Friday, April 27, 2012

WPA Artist | Orr C. Fisher

Back in 1999, we published an essay (now online) about the painted murals that were made for US post offices in the 1930s and 40s as part of a government program called the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Among our favorites is an oil on canvas mural made in 1941 by Iowa-born artist Orr C(leveland) Fisher (1885-1974), titled The Corn Parade (reproduced above). It was commissioned to hang in the lobby of the new post office in Mount Ayr IA (and is apparently still there, assuming it hasn't closed), the seat of Ringgold Country in south central Iowa. (In an earlier post, we noted that Jackson Pollock's mother was born near Mount Ayr, and his father was also from Ringgold County.) As a WPA artist, Fisher also painted a mural for the post office in Forest City IA, titled Evening on the Farm (1942).

Fisher was originally from Ringgold County, having grown up near Delphos (originally named Borneo). According to online information (submitted by the artist's niece, Donna L. Howard) at a website on WPA murals, he studied art through correspondence schools, and (in 1913 and 1921) with Charles A. Cumming at the Cumming School of Art in Des Moines. While in Des Moines, he also studied at Drake University and worked with J.N. "Ding" Darling, the famous political cartoonist for the Des Moines Register

In an autobiographical article in 1930, as quoted in his niece's article, Fisher described his interest in art—

At an early age, yet in the primary department of a country school, I exhibited a talent for drawing by making pictures on my slate during the study period and on the blackboard at recesses and the noon hour. The barn doors, granary walls and every place on the old homestead where a smooth surface appeared was a temptation too strong to resist the markings of my pencil or chalk. Hence everything on the old farm was either decorated with comics or carved with knife in crude designs and initials. I use to draw with my finger in the plow furrow where the over-turned sod presented a smooth surface. On the way to school I would dig from the clay hills red and yellow soft rocks to color my pictures at school. This was before I knew what a crayola was.

He went on to say that "everywhere I have gone, I have drawn. I have drawn almost everything imaginable up to the modern art era, except a salary." Aside from being an artist, he worked for the railroad, drove a six-horse freight wagon, and produced articles, cartoons and illustrations for various publications. He was also an erstwhile inventor, and in 1904 (at age 19) he received a US Patent (No. 759,257) for an Automatic Whistle Operating Mechanism for locomotives (see patent diagram below). 

In later years, he lived in Woodstock NY, where he built a studio. In the 1960s, he moved to California, where he died in Fresno in 1974.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Dean Schwarz at Blanden Art Museum

The Blanden Memorial Art Museum, founded in 1931, is housed in a historic neoclassical building in the Oak Hill District of Fort Dodge IA. It was the first permanent art facility in the state. Opening there a week from today will be an exhibition of the paintings and pottery of Dean Schwarz, co-founder of South Bear Pottery and South Bear Press in Decorah IA. There is a talk by the artist at 3:00 pm (Saturday, April 21), followed by a reception at 4:00–5:00 pm. The exhibition continues until September 15. Schwarz's pottery is produced in collaboration with his son, Gunnar Schwarz, who makes the large wheel-thrown pots which Dean designs the surfaces of.

In connection with the exhibition, the museum has published a large format full-color catalog titled Dean Schwarz: Pottery, Painting and Persistence, 1958-2011 (see cover above). The catalog essay was written by Margaret Skove. It was designed by Lynette Ubel, with photographs by Peter Lee, Harry Baumert, and Jerry Grier.

This is an extraordinarily rich publication, featuring 112 pages of text and breathtaking photographs, with 105 reproductions in all, two of which are shown below. It is priced at only $35 (for museum members) and $40 (for non-members) and is available at the museum's gift shop. Or it can also be ordered by mail, with a $6 shipping and handling charge. Make checks payable to Blanden Charitable Foundation, and send to the Blanden Memorial Art Museum, 920 3rd Avenue South, Fort Dodge IA 50501. Please include a correct mailing address and phone number for reference. >>more…

Dean Schwarz©, Barn Poppies

Dean Schwarz©, Silos

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Howard's End

Chain carved from a single piece of wood

Growing up in the Midwest in the 1950s, when I was in elementary school I spent a lot of hours, especially in the summer, sitting outside in the shade on a concrete slab, carving shapes out of wood with my aging next door neighbor, Howard Steele (he looked like J.C. Penney to me). Recently, when I found the above photograph in a turn-of-the-century issue of the Strand Magazine (c1890s), it reminded me of Howard's specialty: He was good at "whittling" wooden chains out of a single scrap of pine, a trick that was pretty amazing to me at that age. He gave me my first pocket knife, which I used when I was whittling with him. Later, when I was in fifth grade, I took up ventriloquism. My sister gave me the head of a discarded doll, which I modified so that the mouth would open and close. One day when I came home from school, I was surprised and delighted to find that Howard had carved an entire wooden body for my makeshift sidekick, and my mother and a seamstress friend had made an appropriate miniature suit. I named him Mitch Mahoney, because he was supposed to resemble television bandleader Mitch Miller. It must have been the following year that, as I again walked home from school, I noticed as I neared my home that perhaps a dozen neighborhood women (my mother among them) were gathered on the lawn in front of Howard's house. As I approached, it became apparent that Howard, lifeless and propped up on a chair in the grass in the yard, was having a terrible hemorrhage, and the women were frantically trying to stop the bleeding with towels. After Howard died that day, I was given his pocket knife, which I still have, along with the one that he'd given to me. Oddly, now that all the years have passed, I can no longer remember which pocket knife was his—and which was mine.