When I signed up to present a program on the scrapbooks and the history of the Art Club, I didn’t quite understand what a daunting task executing on that promise would be. I’m the current keeper of the Art Club archives. They are massive – and include not only scrapbooks, but minute books, loose paper records, loose photographs, CDs and thumb drives full of digital records, postcards, posters. One day I hope to catalogue and organize this vast pile of material. One of my dreams is to select the best of all of it and present it on our website.
We have some of the material there already. Jane Van Dis wrote a History of the Art Club some years back. That’s been transcribed and it’s on the website, and I couldn’t present this program without the memories Jane has recorded for all of us in her History. The website is a place where you can look at photographs, recent ones and historical ones, that have been copied and posted there.
To present tonight, I had to select a smaller subset of material. I want to tell you how the Art Club was founded fifty-nine years ago, because it is an interesting story. It was a situation where summer people and locals, professional artists and amateur artists, men and women, got together to form an organization that, at its heart, had a vision that Saugatuck-Douglas could develop as an art tourism destination, even more than it had done up to that time.
On the front page of the Commercial Record for September 11, 1953 in one of the columns to the right is an article: Form Art League in S-D Area. That’s us. What had happened was that a group of artists got together in the summer of 1953 and had an exhibit together, on the second floor of the Village Hall. The comings and goings of visitors were a matter of some interest in a weekly newspaper in a resort community of the time and the front page tells of the departure of annual Ox Bow visitors. Besides that, and the new art league, the front page also chronicles a study to determine if local clay was of ceramic quality. The front page also says the village trustees got a report on the exhibit that week too. There were over 1,400 visitors to the exhibit, and the trustees gave permission to use the space for another exhibit the following season.
Such an exhibit wasn’t an unusual thing. In the 1930s for a number of years there had been an organization called the Saugatuck Art Association. Kit Lane's Painting the Town: A History of Art in Saugatuck and Douglas tells us "In 1930 many of the professional artists and a few amateurs of the area joined together to form the Saugatuck Art Association, which opened its own gallery for local artists and guest artists in the upper rooms of the Saugatuck Village Hall in July of 1931." This gallery featured many artists who worked in Saugatuck and the area, such as Frederick Fursman, Carl and Christiana Hoerman, Cora Bliss Taylor, Albert Krehbiel, and Olive Williams. Jane Van Dis gave the Art Club the register that the Association offered to its visitors to sign from 1931 through 1936. These pages, from July 12, 1934 through July 15, 1934, feature signatures of Frederick Fursman, Fred Stearns, Isobel and Edgar Rupprecht, Thomas Eddy Tallmadge, Christiana Hoerman and Carl Hoerman.
The 1953 summer exhibit was called the Home Towns Art Exhibit, and there were over thirty artists who participated during its two week run, including Nat Steinberg. Mr. Steinberg, who was born in 1893 and who later died in 1976, was an artist at the Chicago’s American newspaper and a summertime resident of Douglas. He wanted the fellowship that had developed at the Home Towns Art Exhibit to continue, and wrote a letter to the Commercial Record, published on September 4, 1953, proposing just that.
He wrote “The first Saugatuck-Douglas Home Town Arts Exhibit can boast a good representative show. The surprising factor is that many residents of this area are active art-loving people. It is also a good feeling to see many visitors from all parts of the country and Alaska registered at the exhibit.
“The type of pictures shown are of the interpretative, more of the world of fact—sometimes they call it conservative. The exhibit is hardly of the “inner world” of thought or imagination variously expressed in terms of the non-objective or purely intellectual approach.
“There are paintings in the show that are classified as primitive or naïve; that is, they have had no extended art training or are self-taught. Some of the things at the exhibit belong in the category of a hobby show, but it is neighborly fun to have them included.
“It is a thrilling experience to see that many in Saugatuck and Douglas are thirsty for culture and I am in sympathy with those who have in their personalities that quality which enables them to appreciate the arts.
