Editor's note: The Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery and Cori Sherman North provided permission for Resource Library to publish the following essay for the exhibition Birds & Beyond: The Prints of Maurice R. Bebb, held August 6 - October 23, 2016 at the Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay and associated materials, please contact the Gallery directly through either this phone number or web address:
Birds & Beyond: The Prints of Maurice R. Bebb
by Cori Sherman North
Though largely self-taught and coming to printmaking later in life, Maurice Robert Bebb (1891-1986) established a national reputation as an exceptional etcher. He created more than 220 print designs over his career, and provided three gift prints for print societies of which he was a member -- the Print Makers Society of California (1953), Chicago Society of Etchers (1954), and the Prairie Print Makers (1960). The Wichita-based Prairie Print Makers society was established in December 1930, when eleven artists met in the home studio of Birger Sandzén (1871-1954) in Lindsborg, Kansas. Sandzén created the first of the Prairie Print Makers' gift prints in 1931. Today, the Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery is pleased to present the first retrospective exhibition of the Oklahoma printmaker Maurice Bebb, and to announce the debut of the catalogue raisonné Birds & Beyond: The Prints of Maurice R. Bebb.
The exhibition and the book are the happy result of the collaboration between print collector John R. Mallery, whose eighty Bebb prints make up the exhibition; Bebb family neighbor and student Jim Harbison, who grew up in Muskogee, Oklahoma, and created the website www.mauricebebb.com for the benefit of online researchers; and the Sandzén Gallery staff. As they joined forces, it became clear that all the ingredients for a lasting reference of the printmaker's entire oeuvre were present. Efforts were generously supported by the family of Maurice Bebb, especially his widow, Katherine "Kappa" Bebb, who opened up her home to share the treasure trove of Bebb's printing key records and original prints left in his studio. Others contributing funding support include Jack and Georgia Olsen of the American Legacy Gallery in Kansas City, who provided help at every stage of the exhibition planning and the catalogue raisonné project.
Maurice R. Bebb was a prolific and passionate printmaker whose career spanned five decades, from the 1940s into the 1980s, much of it after retiring from a successful career as a florist. According to his second wife, Kappa, he was making prints "up until about three days before he died." Bebb is known for his color etchings of American bird species, and as he was an avid birdwatcher and Ornithological Society officer, it is not surprising that about half of his print subjects are of midwestern birds. Bebb also enjoyed composing landscape views of places he saw every day as well as exotic locales seen on several European tours. He created prints of more than two hundred subjects, most in editions of 150, with at least forty selling out. His sold-out editions alone represent the creation of six thousand print impressions, which was an enormous number of man-hours at the press. However, the printmaker always felt fortunate that his work was really a labor of love for the medium: "Upon my retirement I had enough saved so that I have never needed the income from my etchings -- I give that to my married daughters. I don't know why I work so hard at my age -- 88 -- but I think it is mostly because I enjoy having people like my work -- buy it and hang it. Perhaps it is just that I was trained to work and can't stop."
Maurice Bebb was born in Chicago on September 22, 1891, to Robert and Florence Pine Bebb. Looking at the Bebb family history, it is readily apparent why he became a florist and why later, when he began making prints, he chose birds and flowers as his subjects. Maurice's grandfather, Michael Schuck Bebb (1833-1895), grew up in Ohio on an expanse of arable land complete with a large greenhouse. Michael became a leading expert in the plant genus Salix(willow trees), with the Bebb willow, Salix bebbiana, named after him. Maurice's father, Robert Bebb (1833-1942), inherited the interest in botany. While Robert worked as a grain receiver's agent he took numerous botanizing trips through Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin, as well as two trips through Texas and Oklahoma. In 1910, Robert purchased a floral business in Muskogee, Oklahoma, despite having no professional experience. Although the business took most of his time, he still was able to go on study and collecting trips, and upon his death in 1942 thirty thousand of his specimens were donated to the University of Oklahoma, where the Robert Bebb Herbarium is named in his honor.
