Champions of their Own Cause: Cleveland Public Library and ARTneo present sister exhibitions and a new book

Relief print by Clara Deike

Relief print by Clara Deike

The Women’s Art Club of Cleveland, with its run of nearly 94 years, lasted longer than any of the similar clubs founded at about the same time for men. Curiously, despite outlasting the likes of the Kokoon Arts Club and the Cleveland Society of Artists, WACC is the least known of these twentieth century artist clubs today. From 1912 to 2006, the organization provided an important forum for many of the city’s most vibrant and productive women artists. They worked in a range of media, including oil and watercolor, sculpture, illustration and design, silversmithing and jewelry-making, enameling, ceramics and textiles.  

Over the course of the next three months, The Cleveland Public Library’s Main Branch and ARTneo in the West 78th Street Studios host A Great Joy: The Women’s Art Club of Cleveland (1912-2006),companion exhibitions dedicated to the work of these artists. The exhibitions seek to illuminate the achievements of the WACC by displaying work of gifted and under-celebrated artists alongside the club’s best known members—including figures such as Clara Deike and Edris Eckhardt. A new publication chronicling the history of the club, and the art of many of its most colorful members, will be available in December. The book is authored by the exhibit’s curators, Dr. Marianne Berardi (yours truly) and Dr. Lawrence Waldman,

 

The organization was born in September 1912, when a group of talented Cleveland women artists met to discuss an issue that was weighing heavily on their minds: why was it that America’s “Sixth City,” which was so rich in artistic aptitude, so short on opportunities for members of their sex?

 

During the course of their discussion in the Gage Gallery studio of Belle Hoffman–a highly articulate and outspoken painter / fashion illustrator–the artists determined that they had no choice but to serve as champions of their own cause. They hatched the idea of an art club comprised solely of women. Within just a few months, the Women’s Art Club of Cleveland roared into existence with fervor and a litany of activities that signaled its seriousness of purpose.

 

Three Men in a Tub, ceramic, by Edris Eckhardt

Three Men in a Tub, ceramic, by Edris Eckhardt

Most of the founding and early members were already professional artists with established reputations (Clara Deike, Belle Hoffman, Grace Kelly, and Mildred Watkins), who interestingly worked in a much wider variety of media than their male counterparts. Clara Deike, for example, –best-known for her Cubist-style, still-life paintings–is represented in the exhibitions as a printmaker as well. During her training in Munich and Capri during the mid-1920s under Hans Hofmann (later of Abstract Expressionist fame), Deike produced a series of figurative woodcuts which show her early experiments with shifting planes and buckling space that became the hallmark of her familiar bouquets.

 

The professionalism of the club’s founding members made a powerful mark on the way the club was designed and managed. The founders quickly drafted a constitution announcing their purpose: to unify and elevate the aims and interests of the women artists of Cleveland, and to be of service to each other by encouragement and helpfulness in all their endeavors. They took pains to draft and apply for formal articles of incorporation from the State of Ohio. Solid record-keeping of every kind manifested itself from day one: careful bookkeeping, recording of minutes, scrapbook-keeping, establishment of officers and committees, scheduling regular fundraisers to keep the money coming in, periodic exhibitions, lecture series, and social events. At a glance one could see that these professional artists were good businesswomen. Little wonder their club endured.

 

The early Club was fortunate in having Belle Hoffman as its spokeswoman. No shrinking violet, and a veteran of the New York commercial art world, Hoffman relished chatting with the press. The group of 25 charter members swelled by the early 1930s to an active roster of over 150. In 1918, the organization moved into Robinwood, a permanent clubhouse and studio built on land in Gates Mills donated by club member Carrie Robinson. The group also met in town in a succession of locations—first at the Gage Gallery, then at the studio of metalworker and enamellist, Mildred Watkins, then at Jeptha Wade’s Lodge, and in most recent times the Orange Community Library.

 

Over the course of the century, the club played an instrumental role in supporting women who pursued careers in the commercial and fine arts. Many of them, such as Belle Hoffman, had successful careers as designers and illustrators. A majority of members–including Clara Deike, Elsa Vick Shaw, Kae Dorn Cass and Mildred Watkins–supported themselves as school teachers. Others, such as Louise Morris, managed their own galleries and studios. A painter, designer and muralist in her own right, Morris was one of the significant rediscoveries of the study leading to these exhibitions and the related catalogue. Morris is represented in the Cleveland Public Library show by a magnificent Art Deco watercolor, “Black Mesa near San Ildefonso” (1923). The painting’s iconic monumentality, simplification of form, and dazzling surface pattern are a testament to the intensity of Morris’ inspiration from the American Southwest, where she spent several months each year.

 

Edris Eckhardt is represented in the exhibitions both by her Modernist sculptures (influenced by Russian Constructivist Alexander Archipenko), and by a series of small, glazed ceramic figurines illustrating the Mother Goose nursery rhymes and Alice in Wonderland stories (Collection Cleveland Public Library). Recruited by the Public Works Art Project (PWAP) in 1936, Eckhardt created the figurines as story-telling aids for use at the branches of the Cleveland Public Library. Eckhardt’s “Alice” series captured the sense of mad fantasy that made Lewis Carroll’s books such a masterpiece. After the figurines were sculpted and molded by Eckhardt, they were assigned for glazing to a large group of women, also working for the PWAP, who had been painters and illustrators. The women seem to have used their own creativity in applying the glazes because the pieces vary greatly in coloration. Over 6,000 seem to have been produced and distributed for libraries as far away as New York and San Francisco. Today they are very hard to locate.

 berardi-womens-art-association-Morris

In July of 2006, after nearly a century, the Club formally disbanded because of dwindling membership. However, the legacy of the Women’s Art Club did not end with the group’s formal dissolution. Since the majority of its members had either been instructors or students at the Cleveland Institute of Art, the Club decided to use the treasury’s remaining funds to create an Endowed Scholarship at the Institute for the benefit of young women artists. To date, five aspiring talents have been the beneficiaries of the WACC scholarship and its inspiring history.

A Great Joy: The Women’s Art Club of Cleveland (1912-2006) Through January 11, 2015 

Co-curated by Drs. Lawrence Waldman and Marianne Berardi, and Pamela J. Eyerdam

Cleveland Public Library, Special Collections

325 Superior Ave.

Cleveland, Ohio 44114

216.623.2818

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The Women’s Art Club of Cleveland: November 21, 2014 – January 17, 2015

Curated by Christopher L. Richards

ARTneo (Open Third Fridays, or by appointment)

West 78th Street Studios

Cleveland, Ohio 44102

216.227.9507