“In Search of America” (and Santa Fe) – excerpt from a new book by Robert Wolf

Among its many virtues Santa Fe has always been a refuge for dreamers, eccentrics and artists. Some of these magnificent souls bring with them an unmistakable effervescence, a radiant and slightly skewed take on the world that reminds us of what a life of complete freedom, with both its rewards and its costs, looks like.
If there were a poster child for Santa Fe artistic eccentricity it would have to be Tommy Macaione (1907-1992). Old time Santa Feans remember Macaione wandering through the city, usually with a few of his beloved dogs with him, painting area landscapes, gardens and street scenes. He was instantly recognizable with his leonine head of hair and bushy beard making him look like a Renaissance artist who just happened to drop into the latter part of the 20th century.

Tommy Macaione statue by Mac Vaughan, Santa Fe

 Tommy Macaione statue by Mac Vaughan, Santa Fe
We got some insight into Macaione when the author, Robert Wolf, stopped by the gallery a few months ago to talk about his new book, In Search of America. Wolf met Macaione and other Santa Fe artists when he lived here and the new book includes accounts of that period.  In addition to Macaione, Wolf writes about artists including Alfred Morang, Harold West, Eli Levin and others.
We were so interested to hear some of these stories of Santa Fe that we are hosting a book signing for Mr. Wolf this month. In addition to Mr. Wolf’s appearance we’ll be showing some works by artists who appear in the book. The book signing and exhibition will take place Friday, October 16 from 5 to 7 pm at the gallery.
When Mr. Wolf was a student at St. John’s College he met Macaione and writes about the artist and other Santa Fe adventures in his new book, “In Search of America”. Following is an introductory comment and excerpt from the book by Mr. Wolf:

From the early 1960s through the early 1970s, I lived on and off in New Mexico. In February 1963, at age nineteen, I left an upper middle-class Connecticut home to rent an uninsulated shack in Duran for $10 a month, and stayed until late March. In 1965, I returned to New Mexico to enroll in St. John’s College. In Santa Fe, with my friends Mac and Alan, I began exploring the City Different. This excerpt from “In Search of America” recounts my first meetings with artist Tommy Macaione.

Santa Fe Winter Scene by Tommy Macaione
Santa Fe Winter Scene by Tommy Macaione

Winter snow was melting the afternoon Alan rushed into our dorm and announced to Mac and me that he had discovered a great painter. He sat down on the edge of Mac’s bed. “He’s as good as Van Gogh. You’ve got to see him.”
He drove us down the hill to Canyon Road and parked in front of a one-story stuccoed house. A hand-painted sign above the front door read:
PAINTINGS – Tommy Macaione—El Differente
El Differente had a painting propped in his window, an intense landscape reminiscent of Van Gogh.
We jumped out of the car. Alan knocked on the screen door and Tommy called, “Wait! Wait!” Moments later he pulled the door open, and through the screen said, “I can’t let you in yet. I can’t let my babies out.” He pushed his dogs aside with his feet, all the while talking loudly to them. We entered a tiny living room empty of furniture but stacked with paintings. The paintings were in various stages of completion. They were painted with thick daubs and streaks of color, wild profusions of emotion. But on one wall he hung two conventionally rendered paintings—one of a pair of flamenco dancers, another of a pipe and a bowl with fruit. “I hang those,” Tommy said, “so that people will know that I can paint like that, if that’s what they want.”
A stench filled the room. Tommy’s clothes were covered with dog hair. His bed was covered with dog hair, the sheets and cover balled together. Empty dog food cans with bits of decayed meat lay on the floor next to dog turds. There were wet spots and stains where his dogs had peed.
Tommy had the title “El Differente” legally affixed to his name. And different he was. He was in his mid-fifties with a long unkempt beard, hideous breath, and hair that shot out in all directions. He was missing several teeth; those he had were brown and yellow.
“I’m having a terrible time,” Tommy told us, “I’m STARVING. Things are worse, Alan. I passed out just the other day and the day before that, too, I’m so hungry. I haven’t enough to even feed my babies.”
His eyes watered and he spoke frantically, in a rush.
“We can help you out, Tommy,” Alan told him. “How about coming up to dinner this evening?”
“Boys, do you mean it?”
“Sure we do,” Alan said.
“I love you boys,” he said, grabbing Alan and hugging him. “Can you drive me downtown? Do you have time? I have to get some bones for my dogs, they’re starving. God would be very angry with me if I let them die.”
“Sure,” Alan said, “let’s get in the car.”
Tommy sat up front with Alan. His smell sickened me. Mac and I rolled down our windows but the rush of air could not eliminate his odor.
We drove to a grocery store where Tommy walked to the meat department and returned with large bags filled with bones and meat scraps. Meanwhile, I bought a box of spaghetti, several cans of tomato sauce, Italian sausage, two loaves of bread, and a can of soup.
“This ought to hold you for a while,” I told him.
He cried and hugged me.
I was happy for him and envious of his intensity and dedication and lack of inhibition, but his sentimentality embarrassed me.
That night Alan brought him to the dining room, a large hall with balconies and clean light wood tables. The hall was clean, spare, modern. Tommy wore a torn corduroy coat with bulging pockets, baggy pants thinning at the knees, and old cracked shoes with knotted laces. With his wild hair and unkempt beard Tommy looked as out of place as anyone could. But we were proud of our find; after all, we were mingling with the townspeople.
That struck me as the big gap between us and the other students: they had little to do with the town. Their interests were in the program, themselves, and a handful of friends. We, on the other hand, lived only partly for St. John’s. You might say the books were for us a jumping off point, a different way of exploring the world, a kind of background to it. The real thing was life, people.
“God bless you boys, God bless you,” Tommy kept saying.
When Kyle our waiter told us the selections, Tommy said excitedly, ”You mean I can have a choice?”
Alan said, “Sure. And if you want more later you can have it.”
When Kyle brought our orders Tommy immediately pitched into his food, gobbling it and talking while he ate. “St. John’s is a great school, a great school. You boys are very lucky to be here. Me, I didn’t have a college education. I went to art school. I knew very early I wanted to be a painter.”
“Have you always made your living as a painter?” I asked.
“A living!” he practically screamed. “I can’t make a living at painting now!”
“Right,” I said.
“I was a barber for years, in New York. When I came to Santa Fe in fifty-three I was a barber.”
His fingers were greasy from picking up food with his hands. When bits of meat and vegetables became entangled in his beard, he did not notice.
“If you boys want to do me a favor,” he said loudly, his mouth filled with food, “something God will bless you for, get me a show at St. John’s.”
“All right,” Alan said, “we’ll do that.”