Maurice Bebb continued the family tradition by becoming the first person in the United States to receive a degree in floriculture when he graduated from the University of Illinois in June 1913 with a bachelor of science in that field. He then returned to Muskogee to work in his father's florist shop. Just a few short years afterward, America entered the Great War and young Bebb served in the United States Army as Captain of Company D, 312th Ammunition Train, and served six months in France. After his return to Oklahoma, his interest in prints and printmaking seems to have begun around the same time as his marriage to Helen Susan Van Arsdale in 1918: "After I got married, I started collecting etchings, learned what you could do with a line, and how to know a good print. So when I started [making art] in my 50s, I could do good work almost immediately." In addition to studying prints, he received encouragement from other printmakers, including Charles Capps (1898-1981), Arthur Hall (1889-1981), Leon Pescheret (1892-1971), and F. Leslie Thompson (1889-1965). Bebb also found inspiration from Charles E. Heil (1870-1950), an American artist best known for his ornithological prints and paintings, as at least one impression of Bebb's Baby Robin (ca. 1945) is inscribed "after Chas. E. Heil."
According to the insert page for the 1953 Print Makers Society of California gift print, Black Swans, "Mr. Bebb started drawing and etching around ten years ago, getting most of his instruction from books." However, his first prints appear to be linoleum block print Christmas cards created in the early 1930s. At that time, he likely had to limit his printmaking to cards, as he and his brother Forrest were running Bebb's Flowers in downtown Muskogee full time upon their father's retirement in 1936. His first etching seems to have been his 1941 print Tulips. Bebb created at least forty-two prints between 1941 and 1950, and exhibited for the first time in 1949 at the 39th Annual Chicago Society of Etchers exhibition.
Maurice Bebb retired from the family florist business in 1951, leaving it in the hands of his son Robert and grandson Martin, and devoted his time to printmaking. Despite his floricultural background, Bebb is best known for his color etchings of bird subjects. He created approximately one hundred bird prints during his career, about half of his total output. His first bird print was Goldfinches, which won the Graphic Chemical and Ink Company $25 Purchase Prize in the 1950 Chicago Society of Etchers Exhibition. His bird subjects are those that can be found in his home state of Oklahoma as well as in Minnesota, where his family had property in Nevis, Hubbard County. Two exceptions are Mexican Cacique(1966), which is native to Mexico, and Black Swans(1952), found in Australia. Bebb's birds are shown as they would be seen in their natural habitats, a method first developed in the early nineteenth century by American artist John James Audubon (1785-1851). His subject choices go beyond those birds commonly seen at backyard bird feeders, extending to those that are reclusive and difficult to see, such as the Least Flycatcher, Yellow-Billed Cuckoo, Bobwhite, and Scaled Quail. Maurice Bebb was as much an amateur ornithologist as a bird artist. His library included works by well-known ornithologists such as Roger Tory Peterson (1908-1996), who created the very first birding field guide in 1934. Maurice and his brother Forrest attended the 36th Annual Meeting of the Wilson Ornithological Society in Stillwater, Oklahoma, in 1955. Conferences of this type are only for the most serious birders and ornithologists, with academic papers presented on bird species, environmental concerns, and scientific advances in the field.
The remainder of Bebb's etchings are landscapes, architectural works, flowers, and butterflies. The artist had a passion for landscapes, lamenting during an interview that "people demand my birds and get me off landscapes, which are really my favorite." Bebb was able to expand his subject matter after spending a significant amount of time sketching in Europe in 1956 and 1958. Much later, in 1981, he wrote a letter to an acquaintance that noted, "I envy you your travels. Helen and I were not able to travel until I retired from business, but we went to Europe, bought a car, and traveled some 32,000 kilometers, I sketching all the time, and Helen shopping -- some of the time." Some of his most dramatic and complex works were a result of these trips, including Argenton-sur-Creuse (1958). His technical skill is readily apparent in these works, and his foundational drawing skills can also be seen. According to Kappa Bebb, his ability to sketch came as "natural as breathing." Entering print exhibitions around the country early on during his printmaking career proved a successful practice for Maurice Bebb, keeping his work in the public eye regardless of postwar national art trends favoring abstract expressionism. Bebb was not a fan of nonrepresentational art, even resigning from the local art club when "modern art took over," but demand for Bebb's etchings remained high during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.
Growing up in Muskogee near the Bebb home, Jim Harbison was accustomed to seeing "Maury" Bebb's prints hanging in most homes and businesses in town, where they served as emblems of good taste and also of deep appreciation for the artist and his work. When Harbison was in high school, Maury and Kappa invited him over for printmaking lessons and lunch. Books, art, kindness, and generosity were in evidence in the Bebb home at all times, making guests feel instantly at home and at the center of attention while visiting. Harbison recalls the studio being just off the kitchen, a light-filled space, efficient and loosely organized and smelling of the oil-based inks used for printing. Bebb selected a single-plate etching to demonstrate for Harbison's first lesson, but it was Bebb's joyful approach to his work and his love of the process of printmaking that were most memorable. The artist encouraged the neophyte printmaker with an infectious enthusiasm that lasted through subsequent studio lessons. The teenaged Harbison observed that Bebb was a master record keeper and used onionskin paper to record each print he made, with the order of the plates used, instructions for inking the plates, sample daubs of each ink used, and helpful notes to himself such as "wipe right side of [plate] 2 carefully (weakly)."
