Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on August 6, 2009 by permission of the author and the Cleveland Artists Foundation. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, of would like to obtain a copy of the catalogue from which it is excerpted, please contact the Cleveland Artists Foundation directly through either this phone number or web address:
Art in the Veins: The Legacy of the Edmondson Family in Cleveland
By S. Frederick Starr
This exhibition is devoted to exploring the intersection of place, events, and art in Cleveland through the art of three generations and four members of one family, the Edmondsons. The Cleveland in which each of the four family members lived and worked changed rapidly and fundamentally over the one hundred forty years covered here. Each of the Edmondsons encountered a very different world and had to find a path through it. Each participated in different artistic movements that thrived locally and nationally, but each found a distinctive visual language with which to express himself or herself.
The visitor to this exhibition will encounter works from the long career of Cleveland painter and sculptor Ivy Jane Edmondson Starr, who celebrated her 100th birthday on 20 February, 2009. No less, it acknowledges the achievements of her father, Clevelander George Mountain Edmondson (1866-1948), one of the country's most celebrated portrait photographers; her uncle, Clevelander William J. Edmondson (1868-1966), an American impressionist painter; and her grandfather, George William Edmondson (1837-1913), a pioneer photographer and artist who worked in Plymouth, Norwalk, and then Cleveland.
Were it not for unique circumstances, so wide-ranging an exhibition focusing on one family would scarcely be possible. But in 2006 artist Ivy Jane Edmondson Starr donated all of her works and those of her uncle William Edmondson that were in her possession to the Cleveland Artists Foundation. Several family members followed suit. This rich and diverse collection complements the comprehensive George Mountain Edmondson archive of photographic images already housed at the Cleveland Public Library. While the latter has been mined exhaustively by historians interested in Cleveland's social history and culture in the period 1890-1940, this is the first time it has been exploited for its artistic merits.
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Ivy Jane Edmondson attended Hathaway Brown and studied at the Cleveland Art Institute and the Art Museum's Saturday classes. Marie Riggins at Hathaway Brown traveled each summer to the Bauhaus in Germany or to Hans Hoffmann's classes. By the mid-1920s she had her students doing cubist and other works in the spirit of the European avant-garde. It was Riggins who took the sixteen-year-old Ivy Jane Edmondson to Provincetown for a summer of study in a Columbia University graduate art studio. But this proved far less important to Ivy Jane Edmondson than her training under her uncle, William J. Edmondson.
Born in Norwalk, William Edmondson grew up in the "studio of art and photography" that his father, George William Edmondson, ran in that city. Living with the family from time to time was Wilder Darling, later known as the dean of Toledo painters, who had studied both in Munich and in Paris at the Academie Julien. His father sent young William off to the Philadelphia Academy of Arts, where he honed his late Impressionist style under William Merritt Chase. There William won the Academy's annual traveling scholarship to the Academie Julien.
Will Edmondson is best known today for his impressionist landscapes, but in the 1920s he focused on portraiture. Rare is the Cleveland public building of that era that does not have at least one portrait by Will Edmondson. Some were properly somber, but others combine bold colors and arresting realism that exude the spirit of the early twentieth century. But the greatest portraitist of the family was Will's older brother, George M. Edmondson. Beginning in Norwalk and then moving to Cleveland, George M. Edmondson mastered both the technology and art of the photograph. He created a unique niche for himself documenting the lives and worlds of Cleveland's elite from his studio on Euclid Avenue. When John D. Rockefeller, Boss Mark Hanna, Presidents McKinley or Taft, or Waltz King Johann Strauss Jr. wanted their portraits, they turned to George Edmondson. He became president of the Professional Photographers of America; Margaret Bourke-White lived for weeks in his home while studying under him.
No one surpassed the two Edmondson brothers in capturing the personalities of Cleveland leaders in two-dimensional images, whether paintings or photographs. Given this, it was inevitable that their young protégé, George M.'s daughter and William J.'s niece, would follow their lead into portraiture.
Cleveland in the 1920s was a yeasty place, socially, culturally, and intellectually. At the Art Institute, Ivy Jane Edmondson found herself the only female among a talented group of lively aspiring artists in Paul Travis's watercolor class. Her closest friend throughout her Cleveland years and down to her marriage was Kalman Kubinyi. He did a surviving engraving of Ivy Jane, and she a handsome pencil portrait of Kubinyi. When he got a commission to paint the walls of the Kek Duna ("Blue Danube") Cafe in Cleveland, the two worked on it together. Also in the class were Steve Dohanos, who later did covers for the Saturday Evening Post, and Ambrozi Paliwoda, later a chief animator for Disney. They all enjoyed outings on the lake together, picnics, and lively conversation.
After college at Smith and Barnard, Ivy Jane Edmondson returned to teach at Hathaway Brown. It was then that she met another Hungarian, history graduate student Stephen Z. Starr. Unlike the young Cleveland-born Hungarian artists, who delighted in their status as outsiders, Starr had been born in Budapest and was eager to make his way in the mainstream of life in America. Within a year he and Ivy Jane had married.
Amidst these changes, Ivy Jane received a national scholarship to study at the Art Students League in New York. Though later identified as a student of Thomas Hart Benton, she minimizes her study under this hard-drinking artist, who rarely appeared in the studio. Another instructor, Luigi Lucioni, told her bluntly he had nothing to offer as her uncle had already taught her all that she needed as a painter.