“It is heartening to see an individual like Mrs. May Heath, 80 years young, display such boundless enthusiasm to make this exhibit a real success. I am sure the 30 exhibitors join me in thanking Mrs. Heath for making it possible to participate in this first show.
“May I suggest that the exhibitors convert their desire to form a Saugatuck-Douglas art group by calling a meeting before the closing of the exhibit to discuss future plans? Note: Mr. Steinberg of Douglas and Saugatuck is nationally noted as an outstanding etcher, recipient of many awards, and for his oils and watercolors.”
Steinberg had felt before that that Saugatuck-Douglas’s potential as an art resort community was as yet not fully realized. We have a draft of a letter to the editor from Mr. Steinberg to the Commercial Record from July 11, 1950. In this letter he draws a contrast between the arts in the community in the 1930s and at that time, 1950, and proposes that the visual arts be presented to the crowds of young people visiting Saugatuck, and its well-known Pavilion, a dance hall and social hub on the Kalamazoo Lake shoreline in downtown Saugatuck.
He wrote, “When I first came in 1920 to study under Frederick Fursman there were many good painters of impressionistic and conservative tendencies with solid backgrounds of European and American schools. Many were regular exhibitors to the various art museums of the country. The artists during the 20’s and 30’s did everything possible to bring about a closer bond between themselves and laymen.
“The laymen enjoyed the original works of art displayed from time to time in the windows of the shops of Saugatuck. At Ox Bow the laymen came and asked questions, which (in answering) the artists revealed a great deal about the objectives of various approaches to painting, qualities of color, and color pattern, composition, motives, moods, etc.
“They even explained the modern approach to abstractions to those with open minds.
“Believe me, the laymen and students alike got a great deal of the painter’s message that was enjoyed both culturally and educationally.
“I remember even at the Pavilion they came in formal clothes and it was a social event. Yes, it was ‘atmosphere’ and everybody thought it was ‘swell’ and all had a good time and enjoyed a ‘wonderful’ vacation at the Art Center of the Midwest, namely Saugatuck and Douglas. And so these people spread the world around, and mouth to ear publicity developed and Saugatuck became famous.
“In the 40’s and the year of 1950 an entirely different generation and surely different elements came to Saugatuck to play, to meet and cultivate new friends and to enjoy a good vacation. Most of them are youngsters working in offices, factories and stores from villages, towns and cities from near and far. Their limited incomes prevent them from having long vacations so many of them come weekends.
“I have spoken to some of these young folks and I was amazed to learn that a large proportion of them have never been in an art museum. Art means practically nothing to them. Calendars are the nearest thing to art they are acquainted with. The reproductions they have observed in magazines and newspapers about contemporary art are practically worthless because of the handicap of lack of color and so it leaves them bewildered and surely cold to art in general.
“It points up dramatically the abandonment of one kind of esthetic ideals of a generation ago for another of our present day.
“What is the answer to all this?
“It strikes me as a good thought to turn the spotlight on the Pavilion as a common ground to bring about the mutual acquaintance between the artist and layman.
“Use the stage with the loud speaker system and have the distinguished teachers and painters of Ox Bow give the Saturday morning concourse two or three times a season.
“Have the faculty select the best examples of the works in the various media and present to the laymen and student alike, as impartially as is consistent with the established standards of quality. Allow time for question and answer period.
“To attract the laymen, whoever, they are, have the students use their ingenuity in making colorful posters, announcing the dates and display them in the stores of Saugatuck and Douglas. Also announcements can be made on the loud speakers at the Barn Dance and between dances at the Pavilion.
“That will create good ballyhoo and a lot of attention value created to the eye and ear.
“Make it a vigorous campaign and everybody will catch on.
“It can be profitable to the artists and Saugatuck and Douglas can really flourish as an art center of the Middle West.
“It will attract all kinds of people, young and old, and desirable elements will take notice in this development of ‘atmosphere’.