Harbison enrolled in printmaking classes in college, but that ended abruptly when he realized that the college professor was nothing like the encouraging teacher he'd left at home in Muskogee. He realized what a discipline printmaking really was, and marveled that Bebb, with no formal training, chose such arduous media as soft ground, aquatint, and multiplate color etching. Even in the last few years of his life Bebb routinely worked four to five hours a day in his studio, and stated that this was not a process "for anyone in a hurry." However, Bebb also had clearly shown firsthand that loving one's work was an essential part of living. Writing a friend, he explained his love for making prints: "I have always known that the greatest thrills I get come from the sight of something really beautiful, and I regret that I did not begin to express my feelings earlier."
Feeling that Bebb's work was seen by too few and could
potentially be appreciated by so many, Harbison created a Wikipedia entry
about the artist and then designed the website dedicated to showing some
of his work. This turned out to be the crucial intersecting point that made
a retrospective exhibition and catalogue raisonné possible. Art collector
and avid birder John Mallery had begun acquiring Maurice Bebb etchings with
his first purchase of Brown Thrasher (1968), as his family had the
birds nesting on their Kansas property. Once the Mallery Collection of Bebb
prints had reached around sixty works, John felt that the artist deserved
to be much more widely known and resolved to plan a serious exhibition of
Bebb's prints. As the founding site of the Prairie Print Makers, the Birger
Sandzén Memorial Gallery proved to be an ideal venue for the show
and was initially planned as the publishing institution for the book. The
resulting 260-page catalogue was organized around the "printing key"
records left in Bebb's studio and includes a short history of American printmaking
before 1950, a brief biography of the artist, a photographic essay on Bebb's
ten-step etching process, a page entry of history for each print presented
in chronological order, and an index of all known titles.
1 Sadler Arts Academy, video documentary, "Maurice Bebb: Muskogee's Master Printmaker," 2010.
2 Maurice Bebb to Betty [surname unknown], 4 Feb 1980, Mallery Collection, Overland Park, Kansas.
3 Herbert Bebb, "Bebb Genealogy, the descendants of WILLIAM BEBB and MARTHA HUGHES of Llanbrynmair, Wales" (1944), 43.
4 John Brandenburg, "Birds, Flowers, Landscapes Grist for State
Artist's Efforts," NewsOK, 13 Nov 1981, accessed 23 Mar 2016,
5. Brandenburg, "Birds, Flowers, Landscapes."
6. Maurice Bebb to Betty, 28 Jul 1981, copy in Mallery Collection, Overland Park, Kansas. Bebb was married to Helen for fifty-four years, until she passed away in September 1972. He remarried in 1982 to Katherine "Kappa" Letham.
7 Quoted in Sadler Arts Academy, "Maurice Bebb."
8. Brandenburg, "Birds, Flowers, Landscapes."
9. Anita Hess, "The Art of Living," Muskogee Phoenix, Apr 1981.
10 Maurice Bebb to Jeanne [surname unknown], 30 Mar 1984, the Estate
of Maurice R. Bebb.
About the author
Cori Sherman North is Curator at the Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery.
To view the checklist for the exhibition, please click here.
A 260-page hardcover catalogue raisonné of the 221 prints in Birds & Beyond: The Prints of Maurice Bebb, by Cori Sherman North, John R. Mallery, and Jim Harbison, was published by Pomegranate Books and the Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery, 2016. An image of the front cover of the catalogue raisonné is shown below.
(above: cover image for Birds & Beyond: The Prints of Maurice Bebb. Image courtesy of Cori Sherman North and Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery)
Resource Library editor's notes:
The above essay was published in Resource Library on September 21, 2016 with permission of the author and Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery, which was granted to TFAO on September 7, 2016. Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Cori Sherman North for her help concerning permission for publishing the above essay.
For a checklist definition, please see Definitions in Museums Explained.
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Also see www.mauricebebb.com/
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