New book looks at women who helped establish Minnesota art scene

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“Pioneer Modernists: Minnesota’s First Generation of Women Artists” was published last month by Afton Press

Tomorrow afternoon Julie L’Enfant will be speaking at Grand Hand Gallery in St. Paul, and signing copies of her new book “Pioneer Modernists.” The book depicts Minnesota’s first generation of women artists, and was inspired by an exhibition by the Minnesota Museum of American Art back in 2007. You can read reviews of the book here and here.

1. Why did you want to write this book?

I was deeply impressed by “In Her Own Right: Minnesota’s First Generation of Women Artists,” an exhibition curated by Brian Szott of the Minnesota Historical Society and shown at the Minnesota Museum of American Art in fall 2007.

The paintings in this show, many of which are in private collections, gave me an exhilarating sense of discovery, for these artists are relatively unknown today–in contrast to their contemporary, Wanda Gág, who left Minnesota in 1917 and made a lasting reputation in New York.

They weren’t members of an organized group, and they were recognizably “modern” without being abstract. They were independent women and thoroughly engaging characters, often outspoken and irreverent. They went their own way, yet were deeply engaged with the community.

I eagerly accepted the invitation of Patricia McDonald, publisher of Afton Press, to write a book. We decided to add Elsa Laubach Jemne and Evelyn Raymond - equally accomplished artists of the same era who mastered media traditionally associated with men (murals and architectural sculpture).

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Elsa Jemne, The Chinese Screen, ca. 1924.

Courtesy of Kurt and Nancy Hammond, Baltimore, Maryland

2. Are these women artists really that extraordinary compared to pioneering women in other states? How so? In other words, what makes their stories worth telling?

They are extraordinary for a number of reasons. One is the high quality of their work. They were well-trained and sophisticated. Art schools in Minneapolis and St. Paul were remarkably good. And, with one exception, they went on to major art centers – New York, Philadelphia, Paris – for further study with some of the best teachers of the day. Each made art her profession – no hobby painters here – and produced work in a variety of media comparable to that of better-known artists such as Peggy Bacon or Isabel Bishop.

These artists also have compelling personal stories. All had connections with pioneers on the American frontier – Minnesota was still referred to as the “Northwest” in the early years of the 20th century. Most grew up in humble circumstances and had to work very hard to establish careers and support themselves. Wanda Gág’s story is well known in Minnesota, but these seven artists are similarly inspiring.

It’s remarkable that all but one earned her living as an artist, and taken together they show the variety of ways this could be done. Many worked for the WPA. They founded and ran art colonies, societies, and galleries, thus were at the forefront of organizations that have made the Twin Cities a major center for the arts. Their work was exhibited not only in Minnesota but also in larger cities in the United States and abroad. Almost all were also respected and influential teachers, and one (Greenman) was a perceptive and entertaining writer as well.

While some of these women did marry and have children, none was unduly circumscribed by marriage and family, nor was any the protégé of a dominant male artist in the way of Gabrielle Műnter or Frida Kahlo. Clara Mairs, who had a long partnership with Clement Haupers, is a case in point.

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Evelyn Raymond, sculptor, with many of her works

Image courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

3. Are there any favorite stories you learned in the process of putting this book together?

I loved reading about how Clara Mairs and Clem Haupers lived in the Montparnasse area of Paris in the 1920s, taking printmaking and sculpture classes and frequenting Sylvia Beach’s famous bookstore, Shakespeare and Company.

I also think of the young Evelyn Raymond, working on a dairy farm in Duluth for eight years while her mother was ill, reading art books by flashlight all night. Each of these artists’ lives was intriguing, and I found myself wishing I could go on to write a book about each.

It is hard to select a favorite from among the works of art we’ve found and photographed for the book. But I have to say I have a special fondness for the paintings of Ada Augusta Wolfe. In many ways she had the hardest professional life – I was surprised and dismayed when I found out how she made a living [as an employee in her brother's punchboard business]. Her beautiful paintings – many of which have turned up in garage or estate sales – have the fine touch of the French Nabis.

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Wanda Gág, Fireplace, 1930

Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

4. What do you hope readers take away from this book?

I hope the book will help revive the reputations of these successful women and establish their significance in the development of art and culture in the Midwest – and the nation as a whole. There has been a lot of art historical scholarship in the last forty years devoted to rediscovering women artists, also to re-examining the idea that “modernism” means only the new, and particularly abstraction, but there is still a lot of work to be done. I hope this book will make a contribution to this effort.

But mainly I hope that readers will enjoy discovering or re-discovering these accomplished artists as they read this beautifully produced book. And I hope it will inspire young women artists to work hard and achieve great things.

  • http://www.burlingtonvermonthomes.com Michael Gannett

    Wanda Gag’s Fireplace (1930), pictured in this review, it may interest the author and readers, was done in the home of her friend (and my step-grandmother) Ruth Chrisman Gannett on Cream Hill (see book by the same name), West Cornwall, CT. Wanda and Ruth, also a well known lithographer, were NYC friends. Wanda frequently visited Cream Hill. West Cornwall was the summer home of literary figures of the day, such as Carl, Irita and Mark Van Doren, James Thurber and my grandfather Lewis Stiles Gannett, who was book editor of NY Herald Tribune and wrote 9000 daily columns under Books and Things. Wanda’s Fireplace hangs next to Ruth’s own version of Fireplace in my hallway, two images of my family’s favorite room in Ruth and Lewis’ house, which was the original old kitchen where many a thick steak cut by West Cornwall butcher Freddy Bates was grilled. There’s a story behind every picture. Now you know a bit about FIREPLACE.

  • Marianne Combs

    Michael – thanks so much for sharing this. Indeed, there is a story behind every picture!