Art in Cleveland

From the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

The link is here

ART. The development of an art life in Cleveland primarily resulted from the efforts of 2 distinctly different groups within the community: the wealthy patrons of art and the artists themselves. The first group consisted of families who accumulated their wealth from industry and commerce; the artists derived mainly from the German community. Also important was the influence of the commercial arts on other aspects of Cleveland’s art life. These contributing factors would change–to varying degrees–following World War II. An established art life really did not begin in Cleveland until 1876. In earlier years the city managed to support a few itinerant portrait painters, woodcarvers, stonecutters, and sign painters. Traveling exhibitions were occasionally announced in the newspapers and were usually held in the courthouse or local churches. Typical of these was an exhibition in 1844 that featured reproductions of Italian and Flemish paintings. By 1857 the Cleveland directory listed 6 professional artists. They mainly subsisted on portrait commissions and fees for individual or class instruction. Painting was occasionally lucrative, as in the case of JULIUS GOLLMAN†, who received $400 for his group portrait of the Arkites. In 1876 2 events combined to accelerate the growth of art in Cleveland. The Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, with its various displays of European and American art, is largely credited with encouraging local art interest throughout America. The most popular painting at the exhibition was SPIRIT OF `76 by Cleveland painter ARCHIBALD WILLARD†, who returned to Cleveland a celebrity and agreed to lead a group of young artists who that year formed the Cleveland ART CLUB. Also known as the Old Bohemians, the artists obtained rent-free space on the top floor of the Case Block (the city hall annex), where they set up studios and offered classes. The Cleveland Art Club provided the city with its first nucleus of notable artists, most of them–such asFREDERICK GOTTWALD†, OTTO BACHER†, and Max Bohm–the sons of German immigrants. Many received training abroad, primarily at the art schools in Munich and Dusseldorf.

In 1878 a group of women organized the first loan exhibition in Cleveland (see ART LOAN EXHIBITIONS) in order to raise money for social relief. The exhibition featured 167 oils, 67 watercolors, books and manuscripts, ceramics, bronze and statuary, gems, laces, and an Oriental collection. As in future loan exhibitions, artwork was borrowed from private collections in Cleveland, as well as from other cities. Many of the city’s galleries and art stores mainly offered for sale reproductions of European paintings. Sales of original works by the old masters increased toward the end of the century. Although a few galleries set aside space for local artists, their works were seldom sold. Oscar Wilde’s lecture in Cleveland in 1882 on the English Arts & Crafts Movement helped to encourage the founding later that year of the Western Reserve School of Design for Women (the future Cleveland School of Art). Art activity continued to increase in the 1890s with the founding of several new artists’ and art organizations, and 2 more loan exhibitions, in 1893 and 1894. The catalog for the loan exhibition in 1893 reveals the steady growth of art in private homes in Cleveland since the first loan exhibition 15 years earlier. The Cleveland Art Assn., the first organized effort among the city’s wealthy industrialists to promote art in Cleveland, was responsible for the loan exhibition in 1894. As the year before, half the proceeds were donated to the city’s poor fund, and the other half for the purchase of artwork for a future museum.

In the first decade of the 20th century, Cleveland experienced a lull in its art development. One reason was the defection of many of the city’s finest artists to Europe in search of a more favorable art climate. This emigration led in part to the dissolution of the Cleveland Art Club, the city’s most vital artists’ organization. Another factor for this period of inactivity was the delay in the establishment of an art museum. By 1891 3 substantial funds had been bequeathed for this purpose, but problems arose from an inability to legally consolidate the separate trusts. Late in arriving (even Toledo had an art museum before Cleveland), the CLEVELAND MUSEUM OF ART was finally incorporated in 1913. In the meanwhile, exhibitions were periodically held at CHAS. OLNEY’s private gallery and the Cleveland School of Art’s new building (1906), which featured the city’s first large exhibition room. From 1910-29, the city experienced its greatest period of art activity, reflected in the emergence of the Art Museum, the MAY SHOW, a resurgence in art and artists’ organizations, and a number of exhibitions of current art from Europe. In 1913 10 cubist works from Paris were exhibited at the Taylor Dept. Store and caused quite a negative reaction in the community. The following year a Cleveland expatriate artist, ALEXANDER WARSHAWSKY†, organized an exhibition of postimpressionist paintings that included the works of fellow Cleveland artists. This show also drew almost unanimous criticism, the PLAIN DEALER labeling it as the “Biggest Laugh in Town.” Although the city wished to eliminate its provincial image, as late as the 1930s paintings of “undraped nudes” would still excite controversy in the newspapers.

The 1910s also saw the emergence of 2 dominant artists’ organizations in the city. The CLEVELAND SOCIETY OF ARTISTS was founded in 1913 as a revival of the Cleveland Art Club. Its initial purpose was to continue the tradition of academic art. Its antithesis was the KOKOON ARTS CLUB, founded in 1911. Cofounder CARL MOELLMAN† oriented the club toward the philosophy of his New York mentor, Robt. Henri, who disdained academicism in favor of more individualism in art. Cleveland at this time was becoming a thriving commercial-arts center. In lithography, the Morgan and Otis companies, and later Continental, were attracting artistic talent from around the country. The city also boasted well-known engraving and publishing houses such as the Caxton Co. In ceramics, the Cowan Pottery in ROCKY RIVER was gaining national recognition, in large degree due to the “Jazz Punch Bowl” designed for it by Viktor Schreckengost, an instructor at the Cleveland School of Art. The artists’ organizations drew the bulk of their membership from the commercial arts, providing artists with an uncensored outlet for their creative energies. The Kokoon Club was significant in that it provoked a struggle for the city to achieve a reconciliation between progress and extremism. This struggle was based largely on a misconception among Americans that linked “new art” to political extremism and immoral behavior. Tension increased with city hall when the Kokoon Club’s annual ball began to display some of the antisocial themes pervasive among America’s avant-garde following World War I. Mayor FRED KOHLER† banned the ball in 1923, claiming that the event fell within Lent, but it was resumed the next year and continued to attract enormous publicity (from outside the city, as well) as the yearly review of Cleveland’s Latin Quarter.

