Discovering T.C. Steele and other treasures

by Karen Lowe, guest blogger and Indiana State Museum member

NOTE: We are excited to share the following write-up from one of our museum members, Karen Lowe. Karen has attended many of our members-only trips and each time she shares her viewpoint of the trip. On Sept. 22, we headed to T.C. Steele State Historic Site and Indiana University Art Museum. Thank you Karen for sharing you trip review with the museum for others to enjoy! Karen’s son, Damon Lowe, is our Curator of Biology, Science and Technology Exhibit Developer!

What a perfect way to spend the first day of autumn! Forty Indiana State Museum members and guests visited the T.C. Steele State Historic Site near Bloomington, where we were treated to an interesting and informative tour of the Indiana artist’s home and studio. T.C. Steele is one of the state’s most famous artists, having produced literally thousands of works during his lifetime. The home where he spent his last years, and where he lived while painting many of his most famous landscapes has been preserved and is currently in the final stages of being restored to its original early 20th century condition. The house contains many of Mr. and Mrs. Steele’s personal furniture, books and other belongings, and the walls are filled with Steele’s art work. The interpreter encouraged us to imagine how the urban Selma Steele might have felt as she came as a bride to this wilderness home, even having to walk the last several hundred yards in her wedding gown, as the horse and buggy couldn’t make it up the muddy road to the house. While favorably impressed with the first room, which was Steele’s original studio, she was soon terribly disillusioned when she saw what passed for a kitchen which she called “a masterpiece of unattractiveness.” No provision had been made for a chimney for the wood-burning cookstove, there were no cupboards for her dishes. Eventually, modifications were made and one of the best features of the house was the screened porch which wrapped around three sides. The sound of the wind through the screens led to the name of the house: “The House of the Singing Winds.”

For the second stage of the tour, we visted Steele’s “dream studio,” built in 1916, nine years after the house was built. In this huge building with its towering north windows, we saw a large sampling of Steele’s work, from the early portraits to the German-influenced paintings and finally to the beautiful impressionistic landscapes. The centerpiece of the exhibit for our members’ tour was the mysterious “found” painting, dated 1890 and discovered in 2012 when a New England painting dated 1887 was being restored. The mystery may never be solved as to why the artist stretched one canvas over another, thus hiding it for over 100 years!

The beautiful wooded setting of T.C. Steele’s home, which is on 211 acres, invites you to stroll the grounds, hike the trails to the log cabin that Selma had restored, and to the little cemetery where the Steeles and some of Selma’s family rest.

The tour continued to Bloomington, to the campus of Indiana University, to which Steele had strong ties. He was the first artist-in-residence at the University, and many of his paintings are exhibited there as well. He painted the portrait of the University’s first president, which is on exhibit along with portraits of all the following presidents, painted by other artists. In addition to seeing more of his work, the guide led us through several halls of the student union to show us many other treasures, some by other Hoosier artists. The composer Hoagy Carmichael even tried his hand at painting, and his donated large painting of the Constitution Elm in Corydon dominates the end of one hall. Our guide said that she was glad Carmichael stuck with his musical career!

The final leg of our tour was to the I.U. Museum of Art. The president of the Friends of T.C. Steele spoke to the group about the American artists that were exhibited there, and then encouraged us to explore the museum before returning to Indianapolis.

Taming the wisteria

by Davie Kean, Master Gardener at T.C. Steele State Historic Site

Money doesn’t grow on trees in Brown County, but wisteria does. Long ago, Selma Steele planted the wisteria that covers this pergola with lavender blossoms each spring. This year it is blooming exceptionally early, along with the lilac in the foreground and the dogwood in the background.

Three species of wisteria grow in the U.S. including a native one, W. frutescens, but the Japanese and Chinese types are more common — and more invasive. Wisteria is a fast-growing vine that can reach up to 30 feet tall when supported. Unfortunately, when your house becomes the support, battle lines (and pruners) must be drawn. It’s hard to keep ahead of the rapid growth as creeps under shingles and twines around nearby trees.

Those unfamiliar with the plant might ask the name of this beautiful ‘tree’ (in the photo to the left) but it is just an ‘escaped’ wisteria, climbing up at the forest edge (to the detriment of the actual tree).