“There are many newcomers who have built homes in this district and they welcome such cultural activities. I believe they too will induce their friends to follow and enjoy the fraternal spirit of artist and laymen and welcome this mutuality.
“I hope you are in good shape, Bob, as I assault you with this epistle.
“Very best regards to your illustrious self. Signed N.P. Steinberg, Chicago and Douglas.
Back to September, 1953. The Home Towns Art Exhibit was coming to a close, and Steinberg had proposed a permanent organization to bring Saugatuck-Douglas artists together. The Commercial Record reported: “The organization of the Saugatuck Douglas Art League was informally effected last Friday evening (that would have been Friday, September 4, 1953) by a group of artists from the two villages who have been exhibiting their work in the Home Towns Art Exhibit in the Saugatuck Village Hall.
“The meeting was interrupted when a strange animal peering over the top step of the stairs threw the women into a dither.
“It was a young, ‘art-minded’ possum, who turned out to be an unwelcome visitor. After it was rolled down the stairs the meeting continued.
“Named as directors of the league were Miss Jean Goldsmith, Joseph Unwin, and Mrs. A.O. Bainbridge, of Saugatuck; N.P. Steinberg, of Chicago and Douglas; and Mrs. Anna Taft, of Holland. Miss Goldsmith was elected chairman, Mrs. D.A. Heath secretary and Mrs. Bainbridge treasurer.
“The success of the exhibit encouraged the artists to form a permanent organization with the intention of continuing the shows as annual events.
“In discussing the activities and objectives of the league, the group decided that membership would be open to any artist in the area, that there would be occasional meetings, and that no work displayed this year could be shown at other exhibits of the League.”
As Jean Goldsmith said in 1967, “Saugatuck is an art town. We thought it should have an art club. There were already a number of artists here.” We’ve seen that the group that came together to form the Art Club were professionals and amateurs, locals and summer people. Jean Delo Goldsmith, the first president, had been a Detroit public school art teacher. She was a potter and a painter. After her twenty seven year career in teaching she retired to Saugatuck in 1952, just a year before the founding of the Art Club. She was a summer person turned local. She’d spent summers here, building her concrete Art Deco Moderne house and studio at the corner of Butler and Francis in 1940, and had taken classes at Ox Bow with Frederick Fursman. She began a long tradition of art teachers who were involved in, and conducted events for the Art Club – Peggy Boyce, Cathie Moore, Doug Lowe and Christa Wise are all more recent examples of the same involvement.
Mrs. D.A. Heath was May Francis Heath. Born in 1873 she was the granddaughter of Stephen Morrison, a significant figure in early Saugatuck history and an Allegan County judge. In 1930 she had written and published Early Memories of Saugatuck 1830-1930, probably the most important history ever written about the little town. As we’ve already heard, she was eighty years old at the time of the founding of the Art Club, and she had found a late-life activity that gave her pleasure-- her interest in art. She took up painting when she was seventy-eight years old, which shows that it is never too late. The Singapore state historical marker in front of the Saugatuck Village Hall is another of her late life projects. When she died in 1961 her granddaughter wrote, “She was a fair-complexioned, blue-eyed sparkling lady with a soft firm voice, a laugh as contagious as measles, a charming smile and a chin that quivered when she made up her mind to do something. She never talked about things…she did things. Up to that very last hour, when she was dressing for church on Sunday morning and kept another appointment instead.” Mrs. Heath wrote in her diary on August 27, 1961, two weeks before her death: “Today I was hostess at the Art Exhibit at Village Hall and I climbed the stairs a step at a time counting ten. I had the nicest afternoon, if I never live another day I shall never forget this perfect of them all visiting with precious friends.”