This second generation of Cleveland artists still consisted largely of the sons and grandsons of German immigrants (of the 13 original members of the Kokoon Club, 9 were of German heritage). Many still received training in Germany, although the French postimpressionists–especially Cezanne
–were also popularly emulated. Because many of the city’s artists made a living as engravers, illustrators, and lithographers, fine draftsmanship often characterized their efforts–as in the paintings of WM. SOMMER†. Overall, like most American artists until World War II, Cleveland artists generally sought a middle-of-the-road compromise between the old masters and moderns. The introduction of the MAY SHOW in 1919 helped considerably to bring attention to local artists. The Cleveland Museum of Art and the new Cleveland Art Assn. (revived 1915) organized the first May Show to exhibit the works of local artists and craftsmen and to provide a market for their sale. A similar show already existed in Chicago, but the Cleveland show was to become one of the country’s largest and best known. Traveling exhibits were sent around the country and did much to establish the reputation of Cleveland as an art center.

As the new center of art in Cleveland, the Art Museum implemented many programs to promote art in the city. For the general public, various educational programs were offered. In 1918 the museum stated an intention to build permanent collections in areas that would benefit the city’s industries, such as printing, textiles, iron and steel, furniture, and woodcarving. That resulted in the founding of the PRINT CLUB OF CLEVELAND in 1919, and the Textile Art Club in 1934. In the 1920s, Cleveland surpassed Boston as the country’s leading center in watercolor painting. The medium achieved popularity here because of the close-knit character of the artistic community; moreover, from 1924 it was the most important feature of the May Show. Many of these paintings won prizes at the prestigious Annual Intl. Exhibition at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh. Such attention helped to bring about the identification of a “Cleveland School” of artists, which, besides Sommer, included Alexander and Abel Warshawsky, GEO. ADOMEIT†, HENRY KELLER†, PAUL TRAVIS†, FRANK WILCOX†, CHAS. E. BURCHFIELD†, and many others whose work gained notable attention outside Cleveland. Despite growing recognition, the artists received a great unevenness of support in Cleveland itself. The May Show, ironically, was partly responsible. Removed from the show’s prestige, the artists were more or less left stranded the remainder of the year. The various artists’ organizations offered comparable works at yearly auctions, but these usually sold at disappointingly low prices. Dwelling in the shadow of the May Show, in later years such exhibitions indeed became popularly known as “reject shows.” The wealthy in Cleveland were primarily dedicated to the collection of European art, and patronage of the Art Museum and May Show.

Like everything else, art in Cleveland suffered during the Depression. For the Cleveland Museum of Art, bequests were reduced, and purchases had to be curtailed. At the Cleveland School of Art, enrollment dropped 35% between 1930-33. Many artists and craftsmen dependent on the commercial arts for a living applied to the WPA’s Federal Art Project, which had been prefigured by the Public Works of Art Project, established in 1933. Under the PWAP, Cleveland artists produced 8 murals for the CLEVELAND PUBLIC LIBRARY, plaques for schools, historical maps, and other art objects. Later, in 1936, the FAP put 75 Cleveland artists to work in an old factory building to make signs, lantern slides, paintings, and sculptures. Ceramics were also produced and were very much in demand throughout the country, upholding Cleveland’s national reputation in that area of art production. Notable were the figurines of storybook characters produced by Edris Eckhardt and others for the CPL. By the late 1930s, there was a general decline among Cleveland’s artists’ organizations. The Depression and the increasing use of automation in th e commercial arts, especially lithography, helped to check the flow of artists into Cleveland. European-trained artists were aging and giving way to a greater diversity of younger artists from the highly regarded Cleveland School of Art. As “new art” became more acceptable, the Kokoon Club and Cleveland Society of Artists blurred together. For these reasons, and others that occurred after the war, Cleveland’s artists’ organizations would never again be as visibly active.

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, the art center of the world moved from Paris to New York, which also marked a turning point in the art life of Cleveland. After the war, a general shift took place in Cleveland from smaller commercial-art companies mainly involved in graphic arts (lithography, engraving, advertising, etc.) to a diversity of larger companies interested in industrial design. From the 1920s, the Cleveland School of Art had been placing a stronger emphasis on the practical uses of art and design in order better to serve the various industries in Cleveland. Following the war, this emphasis increased as manufacturing companies across America called for advertising artists and industrial designers to work in such industries as automobiles, home appliances, aluminumware, toys, ceramics, and greeting cards. Previously, most of Cleveland’s artists had been concentrated in several leading commercial art firms; now there was a general dispersion of artists, craftsmen, and designers among many industries. There was also the new and overpowering draw of New York for younger artists. These factors contributed to a further debilitation of the artists’ organizations and led to a continuing shift in focus from local to regional art.