Periodically the college hung an art exhibit in a gallery on the balcony overlooking the dining hall. We arranged Tommy’s show through Colonel Deal, who crated the exhibits. We arranged to meet Colonel Deal at Tommy’s studio. Colonel Deal brought his station wagon and selected the paintings and we stacked them in his car and in Mac’s. We spent the afternoon hanging the show while Tommy walked around, jabbering excitedly, “God will bless you. I pray for you. You are good boys for doing an old man this kindness.”
We had Tommy to dinner several more times. For fifteen years Tommy had starved in Santa Fe. Whenever things got especially tough he took out a large ad in The Santa Fe New Mexican—the town paper—pleading for help. He traded paintings for the ads. Now he thought his fortunes were changing. He thought that with a show at St. John’s he would begin to attract wealthy buyers. He wrote prices of three and five hundred dollars on small cards in a scrawl and posted them next to the paintings. Then he scratched out those prices and scribbled in higher ones.
For days afterwards we spent hours with Tommy in Mac’s room before a tape recorder as he told us his life story and his theories of art. He wrote huge summaries of these in his large hand on greasy papers. All this was for a biography and artist’s statement, which we were to type up and photocopy and put in a stack in the gallery. We never wrote the biography or the statement. Tommy kept walking or hitchhiking up to St. John’s to see the show. Benevolence and gratitude changed to indignation. He railed at us.
“For two months now you’ve done nothing,” he would say. “That’s not right. You made a promise and if you’re gentlemen you’re supposed to stick to them.”
He was right.

 Tommy painted outdoors around Santa Fe in all weather. I remember his large paintings of hollyhocks that grew in profusion along Santa Fe sidewalks. Tommy was most interested in flowers, shrubs, and bushes, sometimes set against houses. In winter he wore several corduroy jackets and torn trousers, painting outside on the bitterest days. I saw him painting one evening at dusk to catch the last of the flowers before the autumn frost. When Tommy was not painting or begging scraps for his dogs, he would walk all five of his pets, getting the dogs and himself entangled as they dragged him across Santa Fe.
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NEW LANDSCAPES, NEW VISTAS: Southwest Premodernism

Nampeyo- Hopi Potter- Matthews Gallery Blog

This is part 2 of our blog series on the history of women artists in New Mexico.
Read part 1 here, and learn more at our May 8-31st exhibition
NEW LANDSCAPES, NEW VISTAS: Women Artists of New Mexico.

“I have alluded to Nampeyo as a ‘modern artist,’ because the more I understood her life and work, the more her extraordinary career seemed to parallel that path,” writes Steve Elmore in the last chapter of his book In Search of Nampeyo. Elmore stepped in as our guest blogger last week, which gave us some time to study the links between Pueblo aesthetic innovations and the diverse New Mexico art movements that emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries.