One way the vigilant gardener can enjoy this beautiful vine is by training it into a shrub form. By careful pruning and lots of patience, this can be the result:

There’s still time to enjoy these blooms close-up, but hurry or you may have to ‘settle’ for masses of peonies and iris instead. I encourage you to visit T.C. Steele State Historic Site this spring. Like wisteria, it will grow on you.

There’s a party going on right here …

by LeAnn E. Luce, West Region Program Manager

Mother Nature is throwing a surprise party and you are invited! The colorful fête is going on right now at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site. On display is an enchanting mix of flora and fauna she has decorated with. The 211 acres of gardens, forest, lily ponds and trails are vibrantly alive with flowers, buds, frogs, bees, birds and the intoxicating smells of flowers in bloom.

What a phenomenon this spring is! The early warm weather has just made everything pop — in some case right before our eyes — here at the site. The annual daffodil display is the icing on the cake!

So come right now to the party for the best spring eye candy and enjoy the spectacular views Ms. Nature has painted for us! Here is a sneak peek to whet your appetite:

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Ruffed grouse makes an appearance at T.C. Steele

by Mary Ann Woerner, Intermittent at T.C. Steele State Historic Site

Brigitte R. Grouse

On April 10, T.C. Steele State Historic Site staff member Davie Kean spotted a ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus) hen when she arrived at work. She told me the grouse seemed quite tame and was almost following her around. I was hopeful that I could catch a glimpse of a bird that I had never seen before. When I arrived at work a few days later, there she was in the middle of the driveway. She appeared to be waiting to greet me!

What an opportunity for an avid bird-watcher and amateur photographer! I had time to grab my camera from the office and follow this cute little hen, spending 15 minutes taking her picture and shooting some video. I later learned that she had followed a tour group the previous day. On Saturday, April 16, a Bloomington photography club came to the site and members were treated to an appearance of the grouse. Because she is such a frequent visitor at the site, we have given her a name: Brigitte R. Grouse.

April showers in Brown County (umbrellas included)

Written by Davie Kean, master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site

The arrival of spring might be described as lenient, merciful and mild. These terms are also the definition of the word clement, Theodore Steele’s middle name.

I’ve never lived in a city, but I expect that city dwellers also have budding expectations as the end of winter becomes more than just wishful thinking. We all await signs of spring — snowdrops, short sleeves — even rain! A bluebird’s trill one day, a drift of daffodils the next. Spring is cumulative.

Actually spring is more of a dance — two steps forward, one step back. After being teased by temps in the low 70s, it’s back to barely above freezing — but great weather for clearing out the flower beds in Selma Steele’s historic gardens. For you, T.C. Steele’s studio and the country home he shared with his wife Selma offer a glimpse into the past and the arrival of a new season, while sheltered from inclement weather.

T.C. Steele staff member Mary Ann Woerner captured this cheery April scene, despite the drizzle.

Although the site has much to offer on sunny days, (a hike along our wooded trails, a meditative moment at the cemetery, or a stroll through the historic gardens) it’s just as inspiring when the forecast turns gray. Sure, you could remain comfortable and cozy at home, but why not experience a bit of life in the early 1900s — and feel even more comfy in comparison?

Just as 40 degree temperatures feel cool in April but warm in January, comfort is relative. The Steele’s lifestyle (a term yet to be invented in their day) was opulent compared to that of their new Brown County neighbors, but mainstream in Indianapolis, where they usually wintered until 1916.

Eventually, Nature’s attractions overcame convenience, and T.C. and Selma decided to stay in Brown County year-round. Our schedule now coincides with theirs — we’re open year-round — whatever the weather. Don’t let the rain stop you from visiting. We’re high and dry on Bracken Hill.*

Experience spring in both 1907 and 2011. Let your expectations rise along with the waters of Salt Creek. Next time it rains, take a trek to Brown County and enjoy art, history and nature on 211 acres. Leave your umbrellas at home — we have plenty to spare.

*If spring floods leave the road underwater, call 812.988.2785 for detour directions.

A sunny update for a historic sunroom

Written by Davie Kean, master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site

The name of the historic home at T.C. Steele State Historic Site is more poetic than accurate today, but when the house was built in 1907, breezes caused the screens enclosing the sleeping porch to sing — earning it the name The House of the Singing Winds.

Warmed by winter sunshine and fresh paint, this pleasant room is just waiting for furnishings to bring it alive.