As the importance of the artists’ organizations diminished, the void would be filled in the 1950s with a proliferation of neighborhood art centers and a multitude of art events sponsored by such diverse organizations as women’s clubs, churches, cultural institutions, civic and ethnic groups, and department stores. In 1949 the CLEVELAND INSTITUTE OF ART Alumni Assn. held its first annual art show and sale at SHAKER SQUARE. It was followed in the 1950s by a strong involvement from the Jewish community with the introduction of the JEWISH COMMUNITY CENTER show. The annual exhibition at the PARK SYNAGOGUE, begun in 1960, helped to bring local attention to new movements in modern art, such as abstract expressionism. Black artists in Cleveland were also making an important contribution. In 1940 6 black artists, under the auspices of the KARAMU HOUSE, formed a new artists’ organization known as the Karamu artists. Within a few years they developed into the largest single group of black artists in the country, exhibiting at such notable institutions as the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art. The Karamu House has also, since 1915, maintained a gallery with special interest in the works of talented black artists.

By the early 1960s, the diversity of local involvement had become considerable. In 1964 local exhibitions included, among others, African art at the May Co., master prints at Higbee’s, the Baycrafters’ annual juried show, an exhibition of Cleveland artists at the Circle Gallery, the annual exhibition of work by teachers of art in Cleveland high schools, and a show by students of the Cooper School of Art. Gallery openings and closings also proliferated at this time. The HOWARD WISE GALLERY OF PRESENT DAY PAINTING, opened in 1957, attempted with little success to bring works of contemporary European and American artists to Cleveland, and in 1961 moved to New York. In contrast to New York, where galleries are concentrated in specific parts of the city, galleries in Cleveland since the war have been dispersed throughout the greater metropolitan area. Recently, however, artists and galleries have been attracted to the Murray Hill area and later to TREMONT. In the 1970s, a number of outdoor art fairs were introduced in Cleveland. Included among these were the Boston Mills, Lakewood, Cain Park, and Clifton art festivals. Since the 1950s, corporations have arrived on the local art scene in an area formerly dominated by the wealthy industrialists. They have joined local foundations in making grants to art institutions in Cleveland; many corporate executives serve as board members for these institutions. Although its arrival was somewhat late in Cleveland, corporate art collecting has been a significant factor in the city’s art life since 1975.

In addition to its other exhibits, the Cleveland Museum of Art has customarily put together at least 1 major exhibit yearly. One of its best-known shows nationally was a bicentennial exhibition, “EUROPEAN VISION OF AMERICA,” which it cosponsored with the Natl. Gallery and the French government. A nearly $2 million deficit in 1992, however, led to the elimination of the museum’s popular Extensions Exhibition Service, which had provided exhibits for such venues as the Beck Ctr. for the Cultural Arts and the Cleveland Public Library. In 1976 Clevelanders were forced to confront modern sculpture in Isamu Noguchi’s The Portal. Commissioned by the GUND FOUNDATION at a cost of $100,000, the 15-ton, 36′ high curving configuration of carbon steel piping is located at the W. 3rd St. entrance of the Justice Ctr. Sherman Lee, then director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, considered The Portal one of the most important monumental sculptures in the U.S. Public reaction–especially to its cost/value–was mostly opposite. Later, when BP America declined to install a giant rubber hand stamp entitled Free Stamp, which it had commissioned from sculptor Claes Oldenburg for its headquarters on PUBLIC SQUARE, the city found a place for it in Willard Park.

In recent years Cleveland has seen the founding of several theme-based nonprofit art organizations. Contemporary art finally gained a foothold in the city with the establishment of the CLEVELAND CENTER FOR CONTEMPORARY ART in 1968. A similarly oriented organization is the Spaces Gallery, located in the warehouse district. Both organizations claim a commitment to Ohio artists. A revived interest in the “Cleveland School” artists led, in 1984, to the founding of the CLEVELAND ARTISTS FOUNDATION, which by 1993 had acquired a collection of 300 works in its area of interest. NOVA (the New Organization for the Visual Arts) is dedicated to the advocation of the artist in the community, a responsibility previously held by the now-defunct Cleveland Area Arts Council. NOVA has implemented many new programs and exhibitions, including, in 1983, the Art in Special Places Program to expose art to people who do not frequent museums and galleries.

Compared to cities with similar growth, an art life in Cleveland was late to arrive. But between 1910-29, Cleveland experienced a renaissance in art that rivaled, and in some areas surpassed, that of other cities in America. The viability of the commercial arts in the city and the leadership of the Art Museum were strong contributing factors. With the possible exception of the May Show, Cleveland’s art life has not been innovative, but rather has reacted to outside influences. Since World War II, Cleveland, like all other American cities, in terms of art has largely dwelt in the shadow of New York. The Cleveland Museum of Art, of course, has been a leader in such areas as Oriental art. Both the Art Museum and the Cleveland Institute of Art are proudly supported and remain among the finest of their kind in the country. But there is, perhaps, a tendency among Clevelanders to see these two institutions as the only centers for art in the city. That has led to Clevelanders’ not fully taking advantage of the manifold offerings of the city’s art life and, perhaps more seriously, has made it sometimes difficult for galleries, artists, and smaller art organizations to achieve a vital existence in the city.

James Shelley


Clark, Edna. Ohio Art and Artists (1932).

Marling, Karal Ann. Federal Art in Cleveland, Cleveland Public Library (1974).

Smart, Jermayne. “Folk Art of the Western Reserve” (Ph.D. diss., WRU, 1939).

Witchey, Holly Rarick. Fine Arts in Cleveland: An Illustrated History (1994).

Wittke, Carl. The Cleveland Museum of Art (1966).

Wixom, Nancy Coe. Cleveland Institute of Art (1983).

