Editor's note: The following article was reprinted, without accompanying illustrations, in Resource Library on April 17, 2006 with the permission of the author. This text was written in conjunction with an exhibition titled Hoosiers in Taos: The Woolsey Brothers held in 1998 at the Indiana State Museum, a division of Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

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Hoosiers in Taos: The Woolsey Brothers

by James E. May

 



 

 

Carl Woolsey was twenty-five years old, married and had two young children when he packed up his family and moved from Indianapolis to the southwestern United States. His destination was Taos, New Mexico. The small desert community had been foremost in his mind since seeing an exhibition of paintings by Walter Ufer at H. Lieber Gallery in Indianapolis. His interest in Ufer's Taos imagery was so keen that he began a correspondence with the older artist asking him for advice on becoming a painter. Ufer, one of the members of the Taos Society of Artists, told Carl to get to Taos. That advice would change not only Carl Woolsey's life but the lives of his two brothers as well.

Places such as Taos were not unique by the 1920s. America had lots of places to paint. What began in the nineteenth century as a retreat to nature to paint en plein air became a sometimes desperate attempt in the early twentieth century to fend off European Modernism just a little longer. Urban centers, in particular New York, were becoming more and more "infected" with the "isms" -- Cubism, Fauvism, etc. Some painters were looking for simpler, more purely American places and ways to paint. The rise of artists' colonies in the United States appeared in most regions of the country. William Merritt Chase took students to Shinnecock on Long Island in the 1890s. From then through the 1930s, sanctuaries sprang up around the country. Cos Cob and Old Lyme developed in Connecticut. Massachusetts had Provincetown and Gloucester. There were the colonies at Ogunquit in Maine and Carmel in California. Indiana's own Brown County Art Colony was the most significant group in the Midwest, but Carl Woolsey decided to head west from Indianapolis toward northern New Mexico and the Taos Society of Artists.

The Taos Society was officially formed in 1915 by Ernest Blumenschein, Joseph Henry Sharp, Bert Phillips, Oscar Berninghaus, E. Irving Couse and "Buck" Dutton. Victor Higgins, Julius Rolshoven, Walter Ufer, and Kenneth Adams joined soon after as did many others. Some non-Taos residents such as Robert Henri, John Sloan, and Gustave Baumann were associate members of the Society.

The native charm of the region which was part Pueblo, Apache, Navajo and Spanish originally attracted the artists. By the 1920s, "Anglo-Bohemia" had been added to the mix creating a social/creative environment that attracted still more visiting artists including writer D.H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda, Greta Garbo and Georgia O'Keeffe. The Society itself was a loose affiliation of artists organized to promote the region and their work. In 1927, the year Carl Woolsey arrived, the Society disbanded, but most of the artists and atmosphere remained.

Carl was born in 1902, the second child of Charles and Marie Magdalena Woolsey. His brother Wood, three years older, was an artist as well. The youngest of the three Woolsey boys, Jean, was born in 1905 and the brothers' baby sister Mary Jane in 1909. All of the children were artistically inclined and encouraged to be so by their father and mother. Charles himself was an orator and sometime actor listed with Winchell's Lecture and Entertaining Bureau of Chicago. For all of their lives, the children were engaged in some form of art either commercial or fine.

The family coalesced around the strong personality of Charles Woolsey. It was his decision, upon Carl's graduation from high school, to move the family to Indianapolis from their home in Danville, Illinois. They arrived in Indiana in late 1921 sure of better job opportunities. Wood started work as a commercial artist at Patterson Engraving Company and enrolled in night classes at the John Herron Art Institute. Jean and Carl were slightly less directed.

By 1922, Charles again went searching for success, this time to Long Beach, California where the brothers opened a sign painting and commercial art business. Their father's venture there in real estate failed to pan out, so by late 1925, the family was again back in Indiana. Most of the early adult lives of the Woolsey children centered around their father and his search for economic opportunity. It came as no surprise then that when Carl found life in Taos immediately successful, his family soon followed. By 1928, both his parents and his siblings arrived there.

All through their early travels, the Woolsey boys were developing their artistic talents. Except Wood's limited instruction at John Herron, the boys were self-taught. In California and Indianapolis, they joined art associations and fraternized with other painters but none enrolled in organized classes. Wood went to work as a commercial artist upon returning from California, but Carl made the decision to become a painter. His earliest compositions, around 1926, were entirely imaginative and wholly created in the studio. He had some success with exhibiting his work locally, but until he went to Taos his skills were underdeveloped. Jean, never a painter like his older brothers, worked as a sign maker and improved his skills as a carver and craftsperson.

For most of the first two years that Carl was in Taos he worked from Walter Ufer's studio, especially each winter when Ufer returned east. Ufer became Carl's mentor, informally teaching him and providing much needed encouragement as well. Quickly, Carl transformed his technique. He abandoned imaginative creations in favor of direct observation. His inherent skills as a painter flourished in response to the new visual interaction with his subject. Rapidly, he made up for any lack of formal training with "on-the-job" experience.

Critical success was almost immediate. Carl's early work in Taos was accepted into several national juried exhibitions including the National Academy Spring Show and the Hoosier Salon in Chicago. He exhibited in thirteen of the Hoosier Salon exhibitions from 1927 until 1942 and most of the National Academy exhibitions between 1928 and 1936. His paintings won several awards the most prestigious being the 1931 Hallgarten prize from the National Academy. In a letter to Carl in 1928 after seeing his work at the National Academy, Ufer wrote:

Dear Woolsey -- .... When I went through the Academy exhibition it was at nighttime during one of our meetings. I looked for Adams -- found it -- then stopped not knowing you were sending. Just now I looked in the catalogue and found your name in the center gallery which is even a better gallery than Adams got. You are in the same gallery with Blumenschein.... My hearty congratulations for making the Academy at the age of 25 years.... Taos has been good to you, and you must not go anywhere else to paint.... Indianapolis will look up to you. Your two little kids are all the happier for it -- for it proves that you will be able to support them at an early age through your art.[1]

 

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