Better with Age: The Late-Blooming of Artist Will Vawter

Will Vawter, Autumn in Brown County, n.d., Flanner Buchanan Indiana the Beautiful Art Collection, https://flannerbuchanan.com/our-art-collection/.

Since at least the late-19th century, art galleries and critics have focused most of their attention on young, emerging artists. This strategy has paid off for savvy dealers and galleries, as these rising stars of the art world have brought in large amounts of money and produced blockbuster shows. The downside of this trend for the artists themselves, is that it can be difficult to find places to exhibit and sell their work as they get older. This is especially disappointing, as many artists peak later in life and produce their best work in their golden years. In this way, an artist’s best work might go largely unappreciated. [1]

Georgia O’Keeffe, From a Day with Juan II, 1977, Museum of Modern Art, www.moma.org.

There are signs that this reign of young artists may be coming to an end. For example, the Tate announced that artists over the age of 50 would now be eligible for the coveted Turner Prize, awarded to a British artist each year for innovation in the arts. This shift recognizes that older artists can also be innovators. [2]

Meanwhile, the Museum of Modern Art [MoMA] recently featured an exhibition titled The Long Run, which featured artists who were at least 45 years old when they made the exhibited piece of artwork. Most were much older, like Georgia O’Keeffe, who painted From a Day with Juan II at 90. The MOMA explained:

Innovation in art is often characterized as a singular event—a bolt of lightning that strikes once and forever changes what follows. The Long Run provides another view: by chronicling the continued experimentation of artists long after their breakthrough moments, it suggests that invention results from sustained critical thinking, persistent observation, and countless hours in the studio. [3]

The Carter Burden Gallery, accessed NPR.

The Carter Burden Gallery, which like other New York City spaces sells its artists’ works for thousands of dollars, is different in one significant way. All of its exhibited artists are 60 or older. The gallery’s director Marlena Vaccaro told NPR:

Older adults do not stop being who they are because they hit a particular age. Professional artists never stop doing what we do, and in many cases we get better at it as we go along. [4]

Frank M. Hohenberger, “Will Vawter at Work in His Studio,” photograph, n.d., Frank M. Hohenberger Photograph Collection, Lilly Library, Indiana University.

Simply put, some artists get better with age. This was true for Indiana artist Will Vawter. He began his artistic career in the 1890s as a talented but unremarkable illustrator for his local newspaper. He gained popularity mid-career for his drawings that brought the children’s books of James Whitcomb Riley to life. Vawter peaked, later in his life, as one of the finest landscape artists ever to work in Indiana. As the current art world shifts to include older artists, it’s worth examining one Hoosier painter who produced his best work in his late 60s. Will Vawter’s late-blooming reminds us to give exhibit space to older artists, not for the sake of inclusion only, but because we don’t want to miss out on the best work of their careers.

The Early Years of Will Vawter

John William “Will” Vawter was born in West Virginia in 1871 and moved with his family to Greenfield, Hancock County, Indiana, by 1880. [5] He worked as an illustrator for the (Greenfield) Hancock Democrat before becoming an illustrator at the Indianapolis Sentinel and the Indianapolis News in 1891. [6] In 1893, Vawter got his big break. The Indianapolis Journal dedicated a full page to an exclusive new poem by James Whitcomb Riley. [7] The Journal described the special edition, produced to coincide with a large national Grand Army of the Republic meeting, as “by far the most expensive and delightful feature ever offered its readers by an Indianapolis newspaper.”[8] The newspaper prominently featured Vawter’s illustrations of the poem.

James Whitcomb Riley, “Armazindy: A Borned Soldier and Hero,” Indianapolis Journal, September 5, 1893, 13, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

By the time Vawter started his illustrations for Riley, the “Hoosier Poet” had achieved national renown, and several of his volumes of poetry were best-sellers. [9] Riley was known for using “Hoosier dialect” to create poems “infused with the very spirit of the Hoosier soil from which they sprung.” [10] Likewise, Vawter honed his artistic skills observing life around him for local newspapers. Both men were Greenfield natives and keen observers of the local culture that colored Hoosier life. In this way, Vawter was uniquely positioned to interpret Riley’s work. Thus, the Riley-Vawter pairing, initiated by the Indianapolis Journal, was the beginning of a long creative partnership.