The Cleveland School – Watercolor and Clay by William Robinson

The Cleveland School – Watercolor and Clay by William Robinson

From the Canton Museum of Art

The pdf is here

The Cleveland School

Watercolor and Clay

Exhibition Essay by William Robinson

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Northeast Ohio has produced a remarkable tradition of achievement in watercolor painting and ceramics.  The artists who created this tradition are often identified as members of the Cleveland School, but that is only a convenient way of referring to a diverse array of painters and craftsmen who were active in a region that stretches out for hundreds of miles until it begins to collide with the cultural orbit of Toledo, Columbus, and Youngstown.  The origins of this “school” are sometimes traced to the formation of the Cleveland Art Club in 1876, but artistic activity in the region predates that notable event.  Notable artists were resident in Cleveland by at least the 1840s, supplying the growing shipping and industrial center with portraits, city views, and paintings to decorate domestic interiors.

As the largest city in the region, Cleveland functioned like a magnet, drawing artists from surrounding communities to its art schools, museums, galleries, and thriving commercial art industries.  Guy Cowan moved to Cleveland from East Liverpool, a noted center of pottery production, located on Ohio River, just across the Pennsylvania border.  Charles Burchfield came from Salem and Viktor Schreckengost from Sebring, both for the purpose of studying at the Cleveland School of Art.  To be sure, the flow of talent and ideas moved in multiple directions.  Leading painters in Cleveland, such as Henry Keller and Auguste Biehle, established artists’ colonies in rural areas to west and south.  William Sommer, although employed as a commercial lithographer in Cleveland, established a studio-home in the Brandywine Valley that drew other modernists to the country.  So, while the term “Cleveland School” may not refer to a specific style or a unified movement, it does identify a group of interconnected artists active in a confined geographic region, many of whom who shared common experiences, backgrounds, training,  professional challenges, and aesthetic philosophies.

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The Cleveland School enjoys a well deserved reputation for achievement in watercolor painting.  In May 1942, Grace V. Kelly commented in the Plain Dealer: “Watercolor painting is the special pride of Cleveland and the medium through which its artists are known to connoisseurs throughout the country.”  Interest in the medium grew modestly during the nineteenth century, and then accelerated after the founding of the Cleveland Society of Watercolor Painters in 1892.  At the time, many people still considered watercolor a form of drawing and inferior to oil painting.  After the turn of the century, artists increasingly altered their approach as they began thinking of watercolor, not as tinted drawings, but as an independent form of painting with unique aesthetics and technical issues.  The key aspect of watercolor that sets it apart from other painting media is transparent color.  Applying thin washes of transparent watercolor over white paper allows light to penetrate the paint layer and reflect off the paper, thereby illuminating the colors with a special radiance.  This effect can be enhanced by combining watercolor with areas of opaque gouache and white body color.  From a technical standpoint, watercolor is an extremely medium difficult because the liquid paint is quickly absorbed into the paper and dries almost immediately, making it nearly impossible to rework a composition without muddying the colors.  Watercolor painters must work swiftly and accurately because there is almost no margin for error.

The artists of northeast Ohio developed their own watercolor traditions and raised the medium to such heights that it stands out as an area of special achievement.  They learned to exploit the medium’s most distinctive quality—transparency—and to paint quickly and freely, sometimes without preliminary drawing.  Ora Coltman (1858-1940) from Shelby, Ohio, was among the early practitioners of the medium.  Like other artists of his generation, he found watercolor ideal for making travel sketches and deftly exploited the medium’s inherent transparency to evoke the intensity of sun-drenched, outdoor light.  Henry Keller (1869-1949), who taught at the Cleveland School of Art from 1903 to 1945, masterfully employed both transparent and opaque watercolor, also known as gouache.  His works range in style from experiments in abstract design, such as Futurist Impression: Factories, to freely rendered views of the Ohio countryside and the beaches of La Jolla, California.  A highly influential teacher, Keller introduced a generation of his students and colleagues to modernist principals of abstract design and color theory.  He began experimenting with abstract design as early as 1913, the year he exhibited in the Armory Show.  Grace Kelly (1877-1950) and Clara Deike (1881-1918) were among the many artists who painted outdoors with Keller at the summer school he established in Berlin Heights, Ohio, in 1909.  The large, flat planes of abstract color—especially the intense blue shadows—in Deike’s Sunflowers with Chickens and Kelly’s Cypress  are signature features of the modernist style developed by Keller and his colleagues.

Auguste Biehle (1885-1979) and William Sommer (1867-1949), two of the most important and influential pioneers of modernism in Ohio, worked in Cleveland’s commercial art industries.  Biehle studied in both Cleveland and Munich.  After attending the first exhibition of the German Expressionist group, The Blue Rider, Biehle returned to Cleveland in 1912 and began painting in an avant-garde style that merged abstract color with decorative design.  Like many of his Cleveland colleagues, Biehle was a versatile artist who worked masterfully in variety of styles, from modernist abstraction to American scene realism. 

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William Sommer deserves special recognition as one of the finest American watercolorist of the twentieth century.  Born in Detroit, Sommer came to Cleveland in 1907 to work for the Otis Lithograph Company, where he developed a close relationship with William Zorach (1887-1966).  Together, they became leaders in the regional avant-garde movement.    In 1911, Sommer helped establish two organizations dedicated to advancing modernist art in Cleveland: the Secessionists and the Kokoon Klub.  In 1914, he converted an abandoned school house in the Brandywine Valley, about 20 miles south of Cleveland, into a home and studio that attracted visits from progressive poets and painters, including Hart Crane and Charles Burchfield.  Sommer continued painting in a modernist style during the 1920s and 1930s, a period when many artists abandoned abstraction for American scene realism.  Sommer’s large watercolor U.S. Mail interprets rural Ohio through the modernist lens of flattened and compressed space, powerfully reductive forms, and inventive color.

