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.

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.

So much more than popsicle sticks and glitter

by Rebecca Zuppann, West Region Program Assistant

When I first started working at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site, I was asked to help work on an exhibit about the Arts & Crafts Movement. To be completely honest, I had never heard of the Arts & Crafts Movement, so naturally my first thoughts were of popsicle sticks, glitter and pipe cleaners. Thankfully, I had it all wrong and was able to discover an incredible time period in art history.

The Arts & Crafts Movement was a design revolution that found roots in England in the mid-1800s. The founder of the Movement, William Morris, strongly believed that beauty and quality of goods could only be achieved through skilled craftsmanship and not solely by the production of machines. This belief, along with his socialist ideals, inspired his goal of making quality, hand-crafted products widely available, and of improving the working and living conditions of the average citizen.

Morris’ idea of simplistic design and a return to true craftsmanship found its way into all forms of art, architecture and media, and quickly spread across the world to America and to T.C. and Selma Steele. In building their Brown County home, the Steeles utilized many Arts & Crafts principles of design: use of local materials, a structure dictated by function, a flowing floor plan and decorations created by local and regional craftsmen. Visitors to the T.C. Steele State Historic Site are able to see not only the Arts & Crafts architecture and design of the home, but also a large collection of artifacts including furniture, metalwork, books, textiles and ceramics.

Join us on a journey through the Arts & Crafts Movement and take a peek into the Steeles’ lives and their deliberate design choices. The Arts and Crafts Moments: Simplicity in Design exhibit features three rotations: artifacts currently at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site, objects from the Indiana State Museum collections and items from a private collection. The first rotation continues through April 30 and the second rotation begins May 2.

T.C. Steele’s Remote Studio

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

The remote studio, framed by a pair of trees along T.C. Steele Road.

Breathing in the winter air — and inspiration — en plein-air …

One of the less frequented features of T.C. Steele State Historic Site is the remote studio, a roughly 10 x 10 foot structure reconstructed in 1994 by members of the Brown County Rotary Club. Although at a distance from the site’s main buildings, it actually sits quite near a county road. For a closer look, you can hike (or cross-country ski!) a 1/4-mile easy-access trail to this not-so-remote spot.

In winter, a glimpse of the painter’s shack can be seen through the trees as you approach the historic site. Mr. Steele used the original shelter for painting many of his winter scenes. I thought it made a nice picture itself, framed by two large trees that were much smaller in Steele’s time. Not wanting to paint the little outdoor studio from outside its protective shelter, I settled for a photograph instead.

Three young women visit the remote studio (in warmer weather) around 1919. Courtesy, Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana. Frank Hohenberger collection.

More familiar to visitors is the site’s Large Studio, reputed to be the largest private studio in the midwest at the time it was built in 1916. Seeing this space, it’s surprising to learn that most of Steele’s Brown County paintings were done en plein-air — or outside. The Large Studio was designed primarily as a gallery for Steele’s many works, while his preferred painting location was outdoors.

In her memoir, The House of the Singing Winds, Selma Steele illustrates her husband’s dedication to the plein-air method:                                                           

“Finally there arose a need for distant shelters to serve as studios when inclement weather made it impossible to work in the open … the painter built a well-lighted one-room studio on the top of the high hill overlooking the Schooner and Hunnicutt valleys. There were extensive views from these windows … Here many of the winter subjects were painted that are so splendid in their delineation of wintry snows and sunshine.”

The Steele’s didn’t let a little bad weather stop them from enjoying the beauty of their Brown County home, as indicated in this second excerpt from The House of the Singing Winds:

“It followed then that on a morning in early February of 1912, with temperatures hovering near the zero mark, we left the city for some deep winter experiences in the country.”

Since T.C. Steele State Historic Site is now open year-round, there’s nothing to stop you from experiencing that same beauty today. Maybe you’d like to try out the Remote Studio during the next cold snap — or do like I did and just snap a photo.

T.C. Steele State Historic Site is open for building tours Tuesday through Sunday. We’re closed on Mondays, but the grounds and trails aren’t. Call ahead for road conditions: 812.988.2785.

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Unparalleled Paisley Shawls

Written by Christine Atkinson, arts program developer at T.C. Steele State Historic Site


Unrolling the shawls to prepare them for hanging.

It’s finally here! The Unparalleled Paisley Shawls exhibit has been installed at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site. Site staff was on hand to help Indiana State Museum curators reveal these beautiful textile pieces. The day went smoothly, despite some hitches with the transport truck, and we were blessed with a glorious sunny day.

Everything had to be unloaded out of the truck and taken into the studio. First we had to hoist the rack over the balcony and then assemble it. Padding had to be laid to protect each shawl. We went through plans and decided the arrangement of each shawl. Then each shawl was unrolled and hung. Some of us hung the pieces in the studio while others worked on the display case. After the studio was finished we moved on into the house. In addition to the new shawls being placed in the home, there was also a textile rotation. So the site has all “new” textiles for visitors to see. They are all Steele pieces.

Don’t miss this unique opportunity to see 10 paisley shawls on display until June 2, 2010! Join us for a special textile presentation by Barbara Livesey on the history of the paisley shawl and the evolving technology on Nov. 7 at 1 p.m.


Mary Jane wants to move the shawl just a little more to the right!

