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.

Chasin’ Away the Blues

great-blue-heronToday was the third morning I sighted a Great Blue Heron on my drive to work, in the same area as before. About a mile north of T.C. Steele State Historic Site, Salt Creek runs westward on its way to Lake Monroe. The turn-off onto T.C. Steele Road is at the little town of Belmont, about halfway between Nashville (Indiana) and Bloomington. Ahead of me was the bridge that crosses Salt Creek, and over the creek, flying parallel to it, was the heron.

These herons are large birds, deserving of the name great. How you’d describe them further would depend on whether you saw them flying, or ‘at rest’. When they are hunting (for fish, frogs, reptiles and crayfish) they appear to be resting, until they use their spear-like beaks to jab their prey. Blink, and you’ll miss it.

Flying is another matter. If they were walking, they’d be sauntering — with an occasional stagger thrown in. The only bird I know that looks more awkward in flight is the Wild Turkey. I’ve never seen a Great Blue Heron at rest, on the nest, but I hope to someday.

They prefer tall trees, (usually near water) often nesting with other herons in ‘rookeries’. Apparently they don’t watch Home Improvement, but maybe they should. Their nests have been described as piles of sticks, added to over the years without benefit of Planning and Zoning.

This statue represents either a heron or a crane — people often confuse the two.

This statue represents either a heron or a crane — people often confuse the two.

Selma Steele placed this garden sculpture by her lily ponds. Today,  it is stored away — out of sight due to damage. I hope it can be restored soon and returned to its former spot. The Koi swimming in the ponds won’t need to worry about this heron (or crane). I’ll do more research, but meanwhile I’m calling it a Great Blue Heron.

I have learned that Great Blue Herons were more prevalent in the Steele’s day, just as Belmont was more of a town then than it is now. The road that the Steeles took on their way home was much rougher too, but there were compensations. Likely, they saw even more herons than I have and were just as uplifted by the sight, as they began the steep climb to The House of the Singing Winds. It’s hard to have the blues when you’ve just seen a Great Blue Heron.

Davie Kean is the master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site.