What did romanticist painters of the early Santa Fe and Taos art colonies learn from Pueblo traditions that had been around for centuries before they arrived? How did the elegant abstract patterns on San Ildefonso jars and bowls influence abstract expressionists like Beatrice Mandelman and Janet Lippincott?

Nampeyo- Hopi Pottery- Matthews Gallery Blog

Elmore provided the first clues to this investigation in his biography of Nampeyo (1856-1942), a Hopi-Tewa potter whose innovative images bridged the ancient and modern worlds. Here’s more from In Search of Nampeyo:

While much of Nampeyo’s life was that of a traditional Hopi woman, we need to consider her life and work outside of the academic fields of archaeology and anthropology, which have heretofore defined how Nampeyo has been perceived by the public. Today, her masterpieces are mostly displayed in natural history museums next to Anasazi jars or in anthropological exhibits of Pueblo Indians—not in art museums—and certainly not as modern art.

Yet, in the end, Nampeyo was not an ancestral potter, nor even a traditional Pueblo potter, although these conditions were the context for her achievements. While she was trained as a traditional potter, she evolved into a unique artist using modern marketing techniques to sell her work to a new Euro-American audience.

As Elmore stresses, it’s important to understand Nampeyo, Maria Martinez and other influential Pueblo potters not as isolated traditionalists but as artists who interacted with newcomers and adapted to the cultural changes they affected. The realities of frontier living necessitated a constant dialogue between the first artists who emigrated from the East Coast and Pueblo artisans. This interchange continued as the market for Pueblo arts and crafts grew and shifted based on the demands of visitors.

IlaMcAfee

Ila McAfee (1897-1995), one of the early “Euro-American” transplants, drew inspiration from Pueblo traditions in her work. McAfee often painted wild horses in profile, echoing the stark monochrome of pottery designs. In The Golden Triad, three beasts hover before a textured golden-brown field that captures the hues of high desert clay.

Taos art dealer Robert Parsons interviewed McAfee about her early years in Taos:

It was so different then. There was nothing between me and the mountain when we first got here. The village was small and the Indians remained uninfluenced by the invaders. Once I asked one of them, ‘What did you call this country before the Europeans came?’ ‘Ours,’ he told me.

Dorothy-Brett-Artist-Matthews-Gallery

Other early Taos artists such as Helen Greene Blumenschein (1909-1989) and Dorothy Brett (1883-1977) also interacted with the nearby Pueblo. Blumenschein meditated on the relationship between the new settlers and the natives in her Taos memoirs, and Brett spent years making genre paintings of the Taos Poblanos. Later on, Brett switched to more mystical subject matter that was inspired by Native American spirituality. Her paintings Cat Shaman and Moon Ray reflect her mature philosophies that link humanity and nature.

Agnes Sims Artwork with New Mexico Petroglyphs- Matthews Gallery

In the 1930s, Santa Fe artist and archaeologist Agnes Sims (1910-1990) arrived in New Mexico and began studying the ancient Pueblo petroglyphs. As she pondered the mysteries of the lost language, she began developing her own abstract symbol system in a series of paintings and sculptures.

Sims’ abstract experiments prefigured the innovations of Beatrice Mandelman (1912-1998) and Janet Lippincott (1918-2007), abstract expressionists who helped bring a bold new aesthetic to the Desert Southwest in the 1940’s. This wave of modernists surely took note of Pueblo aesthetic innovations that had spread from Nampeyo’s studio to the San Ildefonso Pueblo and beyond. From Elmore:

Nampeyo’s abstract drawings are strangely prescient of the abstractions of Euro-American modern art. This remains a large part of her mystique. In particular, critics have noted the comparison between Nampeyo’s abstractions of birds to Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque’s invention of Cubism, wherein an object is shown from multiple views at the same time.

Elmore’s observations complete the circle of influences, revealing a far more interconnected aesthetic evolution than we originally imagined. Check back next week for the continued tale of women artists in New Mexico, and connect with us on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest for daily gallery news.

Nampeyo and Pablo Picasso- Matthews Gallery Blog*Images of Nampeyo’s pottery courtesy of Steve Elmore. Image of New Mexico petroglyph courtesy of Roch Hart.

NEW LANDSCAPES, NEW VISTAS: Early Pueblo Pottery

 Maria Martinez- Revolutionary San Ildefonso Potter- Matthews Gallery Blog- Photo Courtesy Steve ElmoreThe tale of our current exhibition NEW LANDSCAPES, NEW VISTAS: Women Artists of New Mexico begins twenty-three miles northwest of Santa Fe in the San Ildefonso Pueblo, population 458. The village has a long legacy of women potters, whose innovative ceramics techniques and designs inspired traditional and modernist artists who traveled to New Mexico in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. San Ildefonso is known as the epicenter of Pueblo pottery for good reason, as discussed by our guest blogger Steve Elmore. Elmore’s extensive pottery collection appears in the show. 

