From Drawing to Driftwood: The Artwork of Wallace MacMahon Mitchell

During the Archive’s Reading Room relocation at Cranbrook Art Museum, we have been digitizing negatives for preservation and access. This has enabled a new collection for CONTENTdm which highlights the artwork of Wallace MacMahon Mitchell (1911-1977). There are thirty images so far, with more being added soon. Five of Mitchell’s paintings can also be viewed during tours through Saarinen House: Presidents/Residents, 1946-1994.

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Wally Mitchell in his studio, early 1940s. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

The collection features images of the rich diversity of Mitchell’s artwork, from his early drawings and still life paintings to his later geometric abstract works and painting-constructions. Mitchell’s later works include many driftwood sculptures and Plexiglas paintings.

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Driftwood in Three Sections, 1965. Estate of Wallace MacMahon Mitchell/Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

In 1946, two of his paintings were included in the European Exhibition of the Guggenheim-funded Museum of Non-Objective Painting. These two pieces, with two other paintings added in 1948, are now in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Between 1950 and 1962, Mitchell’s work was frequently exhibited at the Bertha Schaefer Gallery in New York. He was also commissioned to design murals, such as one installed at the University of Kentucky in 1962, based on his painting Turnabout Number One from 1952.

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University of Kentucky Mural, installed in 1962 based on a painting ‘Turnabout Number One’ from 1952. Estate of Wallace MacMahon Mitchell/Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Mitchell’s archival collection will be available for research again when the Archives Reading Room reopens in July. Mitchell’s collection contains professional papers relating to his studentship and work as an instructor and administrator at Cranbrook. It also includes interviews and correspondence related to Joan Bence’s 1983 publication, The Art of Wallace Mitchell. There are also audio-visual materials including negatives, transparencies, slides and photographs.

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Villa-Neuve-Les-Avignons, 1938. Estate of Wallace MacMahon Mitchell/Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Mitchell was born in Detroit in 1911. After receiving his BA from Northwestern University in Chicago, Ill. in 1934, he studied with Zoltan Sepeshy for a year (1934-1935). He then toured Europe before returning to Cranbrook in 1936 as a painting instructor. His career at Cranbrook spanned 1936-1977, during which time he taught Arts and Crafts at Cranbrook School (1944-1947) while he was painting instructor (1936-1956), he was Registrar for the Academy of Art (1944-1956), Director of the Cranbrook Art Museum (1956-1970), and President of the Cranbrook Academy of Art (1970-1977). A retrospective exhibition of his work planned for his retirement at the end of the 1976/1977 academic year became a memorial exhibition following his death in January 1977.

-Laura MacNewman, Associate Archivist

Sources:

Wallace McMahon Mitchell Papers (1990-21)

Chad Alligood, What to Paint and Why: Modern Painters at Cranbrook, 1936-1974 (Bloomfield Hills, MI: Cranbrook Art Museum, 2013)

Joan Beehler Bence, The Art of Wallace Mitchell – Cranbrook’s Op Art Master Colorist (Unpublished, 1983, 1996)

Wallace MacMahon Mitchell, 1911-1977: a memorial exhibition of paintings and painting-constructions, 1936-1976 (Bloomfield Hills, MI: Cranbrook Academy of Art, 1977)

Automobiles and Art?

Did you know that Ford Motor Company supported and encouraged the artistic activities of its employees, sponsored traveling art exhibitions, and published contemporary American art in its company magazines? I had no idea until I found a couple of copies of Ford Times magazine and a Lincoln-Mercury Times in one of our collections.

“Fish,” Big Spring, Michigan. Lincoln-Mercury Times, May-June 1956. Painting by Bill Moss. Moss was a graduate of the Academy of Art and painted over 300 works for Ford Times from 1949-1958.

“Fish,” Big Spring, Michigan. Lincoln-Mercury Times, May-June 1956. Painting by Bill Moss. Moss was a graduate of the Academy of Art and painted over 300 works for Ford Times from 1949-1958.

Much of the auto company’s support and use of artworks began under Arthur Townsend Lougee, who served as the Executive Editor and Art Director of Ford Times magazine, as well as the Lincoln-Mercury Times, from 1946-1961. During his tenure, Lougee commissioned thousands of articles on America and Americana, which were illustrated with watercolors by regional Ford artists who, for the most part, painted local motifs. Ford’s policy was to leave the subject matter up to the discretion of the artist.