As houses (and lifestyles) evolve, the use of space often changes, and so it did with T.C. and Selma’s Arts & Crafts style home. When the couple began staying on the windy hill year-round, the south-facing porch was converted to a sunny room for breakfast, napping and numerous flats of seedlings that would eventually find a home in Selma’s Gardens.

I imagined it was a hard choice to make in those pre-air conditioned days — sacrificing such a comfortable place to sleep in summer for a warm and welcoming room in winter. As it turns out, the Steeles had both.

Close inspection (and some head scratching) by site and regional Restoration Specialists concluded that someone had devised a clever system of seasonally rotating the window screens and storms — and storing them very close to home.

The wall cavity beneath each of the windows was designed to house the lowered window sash in summer. Both the top and bottom sash of the double hung units fit into the space, leaving the entire window area open. What makes this clever?

Usually with double hung windows, the lower sash is raised into position in front of the upper sash, so only half of the window area is open to accept any breezes wafting by. With the Steeles’ set up, when the screens were installed in summer, the entire opening provided ventilation — in effect turning it back into a porch for the season.

This discovery was made as plans were made to restore the space. It’s amazing how much research is necessary before the public gets to see the final product. Details, such as what species of wood were used for the architectural elements, determining color through chemical paint analysis and choosing appropriate furnishings all had to be researched.

Since the House of the Singing Winds was used for many years as a Caretaker’s Residence, a lot of restoration work involves undoing previous renovations. Historic site staff must be detectives as well as interpreters. Steele’s paintings, Selma’s letters and historic photos taken by Frank Hohenberger were consulted.

These recent photos illustrate some of the clues that helped inform an accurate representation of the house as it was when T.C. Steele was alive:

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The room isn’t quite ready for visitors yet, but you can still get a quick peek when touring the House of the Singing Winds. Stop by, whether the sun’s shining or not.

The birds of Belmont and Bracken Hill

 Written by Davie Kean, master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site

All winter long, pileated woodpeckers and their smaller cousins, the red-headed, red-bellied, hairy and downy woodpeckers hammered away, echoing the carpenters working on the Sunroom Restoration at the House of the Singing Winds. Lately, eastern bluebirds have added to the human and avian percussion section with their warbling melodies.

Birdsong is such a welcome and spirit-lifting sound, bringing relief from winter’s cold and snow. “Real birders” can identify individual voices of these spring arrivals, but nature’s music — like art — can be enjoyed without specialized knowledge.

Both birds and art-lovers flock to T.C. Steele State Historic Site, but for different reasons. As a flower and shrub covered clearing amidst deep hardwood forests, the site’s ridgetop setting provides the edge habitat needed by birds, and scenic views enjoyed by humans. Where there are hills, there must be valleys, and Salt Creek and Hunnicutt Valleys, depicted in many of Steele’s paintings, are a fine prelude to what awaits above.

Last week’s heavy rains caused Salt Creek to overflow onto the fallow fields bordering T.C. Steele Road. I was concerned, since a flooded road could mean a long detour, but all was fine — even more than fine as I spotted several migrating sandhill cranes feeding in the cornfield stubble transformed into a temporary wetland.

As I stopped to watch, I wondered about their diet. Had the floodwaters washed up fish or frogs into the fields? That’s what’s on the menu for great blue herons, which are similar in size to cranes and prefer the same marshy areas. Time for some research.

It turns out that the sandhills feed on corn, left from last year’s harvest, with perhaps an insect or two as an appetizer. But they may have been attracted by the water, since they were gone in two days, along with the puddles. This year, the rains coincided with their migration, and it was the first time I’d seen them there.

I also learned that the herons’ arrival comes a week or two after the cranes pass through — but they stick around. In summer, these large herons can often be seen flying over or wading in Salt Creek’s shallows. I’ll be glad to welcome them back.

Passing by the same field earlier in the week, a large shape in a tree caught my eye. A resident bald eagle was eyeing the field for a possible meal. What a treat to see! Even though Selma Steele found the Belmont grocery lacking when she moved here in 1907, the area wildlife isn’t complaining.

Soon daffodils will add color to the drab winter landscape, but for now, birds are on the move. So bring your binoculars to Brown County for some birding on what was in the Steele’s time known as Bracken Hill.