From 1875-1925, the polychrome or multicolored pottery produced at San Ildefonso reached a distinguished peak in the creative history of Pueblo pottery in the Southwest. Indeed, the residents of this small Pueblo village on the Rio Grande, northwest of Santa Fe, are direct descendants of the prehistoric Pueblo peoples of Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon, whose tradition of potting spans a thousand years of human history.

Juana Leno- Acoma Polychrome Olla circa 1965- Matthews Gallery BlogJuana Leno, Acoma Polychrome Olla, c. 1965

San Ildefonso remains a small village. In 1900 there were only 30 households and in 1910 eight women are noted in the census as potters. We are fortunate to the know the names of these early potters. At the turn of the century, the most established potters were the husband and wife team of Martina Vigil (1856-1916) and Florentino Monotoya (1858-1918). Martina’s excellent molding combined with Florentino’s skilled painting produced many exquisite jars, including many fine large storage jars. Most are polychromes. Born in the 1850s, they were certainly potting by the 1870s if not earlier, and their joint efforts became a model for the production of San Ildefonso polychromes: a family effort involving both partners.

Traditionally, San Ildefonso pottery was decorated with black designs over a gray slip on a bulbous rounded form. The use of red clay was confined to the rim and a narrow band around the base of the jar. With arrival of the Santa Fe Railway in the region, potters at San Ildefonso began introducing red clay into the painted design on the main body of the jars. What prompted this introduction of red is unknown, but most scholars suggest that the arrival of thousands of travelers from the Eastern United States on the new railroad sparked the change. The tourists were eager to purchase pottery, and the polychrome wares of Acoma Pueblo quickly led the market. Acoma pottery, with precise four-color drawings on thin symmetrical jars, set the standards for the tourist trade.

Acoma Polychrome Olla- Matthews Gallery BlogAcoma Polychrome Olla

Certainly the innovators of their time, Montoya and Vigil might have been the first at San Ildefonso to use red with the black design. Perhaps a trader suggested it directly or merely showed them the brightly colored Acoma pieces which were their competition. By the early 1880s, hundreds of polychrome jars were being produced annually by the skilled potters of San Ildefonso for the tourist and museum trade. In response to this demand, and for almost fifty years thereafter, the potters of San Ildefonso created well molded pots traditionally decorated in black and red, whose size and beauty have not been surpassed.

Most traditional San Ildefonso water jars were painted with a mix of black geometric and floral patterns. With the addition of red paint, the drawings themselves begin to develop into elaborate flowing motifs covering the entire jar. The addition of red heightens the intensity of the black design and seems to urge the painter on to larger, more complex drawing. Previously simple designs are repeated in a larger and more intricate manner.

Nampeyo- Black on Red Hopi Seed Jar, c. 1900- Matthews Gallery BlogNampeyo- Black on Red Hopi Seed Jar, c. 1900

Beginning in the 1880s, an amazing array of both realistic and abstract bird motifs are also introduced along with other pictorial elements. I suspect Nampeyo‘s Sikyatki Revival in Hopi pottery influenced this emphasis upon bird designs. Her seed jar form was clearly copied repeatedly by at least one San Ildefonso potter along with her curvilinear drawings. The shape of the San Ildefonso vessels also evolves, from bulbous jars with small necks to elegant tapered vases with small bases and flared out rims: the classic “Tunyo” form. For fifty years of San Ildefonso pottery making, we can study the steady growth and development of an art form as it crests into a peak!

As Pueblo pottery enjoyed increasing popularity with the American public, many distinguished potters took the polychromes to new heights of creativity and expression. Among these were Maria (1887-1980) and Julian Martinez (1879-1940), Maria’s sister Anna and her husband Crescencio, and Tonita and Juan Roybal. Montoya and Vigil were perfect role models for the younger Martinezes who built upon their success.

Maria and Julian Martinez- San Ildefonso Blackware Plate circa 1925- Matthews Gallery BlogMaria and Julian Martinez, San Ildefonso Blackware Plate, c. 1925

This florescence of polychrome production was brought to an abrupt halt by the Martinezes’ invention of painted blackware around 1920. As Ruth Bunzel, author of The Pueblo Potter, observes, the attraction of the blackware is the minimized painted matte designs which emphasize a dominant polished slip. This subtle, monochromatic aesthetic is the exact opposite of the polychromes where intricate black and red designs were sharply contrasted against the midtone grey sip. In time the blackware style won the marketing war and by 1925 Bunzel could no longer find a single piece of polychrome ware in the village.