James Whitcomb Riley, Child-Rhymes, Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1898 edition accessed Indiana State Library, 1908 edition accessed Hathi Trust.

The Riley Years

In 1898, Indianapolis publisher Bowen-Merrill Company reissued a collection of Riley poems as Riley Child-RhymesVawter’s illustrations were heavily featured in the book. In an extensive interview with the Indianapolis News, Riley  described Vawter’s innate ability to capture the spirit of the folks depicted in the poems. Riley stated:

It is a very gratifying thing to find an artist who is unconsciously aware of the exact situation and who understands his own intimate surroundings. Will Vawter is such an artist. There is no vagueness in his interpretation of the poems of this book. He is a Greenfield boy, and natively an artist . . . He depicted people and things in no patronizing way. They are taken in a realistic spirit; he is of them. [11]

Riley went on to describe the importance of understanding the subtlety of local dialect when dealing with characters like the “town gossip,” for instance. He continued on Vawter’s ability to capture these individuals:

All these characteristics have been unconsciously observed by young Vawter. Now that he comes to sit down and illustrate these scenes and people, he knows his material and surroundings perfectly . . . While he may be criticized for lack of technical finish, it would be dangerous to equip him with an exacting technical art knowledge . . . This would be to the absolute loss of native feeling, of the tone and direct blood relationship that is needed in his work. [12]

Riley’s comments are a mixed bag. He praised Vawter for his talent, but noted his unpolished rendering skills. He admired the way Vawter captured in ink the very people Riley depicted in words, but implied that the artist did so out of naiveté. Vawter captured their essence only because they were just the kind of folks that the simple young man knew and understood. At this early point in his career, Riley did not see Vawter as an artist with a vision of his own. Vawter would prove this assumption wrong much later in his career.

The fact that Riley’s appreciation for Vawter grew over the following years is evidenced by the sheer number of times the author paired with the artist on lushly-illustrated volumes of poetry. Vawter illustrated:

James Whitcomb Riley, Book of Joyous Children (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1902, accessed IUPUI Digital Collections.

Riley Farm-Rhymes (1901, 1905 editions),
The Book of Joyous Children (1902),
His Pa’s Romance (1903),
A Defective Santa Claus (1904),
Riley Songs O’ Cheer (1905 edition),
The Boys of the Old Glee Club (1907),
Riley Songs of Summer (1908),
Riley Songs of Home (1910),
Riley Songs of Friendship (1921 edition).

Vawter also created front pieces for Riley’s A Child-World (1897) and Home Folks (1900), and illustrations for short Riley volumes Down Around the River and Other Poems (1911) and Knee Deep in June and Other Poems (1912). [13]

A Golden Age for Greenfield

Vawter illustrated a children’s book for another Greenfield author: his sister, Clara Vawter. “Miss Clara” as the local newspapers called her, was a rising star of the Indiana literary scene. She was writing for “several publications of prominence,” her work was read aloud and praised by the Western Writers’ Association, and publishers had written her “offering to pay her handsomely for her literary work.” The illustrated book by the Vawter siblings, Of Such Is the Kingdom of Heaven (1899, later published as The Rabbit’s Ransom) was widely praised not only for stimulating the imaginations of children, but also for appealing to the nostalgia of older people. Unfortunately, every article that mentioned Miss Clara’s promise as a writer, also noted her “delicate health” and she died in 1900. Of Such Is the Kingdom was her only published work. [14]

Will Vawter, illustration from The Rabbit’s Ransom by Clara Vawter (Brooklyn: Braunworth, Munn & Barber, 1899), accessed GoogleBooks.