Although often described as an isolated, self-taught artist working in the rural hinterlands of America, Charles Burchfield (1893-1967) was an extremely sophisticated painter who learned principles of modernist composition and color theory through Henry Keller, his teacher at the Cleveland School of Art from 1912-1916.  Burchfield also discovered avant-garde art by frequenting exhibitions at the Kokoon Klub and by traveling to Brandywine in 1915 to meet “Big Bill Sommer.”  It was during this period that Burchfield developed his signature style and ideas about the nature of the creative process.  He shared Sommer’s philosophy of using watercolor as a means of externalizing emotions and exploring subconscious fears and dreams by painting quickly and intuitively.  Burchfield once explained why he adopted watercolor as his ideal medium:  “My preference for watercolor is a natural one . . . whereas I always feel self-conscious when I use oil.  I have to stop and think how I am going to apply the paint to canvas [when working in oil], which is a determent to complete freedom of expression . . . To me watercolor is so much more pliable and quick.”

Led by Burchfield, Sommer, Biehle, and their colleagues, a nationally distinguished school of watercolor painting emerged in northeast Ohio during the early years of the twentieth century.  They exploited the inherent advantages of watercolor for painting quick, lively views of American scene subjects.  Frank Wilcox (1887-1964) developed a masterful à la prima technique for portraying the rural countryside and imagined scenes of Ohio history.  William Eastman (1888-1950) depicted the recently constructed Terminal Tower in Cleveland rising against a sunset sky with ominously dark clouds.  Clarence Carter (1904-2000) came to Cleveland from Portsmouth, Ohio, in 1923, and developed a national reputation as an imaginative interpreter of American scene subjects, accomplished with a personal blending of realism and modernism.

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Carl Gaertner (1898-1952) began haunting the city’s steel mills and factories during the early 1920s and rapidly established himself as a preeminent painter of industrial Ohio, renowned for his dark, moody, deeply expressive winter scenes.  Other prominent watercolor paintings of this generation include Lawrence Blazey, Carl Broemel, Charles Campbell, Kae Dorn Cass, Joseph Egan, William Grauer, Joseph Jicha, Earl Neff, Paul Travis, and Roy Bryant Weimer.

Cleveland artists of the next generation continued to develop this regional tradition in watercolor painting.  Hughie Lee-Smith, Moses Pearl, Kinely Shogren, and Joseph Solitario were all born after the outbreak of World War I, yet largely followed in the footsteps of their predecessors in using watercolor to record exacting images of life in modern America.  One of the most distinguished African-American artists of his time, Lee-Smith came to Cleveland in 1925, took studio classes at the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Cleveland School of Art, and taught at the Playhouse Settlement (Karamu House) from the 1930s to the early 1940s.  His haunting images of lonely and deserted urban settings, sometimes occupied by a few isolated figures, seem symbolic of the alienated condition of African-Americans during a period of pervasive Jim Crow laws, lynchings, a resurgent KKK, and segregation in the military.  Solitario recorded memorable images of weary, bored soldiers traveling by train during World War II.  Pearl spent a lifetime painting watercolors of Cleveland urban and industrial sites, starting from his teen years in the 1930s to his death in 2003.

Art historians have praised northeast Ohio for its long tradition of excellence in decorative arts and crafts.  R. Guy Cowan (1884-1957), a pioneer in the production of fine art ceramics, established studios that attracted leading talents from around the region and served as a center for collaborative production.  Born to a family of potters in East Liverpool, Ohio, Cowan settled in Cleveland in 1908 after studying at the New York State School of Clayworking and Ceramics.  He founded the Cleveland Pottery and Tile Company in 1913, and later the Cowan Pottery Studios in nearby Lakewood and Rocky River.  Cowan’s early works, such as his Lusterware Vase of 1916-17, feature simple yet elegant forms, reflecting the aesthetics of the nineteenth-century Arts & Crafts Movement, accentuated by delicate, monochromatic glazes. Cowan attracted national attention and awards for his ceramics as early as 1917.  Critics praised his unique glazes, spectral colors, and high quality materials.  During the 1920s, he produced critically acclaimed ceramic figurines in an Art Deco style, as exemplified by Flower Frog with Scarf Dancer of 1925.  Adam and Eve of 1928 energizes and unites two figures through decorative rhythms that flow electrically across space.

Cowan began teaching at the Cleveland School of Art in 1928.  He used his contracts there to bring leading artists to his studio in Rocky River to collaborate on the production of ceramics, launching a regional renaissance in the medium.  Cowan Pottery attained national acclaim prior to its closing in December 1931.  Among the notable artists who worked there were: Walter Sinz, Alexander Blazys, Thelma Frazier Winter, Edris Eckhardt, Waylande Gregory, Russell Aitken, and Viktor Schreckengost.

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Nationally renowned for his work as a ceramist, industrial designer, painter, and teacher, Schreckengost was born in 1906 to a family of potters in Sebring, Ohio.  After attending the Cleveland School of Art from 1924 to 1929, he spent a year studying ceramics at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Vienna, and then returned home to find the nation in the midst of the Great Depression, but lucky enough to receive a joint appointment shared between his alma mater and the Cowan Studios.  He produced his famous New Yorker or Jazz Bowl at the Cowan Studios in 1931.  Commissioned by Eleanor Roosevelt to celebrate his husband’s re-election as governor of New York, the bowl interprets a distinctly American subject—the city at night bursting with the energetic rhythms of jazz—in a lively, Cubist style.  Schreckengost noted that the subject was inspired by a night he spent at the Cotton Club listening to Cab Calloway.  To suggest a sense of the city at night, Schreckengost employed an innovative sgraffito technique of scratching through a lustrous black upper glaze to expose the deep Egyptian blue below.  The bowl was so popular that he created versions in different sizes and glazes.  Schreckengost also excelled at incorporating caricature and humor into his ceramics, as seen in his plates devoted to sports, part of an attempt, so he said, to lift the spirits of people devastated by the Depression.  The infectious humor of his ceramics seems to have rubbed off on his colleagues at Cowan, who followed the same path of emphasizing light-hearted, whimsical subjects as an antidote to the brutal realities of the era.