It is perhaps ironic that the Martinezes, known best for their blackware, themselves began as polychrome potters and were among the greatest of them. Although most of their output became blackware, Maria and Julian continued to produce occasional polychrome masterpieces up until Julian’s death in 1943. One cannot help but wonder if the bold artistic tradition of the polychrome pottery didn’t occupy a special place in their hearts. Martinez family members and other San Ildefonso potters have continued to produce the polychromes in limited numbers, particularly Popovi Da, his son Tony Da, and today, of course, Cavan Gonzales and Russell Sanchez.

Stay tuned for next week’s blog, where we’ll explore the links between early Pueblo pottery designs and modernist aesthetic innovations. See all of the artwork from NEW LANDSCAPES, NEW VISTAS on our homepage, and connect with us on Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest for daily gallery news. 

NEW ARMORY: Modernism’s Western Frontier

A severe sculpture by Andrew Dasburg, which appeared in the 1913 Armory Show, contrasts with his soft pastel snow scene that will appear in SPRING OF MODERNISM- Matthews Gallery Blog
A severe sculpture by Andrew Dasburg, which appeared in the 1913 Armory Show,
contrasts with his soft pastel snow scene that will appear in SPRING OF MODERNISM.
The 102nd annual Armory Show opens in New York City this weekend. Its history stretches back to 1913, when the exhibition introduced the European modernist movement to the United States. Featured artists included Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, Vincent van Gogh Gogh and other Europeans. The show also included American artists such as Randall Davey, John Sloan, Paul Burlin, Andrew Dasburg, Edward Hopper, Marsden Hartley and more who had been influenced by the artistic revolution taking place across the Atlantic.
Not-so-coincidentally, we’re launching a modernism show of our own this Friday, and it features several New Mexico artists who participated in the original Armory show. During the first half of the 20th century, Davey, Sloan, Dasburg and a great variety of their East Coast contemporaries ventured to New Mexico and reshaped the Taos and Santa Fe art colonies into Western outposts for bold aesthetic innovation. The Taos Moderns, the Transcendental Painting Group (TPG) and other collectives engaged with new developments in the movement, gaining an influential presence on the international art stage.
Our SPRING OF MODERNISM exhibition will follow every twist and turn of New Mexico’s modernist movement through significant artworks by Davey, Dasburg, Max Weber, Doris Cross, Russell Cowles, Howard Schleeter, Rolph Scarlett, Paul Burlin, Cady Wells, Jan Matulka, Dorothy Brett and others. It features TPG mavericks Raymond Jonson, Emil Bisttram and William Lumpkins, Taos Moderns such as Beatrice Mandelman, and pivotal Santa Fe modernists including Alfred Morang and Janet Lippincott.
The scope of the show is as ambitious as its title suggests— we’re highlighting 50 transformative years of New Mexico modernist history. SPRING OF MODERNISM shows how New Mexico’s art community became one of the largest and most influential in the nation.
Look below for some of our favorite works from the exhibition, and check out a special preview on our website. Also, make sure to attend the opening on Friday, March 6 from 5-7 pm!
 Emil-Bisttram- Orbs and Arrows- Encaustic- Matthews Gallery Blog
Jan Matulka -Landscape - 1923- Watercolor- Matthews Gallery Blog
Doris Cross- Untitled- Mixed Media- Matthews Gallery Blog
Alfred Morang- Untitled Landscape- Matthews Gallery Blog
Howard-Schleeter- Pueblo- 1949- Gouache
Randall Davey- Leaving Paddock- Lithograph
Beulah Stevenson- Place Of Drums- New Mexico - 1940-5- Matthews Gallery Blog
Paul Burlin- Look-No Fish- Oil on Canvas- 1949- Matthews Gallery Blog
Thomas Benrimo- Nymph of the Sea- oil on board- 1949- Matthews Gallery Blog
Make sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for more gallery news, and stayed tuned for information on our modernism-themed dinner at Coyote Cafe!

Hannah Holliday Stewart: Open-Ended Questions

Houston Chronicle's article on Hannah Holliday Stewart among her sculptures- Matthews Gallery

Our exhibition Hannah Holliday Stewart: An Artistic Legacy Rediscovered
runs through July 24, 2014

Two weeks ago, Houston Chronicle arts editor Molly Glentzer appeared at our door with a camera around her neck and notebook in hand. We figured that if anyone could find answers to our burning questions about Hannah Holliday Stewart’s life, it would be a reporter from the city where she rose to prominence. Last Sunday her findings appeared on the front page of the Chronicle. Early on in the article, Glentzer outlines the challenges she faced in her investigation:

Stewart left Houston without saying goodbye in 1987, just as the art scene she helped establish finally began to blossom. Few friends knew where the pioneering sculptor went: not her most recent art dealer, nor her agent, nor people who’d been close enough to visit her weekly.