Vawter contributed art to other Greenfield authors. He illustrated historian and poet John Clark Ridpath’s Epic of Life (1893) and contributed engravings to William H. English’s two-volume history Conquest of the Country Northwest of the River Ohio, 1778-1783 (1897). And he illustrated a children’s book by Greenfield author Adelia Pope Branham called Grandma Tales and Others (1899) and poet Barton Rees Pogue’s work Fortunes in Friendship (1926). [15] He made art for numerous other Indiana authors outside of Hancock County. [16] And by the turn of the twentieth century, his original book illustrations were exhibited around the country. [17]

The Rise of American Impressionism

By this time, Vawter was an accomplished illustrator, working in a popular style, and highly demanded by publishers. With the drastic increase in number and circulation of illustrated journals across the country, an illustrator like Vawter could stay gainfully employed in that medium. At the same time, American artists were hungry for an artistic style they could call their own. American painters educated in Europe were returning with the influence of French impressionism – broad, quick strokes, a bright palette, an eye for capturing the effects of light, and a desire to paint en plein air, or outside the walls of the studio. For example, Indiana-born painter William Merritt Chase shifted from the darker tones of the Munich school where he was trained as a young man, to the bright, impressionist style of the era’s avante garde painters during his mid and late career. Working out of his studio in New York, Chase and his colleagues helped to define this style of American Impressionism. These artists remained at home, painting scenes of life and landscape in the United States, as opposed to expatriating to European art capitals like their predecessors. While they drew on artistic elements from European styles as they saw fit, their goal was to create a uniquely American style of art. [18]

William Merritt Chase, Ready for the Ride, oil on canvas, 1877, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, accessed collections.mfa.org.
William Merritt Chase, At the Seaside, oil on canvas, ca. 1892, Metropolitan Museum of Art, www.metmuseum.org.

The Aesthetic Pull of Brown County

Another Hoosier painter took this localism further, pushing his cohorts to not just remain in the U.S., but to paint the beauty of their home state. T. C. Steele followed in Chase’s footsteps, studying in Munich before returning to live and work in Indianapolis. Steele found his calling in the Indiana landscape and his muse in the hills of Brown County. Steele’s plein air paintings captured the light and natural beauty of the region and helped establish the reputation of the Hoosier Group, painters of the Indiana landscape that achieved international recognition by 1900. [19]

Indianapolis News, May 4, 1918, 32, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Someone of Vawter’s artistic sensibilities could not help but be influenced by this aesthetic shift, as well as the renown of the Hoosier Group. By 1909, Will and his wife Mary moved to Brown County, Indiana, just south of Nashville on a scenic farm they jokingly called “Rattlesnake Terrace” after some of the local fauna. Vawter set up a studio in an “old clapboard-roofed log cabin” with an expansive view of the property. Reportedly he kept a cow grazing on the property, despite the fact that it gave very little milk, because it added “picturesque interest to the landscape.” [20] While Vawter continued to derive his income from newspaper and magazine illustration, he too was enraptured by the Brown County landscape and began to work in an impressionist style influenced by the Hoosier Group. [21]

Will Vawter, Sunshine and Hollyhocks, 1925, n.d., accessed Fine Art America.
Frank M. Hohenberger, “Willa Vawter Painting in Studio,” photograph, n.d., Frank Hohenberger Collection, Lilly Library, Indiana University Image Collections Online.

Vawter was known to be kind and became popular with the locals. A 1917 Indianapolis News article reported on a little girl who came to visit him in his studio, carrying a well-loved doll. Noticing that the doll’s painted face had faded, Vawter “painted a new face with the rosiest cheeks and a beautiful pair of unwinking blue eyes.” The little girl left “bubbling over with gratitude.” Vawter went back to his work, but only for a few minutes. He was interrupted by another little girl holding her doll, and a half hour later, he had a dozen little fans gathered outside the studio. He quit trying to work and “gave up the day to making faces for all kids of dolls, from the old-fashioned rag baby to the most pretentious efforts in wax.” After fixing everyone’s toy over the course of a day, he joked that “this beauty parlor has closed.” [22]

Frank M. Hohenberger, “Vawter in Potato Patch,” photograph, n.d., Frank Hohenberger Collection, Lilly Library, Indiana University Image Collections Online.

Vawter was just as generous with his fellow artists. After becoming interested in etching in 1919, he opened up the small studio he had moved to in downtown Nashville, Indiana, to his peers. The modest room stood over a grocery store and still displayed the sign of the previous occupant, a realtor. It housed a copper plate printing press, cans of ink, cheesecloth for wiping the plates, a table, and a stove.

