression yet we notice the multiple active smoke stacks, the trucks parked in front of the factory, the brightly painted dusk or dawn.|0| Nothing Stewart painted was gratuitous and everything can be read for content and here what we are seeing is industry at all odds.
Even more lavishly painted with overtly suggested scenes of commerce and industry is "Along the Concrete," where we see the artist focusing on the best of times and not the worst. Of course, times are hard, of course this is the worst economic disaster in United States history, but LeConte Stewart chooses to paint and promote commerce and industry with a bright red Coca-Cola sign, a car being pumped full of gasoline by a uniformed attendant who is working!|4| The painting is littered with signage all under a bright sky and another car moves on ahead. There are a number of other paintings like this in the show that focus on commerce and industry and here Stewart abandons his signature isolation to a near claustrophobic state. There is a painting in the show of empty storefronts but this is boldly and brightly rendered in a vivid green which does not feel empty or hollow. Stewart was making artistic choices here about what to paint and he was a humanist in the traditional sense of the word as he shows the best of mankind in the face of adversity.
The exhibition is peppered with a number of houses or buildings, sitting in isolation.|5| Yet, as is readily apparent in a number of these landscapes and ones currently on view at the LDS Museum of History, LeConte Stewart characteristically enjoyed such themes. Stewart frequently painted open spaces such as a mountainside with a single motif, such as a deserted farmhouse, thus inviting a feeling of disconnect from everyday reality. As much as being scenes of the depression, Stewart's views of isolated homes reflect his romantic sensibility, and the open spaces of his home state.
Some of the pieces in the show, such as "Death Curve," with its bold colors and strong contrasts of light and dark, call to mind Stewart’s Depression-era contemporary Edward Hopper.|6| Yet in Stewart's work one doesn't feel the strong tension and anxiety of a piece like Hopper's very famous and iconic "Nighthawks." Yes, there is the very real presence of isolation, of a looming darkness over everything, but Stewart has a very expressionist way of painting, which Hopper lacks, that brings life into the piece. Hopper’s "Nighthawks" features the central figures in the café, surrounded by the utter emptiness of the night, the barren street and cold dark windows. By contrast, beyond Stewart’s roadside brightly-lit service station is a street lamp whose glow breaks the darkness, the automobile breaks the loneliness, and the blackness of the sky is broken up by fragments of pink in a nocturnal plein air effect that creates a sense of warmth out of the would be panic-filled darkness of the night in Depression-heavy 1936.
LeConte Stewart was an active Latter-day Saint and so a piece like "Church Under Street Lamp" reads easily enough as a metaphoric work.|7| Like the dark night of the Great Depression, the church is shrouded in darkness, yet the face of the church is illuminated, shining forth as a symbol of the great peace many find through spiritual means, even in hard economic times.
There are many other significant images in the show that are poignantly rendered by Stewart, but as I viewed the exhibition and asked myself, from a humanist vantage point, what is the greatest relevance I could take from this show, I found I was inspired by the Becker Brewing Company that kept on brewing, the migrant workers on their own “private car,” the gas station in the middle of the night on Death Curve that keeps its lights on and the church under the street lamp that will always have its light on. LeConte Stewart, in my eyes, did not complain or quarrel but represented the best of the spirit of this era in those who fought to survive those years. Rather than find the paintings I witnessed of the Great Depression depressing I see them speaking of a great artist and the strength of his vision.
From Our Daily Bytes
Have You Seen This Lee Greene Richards?
Soprano Dorothy Kimball was singing the lead in a performance of the operetta Maytime when Lee Greene Richards, then at the height of his fame as a portrait painter, asked her to sit for a painting. Kimball was playing Ottilie, the daughter of a wealthy colonel who is kept, by family and circumstance, from the man she loves. Richards painted Kimball in costume and titled the work “Portrait of a Singer”. He offered it to the sitter for $100, but since it was 1936 the painting was a luxury the singer couldn’t then afford.
Kimball met someone else during that run of Maytime — Richard Keddington, who played opposite her as Ottilie’s star-crossed lover. The singers fell in love and their own affair was happier than the characters they played: they married, raised four children and continued their careers in the theatre. Both also sang with the Tabernacle Choir, where Dorothy was often a soloist. Dick was also featured on KSL radio players.
Dorothy Kimball Keddington passed away last year, and going through her papers the family has become intrigued by the portrait done of her at such a pivotal time in her life. They assume it is now in a private collection and are hoping the owners will let them take a look at it. If you have any information about the painting you can contact the family at firstname.lastname@example.org.