So here we have this brand-new arts organization, hardly more than an idea, really, launched in September, 1953, at the end of the summer season, and of course, all the summer people left town, and the community settled into its sometimes quite sleepy off-season. Summer exhibits, of course, would follow, year after year, starting with the indoor exhibits in the upper room of the Village Hall as the Home Town Art Exhibit had been. Soon the exhibits became outdoor ones. Here are Jean Goldsmith and May Heath (with Marguerite Bainbridge walking by) at an early one outside the Village Hall.
On July 24 and 25, 1954, the Art Club staged an art festival, engagingly named the “Sidewalks of Paree”. It netted the Art Club $64.82. But what of the local people, year-round residents, who were expected to enjoy at least some of the benefits of a new organization? Their “thirst for culture”, in Nat Steinberg’s words, was far greater than that of the summer people who returned home to the city. They wanted to learn how to paint and to do work in other crafts. They wanted to learn what good painting was – so often the early minutes talk about asking someone to come in and critique the works they were producing.
Jane Van Dis remembers in her History, “In 1953 Jean Goldsmith stayed home from Mexico and several of us, Genie Parent, Marguerite Bainbridge, Ruth Turner, Winnie Brady and I, Jane Van Dis, urged her to hold painting classes. She preferred ceramics so we tried that with little success. Gary was born January 16, 1953 and I took him with me to class. We did convince Jean to help us paint and decided that we really should form a club as we enjoyed each other so much. She told us that she, May Heath, Nat Steinberg and perhaps others had already started one but she couldn’t find the bylaws so we drew up our own and elected our own officers.. .They were President, Miss Jean Goldsmith; Treasurer, Mrs. Marguerite Bainbridge; Secretary, Ruth Turner (taking May Heath’s place). The first regular business meeting of the Saugatuck Douglas Art Club was held December 16, 1954. A Christmas decoration contest was discussed, criteria for judging them were established, and awards, ranging from $10 for first prize to $4 for third prize, were established. 1955 was the 125th anniversary of the first settlement of Saugatuck in 1830, and the new art club was asked to provide a member for a anniversary celebration committee. The Art Club jumped into this effort with great style, painting a 10 x 40 panorama of the Saugatuck area in the 1830s on a recycled awning from the Maplewood Hotel for the celebration, thus utilizing not only their combined artistic talents but also May Heath’s interest in local history. Intended as a permanent display for the Saugatuck Village Hall, the panorama has apparently not survived, but Jean Goldsmith’s sketches for it have been preserved.
I’ll bring this review of the early history of the Art Club to a close on October 11, 1955, and I’ll let Mrs. Heath have the last word. The regular meeting of the Art Club was held at Kenneth and Genie Parent’s house on the lakeshore in Ganges Township. Twenty two members attended. The purpose was to hear from Helen Corlett. Helen Ehrmann Corlett, who was born in 1893, and who died in 1978, was an Oak Park, Illinois based watercolorist who summered in the Saugatuck area. She had been a student of Albert Krehbiel. One of her paintings was shown at last year’s SCA exhibit.
Mrs. Heath wrote the minutes for the meeting, ” Then Miss Goldsmith presented Mrs. Helen Corlett, who always spends several days with a large group of her Oak Park friends on a lakeshore area autumn sketching tour. Mrs. Corlett has spent many seasons at her delightful Lakeshore home – her city home being Oak Park, Illinois.
“Mrs. Corlett gave a most comprehensive talk with many helpful suggestions, regarding composition, backgrounds. She said, ‘Take plenty of time and get the concept of what your picture means to you – paint what you see but do express yourself in it, make it creative, have a mood and spirit in your work and work out carefully design of line, color, shape, distance’ – etc. She showed many sketches and told of their meaning – altogether a delightful instructive talk, from which we will benefit.
“A rising vote of thanks was given Mrs. Corlett.
“After a short conversation period Mrs. Parent served outstanding and most attractive refreshments.
“Surely our Art Club is something to enjoy – and of which to be proud, and we see for it a future growth-
“Respectfully submitted, May Francis Heath, Assistant Secretary.”