The Brown County Democrat reported:

Indianapolis News, June 7, 1919, 18, Hoosier State Chronicles.

It is understood between the few members of a little community etching and printing club that any member is free to use the press, stove, table, etc, but no member must be guilty of using any other member’s printing rags. [23]

In September 1919, Vawter exhibited some of these etchings at the H. Lieber Company art store in downtown Indianapolis, along with oil paintings by Steele and others. [24] While his work gained popularity across the state, Vawter worked to enhance the art scene in Brown County.

Will Vawter, Brown County Landscape, 1920, accessed MutualArt.

By August of 1920, Vawter and fellow artist Adolph R. Shulz, were working to establish an art museum. They found support in unlikely places, both with artists and locals hoping that such an art center would preserve the “nature wonders of a country that is fast losing its old-fashioned atmosphere,” and local businessmen who saw it as a means to increase tourism. [25] Their dream became a reality in 1926 with the opening of a gallery on the public square.  The artists and locals supporting the gallery formed the Brown County Art Gallery Association in order to open quality exhibitions to the public. [26]

In 1925, the work of Vawter and his fellow Brown County artists was exhibited at the art galleries of Marshall Field & Co. in Chicago. This exhibit, known as the “Hoosier Salon,” was popular and well-covered by the press, thus establishing Vawter permanently in the canon of great Indiana artists. For his oil painting Our Alley, which depicted a winter scene in Brown County, he won the Frank Cunningham prize and one hundred dollars. He continued to exhibit regularly at the H. Lieber gallery in Indianapolis and the Hoosier Salon in Chicago into the 1930s. [27]

The Late-Blooming of Vawter

Indianapolis Star, February 19, 1961, 27, accessed Newspapers.com.

But it was in the last years of his life that Vawter created his finest work. No one was better poised to observe this development than Lucille E. Morehouse, an insightful art critic whose popular column “In The World of Art” ran for decades in the Indianapolis Star. [28] In 1936, she covered the Annual Brown County Exhibit at the H. Lieber Company galleries, as she did every year. Morehouse clearly had a fondness for the Brown County artists but also a certain weariness of their subject matter, the landscapes of the county in various seasons, which had become standard fare by the 1930s. Nonetheless, she covered the show in her usual energetic and descriptive manner, because it was still in demand by the public. She explained that the show’s popularity was owed to Indianapolis residents, who vacationed in Brown County and looked to the paintings as reminders of their scenic vacations.

She explained that the public appreciated that Brown County Artists hadn’t changed their style, that they resisted modernism, and made pictures that could “smooth away the cares of the day.” [29] On the other hand, Morehouse wrote: “Sometimes we wish they would paint new subjects or would interpret the old ones in a different angle.”[30] Vawter did just that. Unlike his colleagues, Vawter began to travel in his later years and it refreshed his work. Morehouse especially praised Vawter’s recent painting Blue Pool, which was “one of the fine things from the group of New England coast scenes and Marines.” [31]

Will Vawter, Along the Coast, n.d., accessed Fine Art Dealers Association.

 

Besides exhibiting his reinvigorated work alongside the Brown County artists, Vawter showed his marine paintings in a one-man show at the H. Lieber Company gallery. Morehouse praised his bold paintings in a lengthy article. [32] Comparing his marinescapes with an earlier, popular Brown County fall landscape, she wrote:

When a Hoosier from the Brown county woods goes East to paint New England coast scener[y], one might expect him to go about it timidly. Not so Will Vawter. He makes his brush slash into the ocean just as if it were putting “the glory of autumn” on canvas. [33]

For Morehouse, who had long been familiar with Vawter’s work, these paintings of coastal scenes were like seeing his work fresh for the first time. She wrote:

But I never have been able to throw off my early feeling of wonder when I back away from a broadly-painted canvas and see form emerging from massively-painted surfaces over which the brush had evidently moved with more or less of inspiration. [34]

Detail of Vawter’s Along the Coast showing the abstraction of the work up close as opposed to the impressionist style of the larger work as noted by Morehouse.