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“Lake Superior’s Eastern Shore.” Lincoln-Mercury Times, May-June 1956. Painting by Robert Bannister

A small company magazine at 4 x 6 inches, each issue of the monthly Ford Times consisted of several stories about vacation destination spots and those of historical interest, as well as promotional information about contemporary Ford products. Watercolor paintings first appeared as cover art in the June 1946 issue, and on the interior in September 1947.

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“Fruita,” Bryce Canyon National Park. Ford Times, Sep 1959. Painting by V. Douglas Snow.

Lougee also assembled the Ford Times Collection of American Art, a collection of over 7,000 of the paintings commissioned for the Ford publications. Nearly 700 American painters were represented in the collection. The Ford Times art exhibition program was established in 1954 and made available to schools and universities, libraries, and art organizations across the country. Exhibitions included American Byways (1953), Artists and Fishermen (1955), Faculty Artists (1962), Variety No. 8 (1962), and Travel in Mexico (1969). Under the auspices of the United States Information Agency, international exhibitions traveled to countries in Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Middle East as a way of promoting good will and friendship among nations.

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Lincoln-Mercury Times, May-June 1956

Thanks to the collection of Jack Keijo Steele, a Cranbrook Academy of Art alum, clay modeler in the Ford Styling Office, and lifelong painter, we are able to tell this interesting story of Ford’s contributions to art in this country.

Leslie S. Edwards, Head Archivist

 

 

Nunsense

Over the past few years, I have listened to researchers in the Archives and visitors to the museum describe works of art as divine or heavenly, but I don’t remember those words used to describe the artist. Until now. Did you know that during the 1950s-1960s there were several artists who studied at the Academy of Art who were also members of a divine order? Admittedly, I have not had much interaction with nuns in my lifetime, but I have a keen fascination (cue: “The hills are alive with the sound of music..”).

Sister Mary James Ann Walsh, BVM (Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary) was one of several nuns to study at the Academy where she received her MFA in painting in 1955. In 1953, Sister Mary was the First Prize Winner of the 9th Annual Iowa Water Color Show for her piece, “Ecce Homo.” That painting is now part of the Sioux City Art Center’s permanent collection. In addition to her Cranbrook degree, Sister Mary studied at the State University of Iowa and the University of Colorado. In 1959 she became head of the Clark College department of Art in Dubuque, Iowa.

Sisters at work in the metal shop, 1954. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Sisters at work in the metal shop, 1954. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

The photo above shows Sister Mary Grace Esther Mehren, BVM, and Sister Mary Barbara Cerny at work in the metal shop in 1954. We are still looking for information about Sister Mary Barbara, but according to the Chicago Tribune (15 Jun 1958), Sister Mary Grace Esther was appointed to oversee construction of an eleven-story Scholasticate on the campus of Mundelein College. The building houses lecture halls, classrooms, a dining hall, and a chapel.

Another CAA alum (Metalsmithing ’49), Sister Helene O’Connor, O.P. (Dominican Order of Preachers), founded Studio Angelico in 1935, at Siena Heights University in Adrian, Michigan. Studio Angelico, the art department at Siena Heights, was named for the 15th century Dominican painter, Fra Angelico. Sister Helene chaired the art department, taught classes, and directed community workshops. An accomplished sculptor, ceramicist, weaver, and muralist – her work has been exhibited at the Portland Museum of Art, the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Sister Marie Gertrude's, "Mother Hen," Bay City Times, 27 Sep 1964.

Sister Marie Gertrude’s, “Mother Hen,” Bay City Times, 27 Sep 1964.

Also of the Dominican order, Sister Marie Gertrude Lohman, O.P., received her MFA in Sculpture from the Academy in 1966. Several of Sister Marie Gertrude’s sculptures display in Illinois, including a statue of St. Catherine of Siena at the Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Chicago and a statue of St. Albert the Great in the student courtyard at St. Rose Priory. Sister Marie Gertrude studied in Schifanoia, Italy, and her work has been exhibited in Chicago and Dubuque. In 1964, her work, “Mother Hen,” was displayed at the Studio 23 space at the Arts Center in Bay City, MI.

This research has only deepened my fascination of the divine sisterhood. I wonder what drew the sisters to Cranbrook? There were several other nun-students at CAA – I look forward to learning more about their contributions to Cranbrook and the art world.