The beautifully detailed report lays out the highlights of Stewart’s art career. As Glentzer discusses Stewart’s accomplishments—from monumental public art commissions to solo exhibitions at prestigious institutions across the nation—she’s careful to outline the sculptor’s struggle for recognition:

Her success came at a time when women sculptors were rare birds in a man’s world. […] it was a coup when Houston accepted “Atropos Key” …. in 1972. Stewart’s sculpture was unlike anything else in the landscape.

When it comes to Stewart’s departure from Houston and the art world, Glentzer arrives at the same conclusions we did. Stewart first returned to Birmingham to care for her ailing brother, and chose the Southwest as a part-time home because she was drawn to the “light and open landscape”. However, her move to Albuquerque in the final years of her life hinted at grander plans.

“How many people do you know who at age 80 would move 1,000 miles away, where they had no relatives, and build a house and studio with 20-foot ceilings?” [Stewart’s nephew Rusty Stewart] said. “She wasn’t out there to retire.”

Sculptor Hannah Stewart with her cocker-poodle, Major, in 1967- Houston Chronicle

Stewart with her cocker-poodle, Major, in 1967; Photo from Houston Chronicle

And so the answer to one question opens up another mystery. What did Stewart plan to do next? Her friend Dayton Smith told us she may have intended to complete some larger projects and return to Houston. In her sketchbooks from the 2000s Stewart often mentioned a series of sculptures called ‘Harmonic Resonance’ that may have been her forthcoming magnum opus.

Other friends of Stewart who have called or visited us since the appearance of the Chronicle article had few answers. An acquaintance who took yoga classes with Stewart for years said he’d lost contact with her in the 1980s before she left Houston. Another friend who stopped by told us vivid stories from Stewart’s life in Houston, but had just as many questions about her Southwestern exploits.

Last week we switched gears and teased out some of the mysteries of Stewart’s artwork. As Smith told Glentzer, Stewart “always preferred her work be talked about rather than her life.” Perhaps she didn’t want us to know what happened in Houston, or what her future plans were. In a note from Stewart’s sketchbook dated 2007, the 83-year-old artist wrote,”Tired—work to finish FINALLY!! Move on to others in series…”


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Stewart with “Atropos Key” in Hermann Park; Houston Chronicle

Then, late last week, we received a call from Dr. Liam Purdon in Nebraska. We recognized his name from an elegant essay in Stewart’s files. In the 1980s, Purdon was working on a PhD in medieval literature from Rice University. He had seen Stewart’s “Atropos Key” sculpture in Hermann Park and was inspired to contact her.

“I literally stumbled upon it as I walked up the hill in the park,” he said. “You come over a rise and suddenly there it is in front of you. You’re startled by it, and the first question you ask yourself is, ‘What is it, and why is it here?’ When you read the name of it, then you suddenly realize it’s tied to Greek mythology.”

Purdon said the shock and curiosity he experienced was Stewart’s overarching goal. “She wanted to startle the observer into recollecting the whole mythology of a time when humans lived in harmony,” he explained. Stewart agreed to let Purdon observe her in the studio for three weeks, but kept a careful distance from the scholar. Later on they became good friends, and Stewart told Purdon her plans for the future.

“She felt that being in the Southwest… would be more supportive of her vision,” he says. “She loved the natural beauty of the Southwest. In some of her pieces, you do see it. In others you may not recognize it, but if you look at them for a while and meditate on them, it starts to become apparent.”

The two stayed in contact after Purdon took a teaching job at Doane College in Nebraska, and Stewart expressed interest in applying for public art commissions from the Nebraska Arts Council. When nothing materialized, Stewart was discouraged.

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Stewart in 1960 with a sculpture she recently completed; Houston Chronicle

“I think that probably underscored the fact that she felt… uncomfortable revealing the work until the time was right, until we re-cycled into an age when we wanted to hear the narrative again,” Purdon said. “She would have to wait for a period of time to introduce her work to people who were ready to understand.”

That’s the closest we’ve gotten to answering the ever-shifting riddle of Stewart’s twilight years, but perhaps it’s enough to know that people are ready to hear the artist’s stories again. We’ve had a huge response from collectors in Houston who read the article, and art lovers from across the country have discovered her work as a result of the press coverage our show has received.

“In general, i think that people are wanting narrative more,” said Purdon. “It is so remarkably different, her work… That’s why it needs a narrative. There has to be a starting point.”

Come see Hannah Holliday Stewart: An Artistic Legacy Rediscovered through Thursday, July 24, and learn more about the artist on our website. Make sure to connect with us on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest for more gallery news!

Hannah Holliday Stewart: Letter from Houston

Hannah Holliday Stewart in her Houston Studio- Matthews Gallery

Our exhibition Hannah Holliday Stewart: An Artistic Legacy Rediscovered
begins with an opening reception on Friday, July 4 from 5-7 pm

“In a day in which so many things in Art are merely exercises in Media and devoid of any real significance, it is refreshing to discover an expression which transcends the cerebral prison of its own time and manifests itself in forms poetically germane to a more cosmic significance,” wrote Dayton Smith, with poetic flair of his own, in a typewritten statement dated March 22, 1991.