She continued to praise the spontaneity of the work and the “striking evidence of genius” in his mastery of form and “expression of light and atmosphere.” [35] The works were vigorous, alive, and fresh, proving the innovative spirit of the older artist.

In 1938, Vawter again held a solo show. This time he combined his seascapes with other scenes from his travels, including hilly landscapes painted on the East Coast. In a show of maturity as an artist, he also included new, but traditional views of Brown County. He could both try new things and showcase his mastery of the light and scenery of his home county. Morehouse took note:

Indianapolis Star, December 26, 1939, 10, accessed Newspapers.com.

What a heritage Will Vawter will leave to Hoosierdom! The longer he paints, the more beauty he captures from nature and transfers to canvas. Because the present exhibit is so all-inclusive, representing every phase of his work. [36]

Morehouse described his Brown County landscapes as “lusciously painted,” his flower still lifes as “vigorously alive,” and again praised his adventuring beyond his home state for new subject matter. [37] She concluded that Vawter’s 1938 exhibit “surpasses all previous showings by this gifted Hoosier painter of landscape.” [38] At 67 years old, Vawter was reaching his artistic peak.

Indianapolis Star, December 8, 1940, 76, Newspapers.com.

In 1940, just two months before his death, Vawter held what would be his last one-man exhibition. It surpassed all previous exhibitions, even the acclaimed 1938 show. Vawter showed nineteen paintings, including tranquil seascapes, the Great Smoky Mountains in early fall, the New England coast in spring, and Brown County landscapes from all seasons. For Morehouse, even his paintings of traditional flower still lifes felt fresh and vibrant. She explained that Vawter didn’t just reproduce the appearance of the plants, but that “he interprets the souls of flowers, makes us feel their personality.” In fact, Morehouse regretted that she couldn’t do Vawter justice by describing his paintings; you just had to see them. She wrote that he depicted something “spiritual that can be expressed only in terms of paint, and not in words.”

Vawter passed away in 1941 after a forty-eight year long art career. But before he died, he mastered not just the technical aspect of art, but found in the heart of his life’s work a spiritual connection to nature so powerful it could be sensed secondhand by the viewer. Will Vawter remains an example to artists everywhere to keep working, despite obstacles the art world places before older artists. By considering the long career of a late-blooming artist, we see that artists can do their best work in their autumn years. Hopefully, art museums and galleries will continue to make more space for this mature, yet still innovative and evolving work.

Will Vawter, A Sunny Day in Springville, n.d., accessed Fine Art Dealers Association.

 

 

 

 

Notes:
All newspapers accessed Newspapers.com unless otherwise noted.

[1] Susan Stamberg, “This New York Gallery Has an Unusual Age Limit: No Artists Younger Than 60,” Morning Edition, January 11, 2018, NPR.

[2] Thomas Marks, “Is This A Golden Age for Older Artists?” Apollo: The International Art Magazine, May 29, 2017.

[3] The Long Run, MoMA, November 11, 2017-May 5, 2019.

[4] Stamberg, “This New York Gallery . . .,” NPR.

[5]“The Eclectics,” Indianapolis News, May 14, 1879, 4, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “Seriously Hurt,” (Greenfield) Hancock Democrat, July 24, 1879, 3; 1880 United States Census (Schedule 1), Enumeration District 194, Greenfield, Hancock County, Indiana, Page 15, Line 27, June 5, 1880, accessed AncestryLibrary.com; “Eclectic Physicians in Council,” Indianapolis News, November 17, 1880, 3. Newspapers and the 1880 census show Will Vawter’s father Lewis working as a physician in Greenfield by 1879. The 1880 census confirms the family’s move.

[6] (Greenfield) Hancock Democrat, March 5, 1891, 1; (Greenfield) Hancock Democrat, April 9, 1891, 1; “Notes of Newspaper Men,” Indianapolis News, December 5, 1891, 7.