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After 1945, a new emphasis on geometric abstraction emerged in Schreckengost’s ceramics and watercolors.  The same trend appears in the post-war ceramics of other Cleveland School artists, including Claude Conover, Leza Sullivan McVey, and Clement Giorgi.  Increasing experimentation with organic forms and delicate glazes also suggests the influence of the Cleveland Museum of Art’s growing collection of Asian art.

Although American artists shifted their focus away from regional schools after the end of World War II, northeast Ohio remained a thriving center of activity in watercolor painting and ceramics. Today, members of the Ohio Watercolor Society come from every corner of the state and actively organize exhibitions that enrich the lives of people in urban and rural communities alike.  Northeast Ohio is also dotted with studios, workshops, teaching programs, and societies devoted to ceramics.  Museums dedicated to ceramics can be found from East Liverpool to Rocky River.  Watercolor painting and ceramics should be celebrated in northeast Ohio, not only as historical artifacts of artistic achievement, but as vital cultural activities that continue to bind the region together.

Image Credits:

“Futuristic Impressions Factory” by Henry Keller, Courtesy of Rachel Davis Fine Arts

Summer Landscape by Grace Kelly, Courtesy of Michael & Lee Goodman

US Mail/Brandywine Landscape by William Sommer, Purchased in Memory of John Hemming Fry, Canton Museum of Art, 2011.18.A.B

“Buildings” by Carl Gaertner`, Courtesy of Rachel Davis

“Jazz Bowl” by Viktor Schreckengost, Courtesy of Thomas W. Darling

“First Nighter” by Edris Eckardt, Courtesy of a private collection

Notes:

[1] According to Mark Bassett, the term “Cleveland School” was first used by Elrick Davis in article published in the Cleveland Press in 1928.

[1] Grace V. Kelly, “May Show’s Watercolors Maintain Usual High Levels Despite Wartime Pressures,” Cleveland Plain Dealer (May 10, 1942), B:12.

[1] “Charles Burchfield Explains,” Art Digest 19 (April 1, 1945), 56.

Theater in Cleveland (through the 1980s)

From the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

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THEATER. In a frontier situation, where the settlers must be self-sufficient, entertainment is usually a home-grown product. So it was in the village of Cleveland early in the 19th century, when amateur theater manifested itself. Playreadings and amateur performances, mostly in the schools, appear in the record with sufficient frequency to suggest that considerably more of the activity went unrecorded. Such activity eventually led to the forming of the first recorded community drama group. They called themselves the Theatre Royal Society, performed in a hall called the Shakespeare Gallery in the early spring of 1819, gave the proceeds to the village, and vanished from the record. The first known visit of a professional acting company to Cleveland was in 1820, when Wm. B. Blanchard and his troupe performed in the dining room of Mowrey’s Tavern, under conditions little more adequate than the elemental prescription for theater, “a passion and a plank.”

It wasn’t until 5 years later that a second dramatic company visited Cleveland. That year, 1825, also saw the beginning of work on the OHIO AND ERIE CANAL, which upon its completion in 1832 sparked an explosion of growth in Cleveland, the canal’s northern terminus. Since the lake and the canal were the principal avenues of travel to and from the outside world, it followed that the theater season would be a summer one, coinciding with open season of transportation on those freshwater routes. Seeing this opportunity, 2 enterprising actor-managers, Edwin Dean and David McKinney, put together a company of players in 1834 to perform on a lake circuit formed by the triangle of Buffalo, Cleveland, and Detroit, with intermittent extension south on the canal to Columbus. In Cleveland, ITALIAN HALL served as the showplace for their productions for 4 seasons from 1834-37. With local backers, they were planning a fine new theater building for the city when the financial Panic of 1837 intervened. Another venue for performances appeared in 1810 when J. W. Watson built a small theater on the 2nd floor of a building on the north side of Superior Ave., between Bank (W. 6th) and Seneca (W. 3rd) streets. After 6 different names and ownership changes, as the GLOBE THEATER it was razed in 1880.

The coming of the RAILROADS to Cleveland in the early 1850s precipitated another period of rapid growth. Joseph C. Foster continued the struggle to establish a permanent stock company in Cleveland. His effort found its focus at the Cleveland Theater on Center (Frankfort) St. By 1853 he had been successful enough to set about building a new, more satisfactory theater in the vicinity. In 1859, after a quick succession of names, the new theater became the ACADEMY OF MUSIC, and under that name it began its nearly 24-year tenure as Cleveland’s premiere legitimate theater. The man responsible for the name and for the ascendancy of the “Old Drury,” as it came to be known, was JOHN A. ELLSLER†, who with his wife and daughter solidly established the stability and reputation of the stock company as one of the finest in the country. As Cleveland entered the 1870s, a consensus gradually developed that the academy was becoming inadequate for the changing times. Ellsler took the lead, and the result in 1875 was a new first-rate theater for the city, the luxurious EUCLID AVE. OPERA HOUSE. Better times in the 1880s led to more theater-building as the city continued to grow. In 1883 the Park Theater opened on the northwest quadrant of PUBLIC SQUARE, and in 1889 it became the LYCEUM THEATER. It was first managed by AUGUSTUS F. HARTZ†. The CLEVELAND THEATER, another playhouse named for the city, opened in 1885. A tent theater, the Cleveland Pavilion Theatre, flourished that summer in the city. HALTNORTH’S GARDENS had popular alfresco entertainment also. The Columbia Theater opened in 1887, presenting vaudeville, melodrama, and eventually burlesque. In the 1890s theater became more flamboyant and sensational, striving for a surface kind of realism. In 1896, as the 10th-largest city in the nation, Cleveland celebrated its centennial. There were parades, pageants, and various amateur entertainments. An original opera, From Moses to McKisson by W. R. Rose, was presented at the Euclid Ave. Opera House.