Smith was referring to the sculptures of his close friend Hannah Holliday Stewart (1924- 2010), whose monumental forms caught the eye of the nation in the 1970s and 80s. As chronicled in our last blog post, Smith and Stewart met in Houston in the late 1960s as Stewart’s career was taking off. He assisted Stewart in various ways for a number of years, and watched as the artist found success in galleries and museums across the country.

More from the note:

Her art mirrors a consciousness expanded beyond the pragmatic doctrinal limits of our milieu. Her commissions stand to prick our higher sensibilities in a world which, it would seem, affords little for the pursuit of what may be a neglected cosmic heritage. In an age in which “symmetry does not balance make” (but which, nevertheless seems to be the applied solution for everything), her bold compositions embody a superbly balanced abstract expression of form and function suggestive of the anthropomorphic with its attendant graces and imperfections.

More than two decades later, Smith admits with a chuckle that the write-up can be a bit “over the top”, but it survives as an illuminating statement about an artist whose cosmic creations were at times misunderstood. After we contacted him, Smith was inspired to return to the typewriter—or, keyboard—and draft another statement on Stewart’s work. His musings provide new insight into the life and artwork of the dynamic sculptor.

Hannah Holliday Stewart in her Houston studio- Matthews Gallery

From Dayton Smith:

Hannah Remembered

It can be said with clarity and confidence that the monumental sculptural work of Hannah Holliday Stewart is cosmic in scope and spiritual in dimension and process. At the peak of her production in the 1970s and ’80s, there emerged from her studio great plaster forms, many well over ten feet in height. These graceful mammoths, cast in bronze, would weigh hundreds to thousands of pounds, and command public spaces in Houston and other cities. A major exhibition of these large plasters was mounted in January 1976 at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, and another in the ’80s at One Houston Center. In the 1990s, she established studios in Flagstaff, Arizona, and later in Birmingham, Alabama, and finally in Albuquerque.

Born in 1924 in Marion, Alabama to a prominent family, she studied art in Alabama and Georgia (BFA), and at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan (MFA); studied ceramics in California with the legendary Bauhaus potter Marguerite Wildenhain; worked in foundries in Florida and Mexico; moved to Texas to teach at Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the University of Houston, and the University of St. Thomas. Her notable public works include Atropos Key, installed in 1972 on the hill at Houston’s Miller Outdoor Theatre in Hermann Park; Libertad, a smoothly elegant birdlike bronze at World Trade Center Houston; works in Samuels Park in Dallas and New Harmony in Indiana; and Passage, at University of St. Thomas Houston. Her public commissions are claimed as example of landmark achievement by women in the arts. Respected among Houston architects and adept in various media she developed sand-blasted and sand-cast relief panels for specific architectural settings. Her works of smaller scale are to be found in notable private collections.

Her studies in literature, mythology, metaphysics, esoteric philosophy, religion, science, astrology, dance and yoga suffuse her output, revealing in form and textures. Her earlier smaller works reflect ineffable humanity, humor, elegant charm and always superb craftsmanship. She was disciplined, intelligent and well-read, possessed of an intense work ethic, compassionate and understanding and encouraging of others, and an inspiring teacher, respected and loved by friends in business, academia and the arts. Whether attired in her usual studio denim or occasional Dior, she moved among interesting people and was an accomplished host and gourmet. Music was her creative keynote and the atmosphere mystical, always stimulating and, on occasion, convivial. On so many occasions when I would assist her in some project: photographing, gallery installation and lighting, foundry, studio, even building repair, I was aware that I was only facilitating much greater work. I think she really did come to ‘see’ the wind, and must have stood in awe of that which materialized from her consciousness and hands. I can still hear her warm southern voice and motto – Nil desperandum!, and her memory, towering as her work, is quite, quite treasured.

D.A. Smith
Public Broadcasting, University of Houston, retired

Make sure to attend the opening reception of our exhibition Hannah Holliday Stewart: An Artistic Legacy Rediscovered on Friday, July 4 from 5-7 pm. To learn more, check out our previous blog post and our Hannah Holliday Stewart artist page. For daily gallery news, connect with us on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

Hannah Holliday Stewart in her Houston studio- Matthews Gallery

SCULPTOR’S PROCESS: Frank makes a fountain

Frank Morbillo- Sculptor- Matthews Gallery

It all started with a sculpture you may recognize if you’ve been to Matthews Gallery in the past few years. Frank Morbillo‘s ‘Complement’ was a fountain that stood outside our building for a time, enchanting Canyon Road tourists with its elegant lines and soothing sounds:

Frank Morbillo- Complement- Matthews Gallery

“It was inspired by the figure, a relationship between people or entities,” says Frank. “The two sides have a connection in terms of how the line of one complements the line of the other.”