[7] James Whitcomb Riley,“Armazindy: A Borned Soldier and Hero,” Indianapolis Journal, September 5, 1893, 13, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[8] “That Girl Wuz, and Is, I know, A Borned Soldier and Hero,” Indianapolis Journal, August 30, 1893, 4, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[9] Advertisement, Indianapolis News, October 14, 1893, 9, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[10] “Riley’s New Book,” Indianapolis News, October 6, 1900, 16, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[11]“A Co-Worker with Riley,” Indianapolis News, reprinted (Greenfield) Hancock Democrat, December 8, 1898, 5.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Most of Riley’s books featuring Vawter’s illustrations are accessible via Livin’ the Life of Riley Digital Collection, IUPUI University Library. Most other Riley books are accessible via Hathi Trust. First editions are accessible through the Indiana State Library. Vawter’s illustrations for Riley Songs of Cheer are accessed through Newfields.

[14] “New Authoress Rapidly Coming to the Front,” Hancock Democrat, September 21, 1899, 5; “Of Such Is the Kingdom,” Indianapolis Journal, December 11, 1899, 4; Book Buyer 19: 2 (September 1899), 83, accessed HathiTrust; “Miss Clara Vawter Dead,” Indianapolis News, October 12, 1900, 14.

[15] John Clark Ridpath, Epic of Life (New York: Hunt & Eaton, 1893), accessed HathiTrust; “Mr. English’s New Book,” Indianapolis News, December 14, 1895, 5; William Hayden English, Conquest of the Country Northwest of the River Ohio, 1778-1783 and, Life of Gen. George Rogers Clark (Indianapolis: Bowen-Merrill Company, 1897), accessed Archive.org; Advertisement, (Greenfield) Hancock Democrat, June 1, 1899, 1; “Greenfield Genius,” Hancock Democrat, June 8, 1899, 8; Adelia Pope-Branham, Grandma Tales and Others, (Greenfield, Indiana: Harold Pub. Co. Press, 1899), accessed Archive.org; “Greenfield Now at the 5,000 Mark,” Indianapolis News, November 30, 1901, 3; Charles H. Bartlett, Tales of Kankakee Land (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1904), accessed HathiTrust; “C. H. Bartlett’s New Book,” South Bend Tribune, April 9, 1904, 6; John William Vawter, Sheet of 15 Illustrations to Barton Rees Pogue’s ‘Fortunes and Friendship,’ pen and ink over pencil on paper, n.d., Prints, Drawings, and Photographs Collection, Indianapolis Museum of Art.

[16] Robert J. Burdette, Smiles Yoked with Sighs (Indianapolis: Bowen-Merrill, 1900), accessed HathiTrust; “Recent Literature,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, June 30, 1900, 13; Advertisement, Indianapolis News, November 14, 1903, 6, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; Wallace Bruce Amsbary, The Ballad of Bourbonnais (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1904); “The Ballads of Bourbonnais,” Indianapolis News, May 7, 1904, 16; “Among the Books,” Topeka State Journal, June 4, 1904, 13.

[17] Advertisement, (Rochester, New York) Democrat and Chronicle, October 29, 1898, 8; “Exhibit of Paintings by Indiana Artists,” Indianapolis Journal, April 24, 1904, 16, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “Exhibit of Original Drawings for Novels,” Indianapolis News, March 20, 1905, 8. Vawter’s illustrations from Riley’s Child Rhymes were exhibited in Rochester, New York in 1898. In 1904, his original illustrations were exhibited at the H. Lieber Art Gallery in Indianapolis and the St. Louis Exposition; in 1905, at the Indianapolis “city library.”

[18] “William Merritt Chase,” accessed Indiana Historical Bureau.

[19] “T.C. Steele Home, Studio, Gardens,” accessed Indiana Historical Bureau.

[20] (Greenfield ) Daily Reporter, October 9, 1908, 2; (Greenfield) Daily Reporter, April 7, 1909, 2; (Greenfield) Daily Reporter, May 11, 1909, 1; (Greenfield) Hancock Democrat, May 13, 1909, 1; “Vawter’s Brown County Home,” (Greenfield) Daily Reporter, August 8, 1909, 1; “Rattlesnake Terrace, the Vawter Home,” (Greenfield) Hancock Democrat, August 12, 1909, 6, accessed Newspapers.com; N. L., “A Day in the Artists’ Arcadia in Brown County,” (Muncie) Star Press, September 5, 1909, 14; (Greenfield) Hancock Democrat, October 28, 1909, 8.