In the 19th century, the plays and the stagecraft, in terms of originality and innovation, were pretty much imported products, created and often packaged in New York. The reversal of this order was “Uncle John Ellsler’s School” at the Academy of Music, which contributed such performers as Clara Morris andEFFIE E. ELLSLER† to the national acting scene and Abe Erlanger to management. Up to mid-century, the repertoire offered was typical enough; melodrama and spectacles, tragedies and comedies were all popular. Particularly popular on Cleveland stages also, and probably connected to the New England heritage in the Western Reserve, was the stage Yankee, that Down-Easter character, rustic, shrewd, and comic, and descended in numerous plays from Royall Tyler’s Jonathan in The Contrast (1787). The effect of New England Puritanism on theater in Cleveland is more difficult to assess. John Ellsler, writing in his memoirs and reflecting on a lifetime of theater activity in Pittsburgh and Cleveland, and a fortune lost in Cleveland theaters, ruefully concluded that Pittsburgh was the better theater town, a conclusion that, if true at the time, would certainly be reversed in the next century. After mid-century, strong abolitionist sentiment gave stage adaptations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin a unique popularity beyond their artistic merit. The existence of this fervent abolitionism alongside Jim Crow seating in some Cleveland theaters was an ironic fact of the times.

More new theaters came in with the century. The Empire Theater opened in 1900 on Huron Rd. with more vaudeville, as did the COLONIAL THEATERin 1903. Then in 1908 came the mighty HIPPODROME THEATER. This immense playhouse was awe-inspiring and in many ways typified the ebullient spirit of the times. It was built to accommodate the realistic action-spectacles that the movies would soon be doing massively and more successfully. These national trends toward the colossal and superficial in entertainment were soon to be challenged by a counterforce: the Little Theater movement that began in Europe in the 1880s and spread to America in the new century. It was a movement that would soon profoundly and permanently affect the course of theater in Greater Cleveland. The year 1915 has to be noted as special in the annals of Cleveland theater history, for that is when 2 great and enduring theater organizations had their tentative beginnings: the CLEVELAND PLAY HOUSE and KARAMU HOUSE. Both grew in different ways from the ideals and ferment of the Little Theater movement. While formal dramatic activity at Karamu did not begin until a few years later, 1915 was the year that ROWENA† and RUSSELL JELLIFFE† came to Cleveland with their galvanizing beliefs that the cultural arts could make a significant contribution to race relations in an urban setting. The first full-fledged City Club ANVIL REVUE, which had evolved from its earlier stunt nights, was held in 1917. The 1920s witnessed the rapid rise of local theater organizations as the important tastemakers and educators of audiences. In addition to the Cleveland Play House and Karamu, another important force for the “new theater” was gradually coming into being at Western Reserve Univ. BARCLAY LEATHEM†, working to overcome faculty prejudice against academic credit for theater studies, formed the Dept. of Speech there in 1927. By 1931 it had become the Dept. of Drama & Theater and was offering graduate study in the field. It was part of Leathem’s vision to promote a working relationship between his department, the Play House, and Karamu, in which his students would gain practical experience working with seasoned actors and technicians in professional-level productions. On campus, his department’s own pioneering productions helped to introduce students and local audiences to such important playwrights as O’Neill, Strindberg, Brecht, and Sartre.

The “wonderful year” for theater openings in Cleveland had to be 1921, when HANNA THEATER opened as legitimate houses. Under the management of Cleveland playwright Robert McLaughlin, the Ohio hosted New York road shows and a summer stock company in the 1920s, until its eventual conversion to motion pictures. The Hanna remained as Cleveland’s primary outlet for Broadway shows well into the 1970s. Elsewhere in the city, at E. 6th and Lakeside, PUBLIC AUDITORIUM was dedicated on 15 Apr. 1922, with its huge stage and impressive architectural style. The Public Music Hall and the Little Theater were added in 1929 to complete the complex.

The fall of 1929 brought the stock market crash, which became at once a jolting epilogue to the 1920s and a sobering prologue to the 1930s. The talkies andRADIO came into their own as inexpensive entertainment. One amazing local phenomenon in radio was GENE CARROLL† and Glenn Rowell doing their show, “Gene & Glenn with Jake & Lena,” heard on radio station WTAM. It attracted national attention. The Theater of Nations, beginning in 1930, boosted ethnic pride as a 3-year series of plays, presented in the Little Theater of Public Hall by nationality groups from around the city. Karamu’s entry in the first series, Roseanne, brought the group additional citywide attention when it was subsequently booked for a special week’s engagement at the Ohio Theater. Indeed, the 1930s continued to bring them ever-widening recognition. Later in the decade, one of their own, LANGSTON HUGHES†, turned to them as the group best suited to produce his plays. The collaboration that followed remains a rare local example of what a playwright and a producing organization working together, over a period of time, can accomplish. The effort saw 6 plays by Hughes presented at Karamu in 4 years, 5 of them world premieres, and the 1930s are remembered with pride in Karamu lore as the “Hughes Decade.”