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Nature’s Palette, Always in Style

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



Somewhere, there are people who are paid to predict (or create) which colors will be ‘hot’ for the coming year. Apparently there are people who are color blind in the fashion sense — unable to decide for themselves what color to wear or decorate with. There are even websites to consult when in doubt.

I choose my color schemes on my daily drive to work, and at home enjoying the view from my porch. I follow nature’s seasonal palette rather than fashion’s fickle trends. I’m not sure where the color consultants get their inspiration, but indirectly, it probably comes from the same source as mine.

Anyone who has looked at photographs from National Geographic or Discovery magazines will recognize that even the most outlandish colors were first found in nature. Hot pinks, florescent greens, electric blues — Mother Nature just smiles and thinks, “Been there, done that.”

Fashion color preferences are cyclical. Every few years, ‘naturals’ are the latest cool thing (again). Sometimes we fall under the illusion (or delusion) that we have created these colors or color combinations, but we are really just copying or interpreting what has always been around us.

Continue reading

Week’s Wash

So far this year, Brown County, Indiana , has been more like Oregon weather-wise — or so I imagine, as I’ve never been there. It has been wet, many days in a row, and I sympathize with farmers and gardeners (I still don’t have all my seeds planted). My immediate meteorological concern though has to do with laundry.

I’ve never owned a clothes dryer, and while I cherish  my washer, I don’t feel deprived without a dryer —except when it rains for days on end. As it has. So lately I’ve been wondering about Selma Steele’s solution to the precipitation problem. Obviously, Selma lived before the days of fabric softener and dryer sheets.

weeks_washAs shown in her husband’s painting, Week’s Wash, Selma used a clothesline to dry their laundry. The best day to wash clothes however, isn’t always the best day to dry them. Without the Weather Channel, how did Selma know if her laundry would dry or not?

I’m fortunate to have a porch and two wooden drying racks. Even if it rains after I hang out my laundry, I don’t have to rush out and grab my clothes off the line if it starts to sprinkle. My clothesline is under the porch roof and my clothes racks can easily be taken indoors.

Selma Steele always had porches, and I’d bet she made use of them when laundry day was also a rainy day. But clothes hanging on an outside line make for a better painting — as you can see from this picture. Or stop by and see the real thing (the painting not the laundry) at T.C. Steele State Historic Site.

Week’s Wash can be purchased as a giclée print from the Friends of T.C. Steele gift shop, or online at www.tcsteele.org.

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

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There was a little chigger …

There was a little chigger, that wasn’t any bigger…*

So begins this summertime song, sung by children scratching along in time to the melody. Sad to say, chigger season has returned — and the timing wasn’t so great for our first Sunday afternoon ‘Get-together in Selma’s Garden.’

Our new series of garden programs is a thinly-disguised attempt to recruit volunteers to help in maintaining the gardens at T.C. Steele State Historic Site. Eight brave souls showed up, hoping to learn about Selma Steele’s garden techniques and weed identification, but after doing some hands-on (and in) weed I.D. in the garden, I’m afraid they took home more than just information. Continue reading

A Striking Contrast

Elderberry blossoms at TC Steele State Historic Site

Elderberry blossoms at TC Steele State Historic Site

It’s hard to imagine a contrast that’s not striking. In fact, one definition of contrast  is, “One thing that is strikingly different from another.” I’ve been enjoying an example of this right in my backyard.

The elderberry bushes at the edge of the yard, although beautiful on their own, are enhanced by the dark backdrop of the forest edge. And though I’m content just to sit and enjoy the view from the porch, those dark shadows beneath the shrubs make the forest mysteriously inviting. Continue reading


What’s one of the best ways to improve your outdoor environment? Plant some shrubs! They provide variety, shape, form and balance—all elements of good landscape design. If you stick to annuals and perennials alone, you’ll be missing out, and so will your garden.

A recommendation I’ve read is to buy one shrub for every five perennials. The gardens at T.C. Steele State Historic Site suggest that Selma Steele followed this formula, then doubled it. Leaving aside identification, just taking an inventory of the number of different shrubs planted here would be quite an undertaking. Any volunteers?

shrub_deutziaIn full flower this week is another shrub that I was unfamiliar with, and I wanted to I.D. it before someone asked me about it. Fortunately my book had a good picture, so now Deutzia and I are on a first name (Genus) basis. We’ll have to get better acquainted before I know its species.

Forsythia, Flowering Quince, Lilac, Wisteria (pruned into a bush form), Mock Orange, Carolina Allspice, and now Deutzia—with Rose of Sharon and Hydrangea yet to follow. I’ve already lost count of all the bushes that have bloomed and it’s not even June. The site lacks only identifying tags to make it a botanical garden.

Why did Selma Steele include so many shrubs in her landscape? Was she inspired by one of the many Purdue publications she ordered to help her plan her gardens? Did her art background and training tell her that a shrub would make a great focal point? Perhaps she wanted to introduce fragrance into her garden. She may have appreciated the combination of native wildflowers and understory shrubs in the nearby woods. Likely all of these reasons played a part.

Shrubs are not for those wanting instant gratification. They are a long term investment, one that grows over time. Selma understood this. Always with an eye to the future, she planned it so that not only the shrubs, but her husband’s paintings, would be around for others to enjoy for many years (64 so far).

Buying a T.C. Steele landscape is out of the question for most of us, but there’s no question that our own landscapes would benefit from adding a few shrubs — it worked for Selma.

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

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