[21] William Forsyth, “Art in Indiana,” Indianapolis News, September 27, 1916, 12, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “Paintings of Local Artists Exhibited,” Indianapolis News reprinted (Greenfield) Hancock Democrat, December 27, 1917, 4; “Brown County Pictures,” Indianapolis News, September 17, 1919, 26, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; William Herschell, “Will Vawter’s Home in Brown County,” (Greenfield) Daily Reporter, August 5, 1920, 1; “Art Notes,” Indianapolis News, December 4, 1920, 5; John William Vawter, Barnes Cabin on Owl Creek, Brown County, circa 1920, Oil on Canvas, Indianapolis Museum of Art; Will Vawter, Sunshine and Hollyhocks, 1925, Oil on Canvas, Private Collection, published in Lyn Letsinger-Miller, Artists of Brown County (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994), 41.

[22] “Little Stories of Daily Life,” Indianapolis News, May 3, 1917, 24, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[23] “Produced in Brown County Etching Club Shop,” Indianapolis News, June 7, 1919, 18, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “Brown County Etchers’ Club,” Brown County Democrat, June 12, 1919, 5.

[24] Ibid.; “Brown County Pictures,” Indianapolis News, September 17, 1919, 26, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[25] “Will Vawter’s Home in Brown County,” (Greenfield) Daily Reporter, August 5, 1920, 1; “Urge a Museum to Keep Romance of Hoosier Art,” South Bend News-Times, August 12, 1920, 7, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[26] “Brown County Art Gallery at Nashville,” Brown County Democrat, September 2, 1926, 1; “Brown County Art Gallery Is Assured,” Brown County Democrat, September 9, 1926, 1; “New Art Gallery,” Huntington Herald, September 8, 1926, 8; “Artists in Brown County Organize,” Indianapolis Star, September 8, 1926, 1; “Art Gallery Association Grows Rapidly,” Brown County Democrat, September 16, 1926, 1; “Open Art Gallery in Brown County,” Indianapolis Star, October 9, 1926, 5; “Vawter Heads Local Artists’ Association,” October 23, 1930, 1.

[27] “Brown County Artists at Exhibit in Chicago,” Brown County Democrat, March 5, 1925, 1; “Winter Scene Wins Prize for Artist,” Indianapolis Star, March 14, 1925, 11; “Richmond Man Wins Art Prize,” Richmond Item, March 7, 1926, 1; “46 Paintings by Brown County Artists Put on Display at Lieber’s Galleries,” Indianapolis Star, November 16, 1927, 24; “Vawter’s Landscape Wins Prize in Exhibit at Hoosier Salon in Chicago Galleries,” Indianapolis News, January 31, 1928, 7; “Eighth Hoosier Salon Will Be Held in Field Galleries Jan. 23 to Feb. 6,” Indianapolis Star, December 20, 1931, 50. Other newspaper articles on Vawter’s exhibitions available in the IHB marker file.

[28] “Miss Morehouse Dies; Ex-Art Critic,” Indianapolis Star, February 19, 1961, 27.

[29] Lucille E. Morehouse, “In The World of Art: Local Art Exhibitions Scheduled for December Are Distinctly Inviting and of Unusual Character,” Indianapolis Star, December 6, 1936, 75.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Lucille E. Morehouse,”In The World of Art: Brown County Landscapist Turns Marine Painter; One-Man Show at Lieber Gallery for Another Week,” Indianapolis Star, November 22, 1936, 65.

[33 – 35] Ibid.

[36] Lucille E. Morehouse,”In The World of Art: Will Vawter’s Exhibition Tops Previous Shows,” Indianapolis Star, December 18, 1938, 69.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid.

Bill Monroe in Indiana: From Lake to Brown County, Oil to Bluegrass

Learn about the origins of the Brown County Jamboree in Bean Blossom, Indiana in Part I.