As the Little Theater movement of the 2 previous decades began to fade into the less avant-garde community-theater trend of the next 2 decades, a group inLAKEWOOD espousing Little Theater ideals was organized and presented its first play in 1931 as the Guild of the Masques. It soon became theLAKEWOOD LITTLE THEATRE/BECK CENTER, which remains one of Cleveland’s distinguished theater organizations. The GREAT LAKES EXPOSITION helped bolster the depressed spirits of the area in the summers of 1936-37. Of theatrical interest were abbreviated productions of some of Shakespeare’s plays, presented in a reproduction of the Globe Playhouse, and in the second summer Billy Rose’s lavish swim spectacle, Aquacade. InCLEVELAND HEIGHTS on 10 Aug. 1938, CAIN PARK THEATER, an open-air, community theater, was dedicated, having evolved from modest beginnings 4 years earlier. Under the direction of DINA REES EVANS†, it made a unique and lasting contribution to theater here for both adults and children. Two local ventures particularly characteristic of the Depression decade were the Cleveland unit of the Federal Theater Project (1935-39) and the Peoples Theater, an attempt by Cleveland native HOWARD DASILVA† to found a workers’ theater here in 1935-36.

The 1940s and the total war effort pushed many peacetime activities aside; but youngsters were not neglected, with children’s theater programs not only at Cain Park but also at the Cleveland Play House and, in the late 1940s, at the Lakewood Little Theater’s School and the Children’s Theater-on-the-Heights. At the college and university level, there were growing theater traditions at BALDWIN-WALLACE COLLEGE and JOHN CARROLL UNIVERSITYThe Korean War and McCarthyism set the anxious tone of the early 1950s, and the growth of TELEVISION accelerated the vogue for “home entertainment.” But the appetite for live theater survived, as witnessed in 1954 by the establishment of , one of the first tent theaters in the U.S. In 1960 the Dobama Players put on their first play (see DOBAMA THEATER). Under the vigorous and imaginative leadership of Don Bianchi, they have carved a special niche for themselves in the area. Also in 1960, the drama group of the JEWISH COMMUNITY CENTER moved into their model new home, the Blanche R. Halle Theater, to continue a tradition of excellence in production that began in the latter 1940s. In an exciting example of community effort on many levels, the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival, later the GREAT LAKES THEATER FESTIVAL, was established in 1962 in LAKEWOOD. On the other hand, the situation in Playhouse Square was far from inspiring. By the end of the 1960s, all the theaters in the area were closed except the Hanna, and the fine though battered old buildings were facing demolition. But in the early 1970s, the Playhouse Square Assn., led by Ray Shepardson, began its battle to save the theaters and the area. Joined by business, other community allies, and the vigorously creative theater department at CLEVELAND STATE UNIVERSITY, it achieved a renaissance, and the future of the theaters has been assured.

In HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, the FRONT ROW THEATER, a large arena-style theater, opened in 1974, staging performances by national as well as local celebrities. In the early 1980s, significant developments in Cleveland theater included the revival of the 3 downtown theaters under the PLAYHOUSE SQUARE, and the moving of the Great Lakes Theater Festival and the Front Row series to Playhouse Square. Another important development was the founding of the Cleveland Public Theater in 1984. A nonprofit corporation, it offered much-needed development opportunities to local playwrights, actors, and directors, and new and relevant ways to present the theatrical experience. Other new groups which have emerged over the past decade include the Ensemble Theater, Bratenahl Playhouse, Working Theater, and CLEVELAND THEATER CO. Many of them are drawing on the city’s pool of nearly 200 Equity actors as well as dedicated amateurs. As roadshows continue to dwindle, the future of theater in Cleveland is more than ever in local hands.

Herbert Mansfield

“Artistic Choice” WVIZ Video about Cleveland’s Artistic Legacy

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The WVIZ/PBS-produced documentary Artistic Choice tells the upbeat story of Cleveland’s artful legacy. The documentary shows a national audience that although the traditional ways of funding the arts have greatly decreased through the years, Northeast Ohioans have created an innovative way to continue to support her creative spirit and keep it alive and kicking for decades to come.

Cigarette tax for arts and culture has generated $65 million at halfway point (Plain Dealer 11/5/11)

“Cigarette tax for arts and culture has generated $65 million at halfway point” (Plain Dealer  11/5/11)

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Cigarette tax for arts and culture has generated $65 million at halfway point


By Donald Rosenberg, The Plain Dealer 
on May 27, 2011 at 8:32 AM, updated May 27, 2011 at 12:10 PM

Since 2006, when Cuyahoga County approved a 10-year cigarette tax to support local arts and culture, more than $65 million has been awarded to 150 arts organizations across the region.

That’s the figure released Thursday by Cuyahoga Arts and Culture, the public entity that administers the tax dollars, at the halfway point in the initiative.

“We have long been saying that the arts and culture aren’t just extras,” said Karen Gahl-Mills, the organization’s executive director, in a statement.

“It’s extremely gratifying to have the data now to back up that statement. We’re not just paying for things that are nice to have; we’re investing in the infrastructure of this county and helping to make it the world-class region that we all know it can be.”

Arts groups funded by Cuyahoga Arts and Culture generated more than $280 million in economic activity in 2009, the organization reports, and they employed more than 5,000 staff and contractors.

Since the cigarette-tax funding became available, many of these groups have expanded offerings of cultural activities by 25 percent to almost 24,000 events and classes each year.

Visitors to the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo will no longer be able to smoke there if a planned smoking ban takes effect in January

Cuyahoga Arts and Culture reports that attendance at free and paid events is up by seven percent, to more than 7.7 million annual visits.

Arts and education programming for children is up as the result of the cigarette tax, with more than 1 million students attending arts and culture events each year . And after-school and weekend classes and workshops have increased by 103 percent, with tuition for paid classes dropping by 8 percent.

To read Cuyahoga Arts and Culture’s 2010 Report to the Community, go to bluetoad.com/publication/?i=70051.