Two gallery visitors who were particularly charmed by the sculpture kept it in mind as they built their new home. Nearing the end of construction, they got in touch with Frank and asked him to create a similar piece for their front entryway. Just like the two pillars of the sculpture, Frank says the commission was all about maintaining a carefully balanced dynamic.

“During the course of the commission, I am constantly sending images that are going back and forth between myself and my client,” the artist explains. “Six times throughout this process or more, we were exchanging information and tweaking and getting approval.”

Below you’ll see images from their correspondence, starting with a cardboard model and ending with the stainless steel fountain in its beautiful new space. Follow Frank on his artistic journey…

Frank Morbillo- Artist Process- Matthews Gallery Blog

 

First, Frank marked up an image of the original sculpture (left). ‘Complement’ was larger than his clients wanted, so he adjusted the scale and used the new measurements to resize some cardboard cutouts from the original project (center). The new, smaller cardboard pieces came together to create a full-scale model of the new piece (right).

“When I’m building it in the studio, it’s important to have the model at the level that it’s going to be viewed. In the clients’ home, it’s going to be up a few steps from the ground level. I elevated it to make sure the proportions were working. I want there to be a good interaction of elements.”

“Different materials make the water flow differently. A rough material creates some surface tension, while a slick material will let the water run very fast.”

 Frank Morbillo- Sculpture Process- Matthews Gallery blog
Next, Frank manipulated images of the cardboard model in Photoshop to show the flow of the fountain. The blue line you see on the edited photograph is where the water will fall on one side. The white piece of cardboard under the sculpture represents its base, which presented a unique problem.

“From the very beginning, I had to be very careful about water flow because I had a limited landing pad for the water to fall. The basin was much smaller and narrower than in the original sculpture.”

Frank Morbillo- Artist Process- Matthews Gallery Blog

After tweaking the cardboard model, Frank took it apart and traced the pieces on stainless steel (left). He used tack welding to create a rough version of the piece (center and right). Tack welds allowed Frank to alter the form based on his client’s feedback.

 “The dark buttons going up the edge are the tack welds. The tack weld is very strong; a series of four down the side can hold it mostly in place. Once you’re at this step, you want to make sure that everything is right. Afterwards, there are several days worth of work to make the elements seamless.”

Frank Morbillo- Artist Process- Matthews Gallery Blog

 

It took about a week to create the shiny sculpture you see on the left. The two red arrows mark openings for the water. Next Frank worked on the base of the sculpture, installing a pump and carefully feeding the electrical cord through a riser tube that holds it above the water (center and right).

“All of those edges have been welded and sanded. This is my first rough pass on putting the finish on the metal.”

“One of the things you look for is the pump’s capacity to go vertical. I size it at a slightly greater capacity than my need is going to be so that I’m sure the water will reach the top.”

“The water enhances and adds to the whole scheme of the project. By placing the pump on the foam pads, it reduces noise vibration from the pump, allowing the viewer to focus on the sound of the fountain.”

Frank Morbillo- Sculpture Process- Matthews Gallery Blog

 

Frank cut mesh and steel plates to cover the base and prevent splashing. The slots you see around the sides of the sculpture are one of Frank’s latest innovations.

“Because of the size of the basin, I have less latitude with what the water does and how it falls. I knew I had to create a slot around the base of both sculptures so as the water falls it goes into this slot. It worked really well, and I learned something from it. It’s changed how I deal with water capture in a small basin.”

“In every sculpture project, there’s always the opportunity to say, ‘What can I do different in the future?’”

Frank Morbillo- Artist Process- Matthews Gallery Blog

Careful tests of the water flow followed. Frank got the final approval from the client and shipped it.

“There’s a lot of structure in there that you’re not seeing that supports all of the different elements. When all of this is said and done, you don’t see any of that but it’s all happening because of it.”

“I took a good long look at it and liked what I was seeing in terms of how I thought it would look on site.”

And PRESTO!

Frank-Morbillo-SculptureProcessFinal

Frank’s clients sent back images of the piece in its new home, and the sculptor couldn’t be happier.

 “The experience of walking up the steps and around the sculpture must be pretty awesome.”

“It’s interesting, the sculpture is the only thing with curves in the space. Everything else is really hard and geometric. That’s cool that it’s really different than anything else line-wise in the space.”

“When you can have fun going through the process of doing it, for me that’s where my thoughts go when I’m working. There’s a lot of opportunities to have fun.”

“When I saw the contemporary design of the house, I said, ‘Great project.’ I’m really happy that this sculpture became part of it.”

See more of Frank Morbillo’s artwork on the Matthews Gallery website, and connect with us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for daily gallery news.