Gina Tecos, Archivist

Out From the Shadows #1: Myrtle Hall

While most everyone equates the names Saarinen, Knoll, and Eames with Cranbrook, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of people who have contributed to the community whose stories have never been told. We archivists thought it would be interesting to tell some of their stories here.

The first is Myrtle Hall. She was not an alumna, faculty, or staff at any of the Cranbrook institutions, however, she did work at the Academy of Art as a model for drawing and painting students in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Not much is known about the models – there are no employee files for them, and their names are not listed in reports or meeting minutes. Fortunately however, I did uncover evidence that a line-item, established in the budget for the Academy of Art’s 1934-1935 academic year, specifically provided funding for the life models for the drawing and painting classes (taught by Wally Mitchell.) Models worked twenty-one hours per week.

Painting and drawing class, summer 1940.

Painting and drawing class, summer 1940.

By her own admission, Myrtle was the “first black model at Cranbrook” and for that matter, the first black model in the Detroit area including at the Meinzinger School of Art. In addition to modeling, Myrtle was also an artist herself and a member of Detroit’s Pen and Palette Club, which was formed in 1925 by the Detroit Urban League to help young artists exhibit their works. In 1935, Myrtle received an award for one of her paintings at the club’s Ninth Annual Exhibition. She also studied for a time at the Society of Arts and Crafts, exhibited at the Detroit Artists Market, and was one of the founding members of the Extended Arts Gallery (1958). During the 1940s, Myrtle abandoned painting and became an accomplished ceramicist. She had her own pottery studio (which she designed herself) on Erskine Street in Detroit. The studio was filled with antiques, paintings and sculpture by Michigan artists, as well as her own ceramics and of course her kiln and glazes. In a 1963 interview, she stated “I can’t stand things that are useless” and her oven-to-table casseroles, salad bowls, drinking mugs, and lamp bases reflected just that.

Myrtle Hall, Detroit Free Press, Mar 1994.

Myrtle Hall, Detroit Free Press, Mar 1994.

A 1994 article in the Detroit Free Press also tells the story of Myrtle Hall as a quiet but effective activist. She stood up for civil rights when she saw injustice, and was instrumental in affecting a change in Meinzinger Art School’s discrimination of African American students after World War II. Myrtle Hall is quoted as saying “I didn’t just model, I noticed things.”

Leslie S. Edwards, Head Archivist

Editor’s Note: We do not have any biographical information on Myrtle, but if you know anything about her, please let us know!

The Case of the Bogdani

The other night I saw the most interesting show on PBS called “Fake or Forgery.” An investigative journalist and two noted art sleuths joined forces with cutting edge scientists to discover the truth behind a painting the owner thought to be a Degas. They thoroughly searched the provenance of the painting, and used scientific methods like X-ray fluorescence (XRF) to determine if the pigments used in the painting were compatible with Degas’ known palette. It made me think of the many works of art across the Cranbrook campus that could benefit from in-depth scientific research like this. And, it prompted me to relay the story of a discovery the archives staff made several years ago.

The painting we fondly refer to as “The Bogdani” was originally purchased by George Booth for Kingswood School for Girls, where it hung in the Domestic Science Dining Room. Purportedly painted by noted Hungarian Jakob Bogdani (1658-1724), the still life was found in a storage room badly in need of cleaning and restoration.

The painting was conserved by Ken Katz of Conservation & Museum Services in Detroit. During the several months of conservation, we were able to visit the studio in order to see the work in process, and the results were amazing.

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During conservation.

As I looked closely at the work, my heart almost stopped beating. Bogdani’s signature was gone, and in its place was another name! My first thought was how hard I had lobbied to get the painting conserved and now it was a forgery!  However, after doing additional research, I discovered that the artist, Tobias Stranover (1684-1731) was actually Bogdani’s son-in-law and former student. Phew! Although this meant the still life was painted around 1810 instead of 1790, at least we still had an original painted by an artist who, with his father-in-law, provided the finest exotic bird and animal paintings in England. The painting currently hangs in the reading room of Cranbrook Archives.

Before conservation.

Before conservation.

after

After conservation, details in the painting can be seen can be seen more clearly, and the brilliance of the colors pop.

 

Leslie S. Edwards, Head Archivist

 

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