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.

A conservator’s passion for his work …

by Mark Ruschman, Indiana State Museum Fine Arts Curator

During a recent visit to Fine Art Conservator Barry Bauman’s Chicago studio to retrieve two recently restored paintings, we (Leslie Lorance, Indiana State Museum new media manager; Shaun Dingwerth, director of the Richmond Museum of Art; and myself) were treated to much more than the typical drop off and pickup experience. Being new to the museum and having never met Mr. Baumann, I was excited and a bit anxious about meeting him for the first time. Mr. Bauman has 40 years experience in the business and is an Elected Fellow of the American Institute for Conservation. He was also formerly the Associate Conservator of Paintings for the Art Institute of Chicago. Now that he’s retired, he generously provides conservation services for the Indiana State Museum and numerous other cultural institutions, basically free of charge – just the cost of materials. As I’ve learned, this is a big thing for many organizations that struggle with budgets and the desire display their collections – some badly in need of repair.

The Indiana State Museum’s Leslie Lorance videos conservator Barry Bauman.

So visiting his studio is another one of the great perks that come with this job. Our host greeted us warmly, more as old friends, than business associates. He gave us a tour of the house and wonderful works of art on display; we were then treated to a spectacular lunch – prepared by him. After lunch, Leslie prepared to video him for a monthly segment we call “In the Spotlight” – a short segment highlighting something new and interesting at the museum. Certainly, the discovery of the new T.C. Steele would qualify, and who better to talk to about this discovery, but the person responsible. As we peppered Barry with questions about the discovery, what struck me most were not only the details of the discovery, which are remarkable enough, but his obvious passion for his work. He talked intently about his role as a conservator and how success is measured not in his notoriety as the conservator, but his ability to make the artist’s original intention crystal clear, unobstructed by the repair just completed. We talked at length about all aspects of his role as a conservator and what goes into a proper restoration. It was a fascinating conversation, with a great number of technical points covered, pointing out the expertise required to accomplish a successful restoration. But beyond the chemistry, you become acutely aware that behind it all is the heart of an artist; the skill to do the work and the knowledge to know what to do, and what not to do. The video interview will be short by necessity, but the conversation could have gone on for hours.

As we collected our restored works and prepared to leave, we talked of his upcoming visit to Bloomington, Indiana, for his talk on the “Steele Concealed” project. I’m looking forward to his presentation; I’m guessing the audience is coming to hear about conservation, I’m confident they’ll leave with a great deal more.

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.

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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Winter at State Historic Sites

The State Historic Sites take on different looks as the seasons change … T.C. Steele and Gene Stratton-Porter’s Sylvan Lake home shine in spring and summer with magnificent gardens, fall colors make the Muster on the Wabash interesting, and here are some great shots of Limberlost under a blanket of snow. Each of these sites have so much history and beauty, you should consider visiting them more than once a year! They’re all a short car ride from home … a nice day trip or weekend adventure. Be sure to check the website first, as some have winter hours (ex: Limberlost hours are now Tues. – Sat. 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.;  closed Sun. and Mon. until April 1.)

If you have pictures to share of your travels to any of the State Historic Sites or the Indiana State Museum, please load them to our Flickr page here.

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Unparalleled Paisley Shawls

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

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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.

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

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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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