Life was not easy for Depression-era artists. The Starrs, who had married when Steve's starting salary of $15 a week was raised to $25, could barely get by. He had to abandon his dream of becoming a historian, and she had to suspend her life as an artist. Ivy Jane had been earning much more than $25 a week as a painter but her husband, in this respect still a very old-fashioned European, considered it the man's duty to be the sole provider for his family. Moreover, his views on artists were akin to those of Mozart's patrons, who thought musicians should enter by the back door. In time Starr outgrew all this, but in the meanwhile, Ivy Jane grew unaccustomed to selling her work or competing in the art world. When World War II began, Stephen Starr's job took the family to Cincinnati, which they both initially feared as a kind of exile. But the move proved providential in many ways. Although Ivy Jane still found it useful to exchange paintings for sides of beef, the family's finances steadily strengthened and life returned to normal.
As her children grew, Ivy Jane returned to her painting. More important, she did what she had always wanted to do and turned to stone sculpture, studying under Charles Cutler at the Cincinnati Art Academy. Soon she was wielding a five-pound mallet against massive blocks of the hardest marble and granite. When the family started summering in Underhill Center, Vermont, in 1953, she gained access to limitless sources of stone. A new phase in her life had begun.
A series of commissions in Cincinnati followed, including major pieces for the Public Library, Children's Hospital, and the Zoo. During summers she focused on watercolors, turning out many landscapes, but also an innovative series which focused a realist's eye on the roots or stalks of vegetables like broccoli and fennel, which rendered them imposing and somewhat fantastic.
Stephen Starr eventually retired from business, but even before this he, too, had been devoting himself to the career that the Depression had forced him to put on hold. When the couple moved to Vermont he produced a series of important historical works. Ivy Jane, too, could finally focus on bigger projects that had long interested her. She sculpted intensely, and when arthritis launched its inevitable rebellion she shifted from stone to clay. In paintings and sculpture from the 1970s on there appears a strain of "magic realism." Whether in Vermont mountains transformed into rhinoceroses, surreal trees with serrated profiles, groupings of grotesque human heads as garden sculpture, or insects taking over the landscape, the focus of these works is a kind of living Nature, in which humans are but a guest and not a particularly welcome one. Some of these fantastic works include a strain of moralizing, which also came out in a series of eighteen paintings on the theme "Women in the Old Testament," which she executed in the 1980s. Here Jezebel, Hephzibah and Sarah all put in appearances, but in modern dress and rendered in the realism of the 1930s. Accompanying the paintings is a text in which the artist lays out her feisty insights on these heroines of ancient Israel.
One will search in vain for either the fantastic or the moralistic in the photographs of George M. Edmondson or in the paintings of William J. Edmondson. Both were solid members of the Cleveland establishment of their day: hard working, earnest, and uncomplicated. This was definitely not the case with Ivy Jane Edmondson Starr's grandfather, George William Edmondson. Born in the far northwest of England, George William came from a line of Quakers that extended back to the mid-seventeenth century. Members of the family had fought for Cromwell, taken Quakerism to Ireland, and debated the Quaker cause in Rhode Island with Roger Williams, who proved irascible and intolerant. George William's father had worked in Russia and pioneered scientific and technical education in England, all the while remaining a stern Quaker. George William eventually revolted, and was disowned for wanting to become an artist rather than an engineer. He worked briefly as a draftsman on the new Houses of Parliament, and then joined a Royal Society expedition to Canada, where he eventually married and then came to Ohio just after the Civil War.
Though he became a solid citizen of Plymouth and then Norwalk, there were both wild and moralistic streaks in George William Edmondson. As a married man he was known to join the local gypsies for days at a time. His stereopticon series on the "tions," including "TemptaTION," "IrritaTION," and "FlagelaTION" reveals a zany imagination; while in his series "The Drinker's Progress" he steps forth as a stern moralist. Is it possible that in Ivy Jane Edmondson Starr's fantastic realism and in her Old Testament paintings we see some of this spirit of her grandfather?
Anticipating his son George M., George William was also a resourceful portrait photographer, lavishing his skills on everyone from tinsmiths to the corpses of farmers who refused to be photographed during their lifetimes but whose families called in Edmondson the moment they died. Anticipating William, he did landscapes in the form of large photomurals which he installed in libraries around Cleveland and then painted. And in a move that anticipated Muybridge's photographs of moving horses at Longchamps by nearly a decade, he captured on glass the New York to Chicago express train as it raced through Norwalk in 1883.
Today Ivy Jane Edmondson Starr lives at Pennswood, a Quaker retirement home north of Philadelphia. She is up-to-the-moment on current events, reads widely, and maintains a correspondence with scores of family and friends. She recently objected when she was required to take a driver's test for the electrified scooter she uses to get around the grounds. And until very recently, she was still painting in oil. No sooner did she move into her new "assisted living" quarters than she rearranged the flowers sent her by family and began to paint them in watercolors. She is still painting today.
About the exhibition
Art in the Veins: The Legacy of the Edmondson Family in Cleveland was held June 13 - August 1, 2009 at the Cleveland Artists Foundation. From the late 1800s through the whole of the 20th century, the Edmondsons -- a family of painters, printmakers, sculptors and photographers -- were major contributors to the arts in Northeastern Ohio. This exhibition tells the story of a family and the place that formed them. Artists featured in the exhibition include George William Edmondson (1837-1913, George Mountain Edmondson (1866-1948), William John Edmondson (1868-1966) and Ivy Jane Edmondson Starr (b. 1909).
Resource Library editor's note
The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on August 6, 2009, with permission of the author and the Cleveland Artists Foundation, which was granted to TFAO on August 6, 2009.
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Lauren Hansgen, Interim Director, Cleveland Artists Foundation for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.
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