Hatch Show Print, circa 1940s, Country Music Hall of Fame, image accessed http://www.wideopencountry.com/15-countrys-coolest-concert-posters/
Hatch Show Print, circa 1940s, Country Music Hall of Fame, image accessed http://www.wideopencountry.com/15-countrys-coolest-concert-posters/

William “Bill” Monroe’s Hoosier roots run deep. While Bill was born and raised in Kentucky, he moved to northwest Indiana in 1929 when was he was just eighteen years old. His brother Charlie had gotten a job at the Sinclair Oil refinery in Whiting, Indiana, and sent for Bill and their other brother Birch. It was the start of the Great Depression and the crowds outside the refinery of men hoping for a job grew large enough that the police had to move them so the street cars could get through. Luckily for Bill, Charlie Monroe was well liked at Sinclair and was able to help his brother to secure employment there as well. Birch was not as lucky and remained unemployed for some time. Charlie was afraid that Bill wouldn’t be able to do the heavy labor as a result of an appendectomy. Bill soon proved that he was up to the job, unloading empty oil barrels from the freight trains and cleaning them. However, Bill also had to do janitorial work at the company, something of which he was embarrassed and wouldn’t speak of publicly.

Sign for Standard Oil which took over Sinclair in the late 1930s, photograph accessed http://www.pophistorydig.com/topics/tag/whiting-indiana-history/ "Inferno
Sign for Standard Oil which took over Sinclair in the late 1930s, photograph accessed http://www.pophistorydig.com/topics/tag/whiting-indiana-history/
“Inferno

Bill was also sensitive about the problems with his eyes. Bill’s vision was poor, but he was also “hug-eyed,” a term for one eye that faces inward. Around 1930, the brothers were still working at Sinclair and settled in East Chicago, just a short train ride away from the Windy City. Somehow Bill, likely with his brothers’ help, was able to afford an expensive and delicate eye surgery. Luckily a Chicago surgeon was able to align the eye, “a major turning point” for the shy teenager, according to Richard D. Smith’s Can’t You Hear Me Callin’: The Life of Bill Monroe, Father of Bluegrass.

Bill and Charlie Monroe, 1936, accessed https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_Monroe
Bill and Charlie Monroe, 1936, accessed https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_Monroe

A lot of southerners were displaced by the Depression, but were able to bring their culture with them to northern industrial cities. The Monroe brothers were no exception. They went to square dances in nearby Hammond, Indiana, sometimes held in an old storefront. “Hillbilly music” had become nationally popular and there was demand for mountain ballads and energetic string bands for both live performances and on the radio. As they had back in Kentucky, the Monroe boys began playing at dances and gatherings around northwest Indiana. Along with their friend Larry Moore, they formed The Monroe Brothers.

Square dance photograph accessed http://www.history.com/news/square-dancing-a-swinging-history
Square dance photograph accessed http://www.history.com/news/square-dancing-a-swinging-history

Despite the death of their beloved Uncle Pen, who raised Bill and influenced his music greatly, 1931 looked like a better year for the brothers. All three now had refinery jobs and a little extra money to head to the square dances in Hammond. Here they were “discovered” by country music program director Tom Owens, who hired them for a “square dance team” which performed at a traveling variety show sponsored by a radio-station. Soon after, a Hammond radio station gave The Monroe Brothers airtime, a Gary station gave them a regular fifteen minute show, and the Palace Theater in Chicago booked them to perform. The Monroe Brothers’ next break took them away from the Hoosier state. Birch kept his refinery job, but Charlie and Bill headed to Shenandoah, Iowa to perform on a radio show. They were a hit and became full-time professional musicians.

Monroe’s 1923 F-5 Lloyd Loar mandolin, Country Music Hall of Fame, photograph accessed http://www.popmatters.com/article/118036-bill-monroes-mandolin-continues-to-make-history/
Monroe’s 1923 F-5 Lloyd Loar mandolin, Country Music Hall of Fame, photograph accessed http://www.popmatters.com/article/118036-bill-monroes-mandolin-continues-to-make-history/

During the time Bill Monroe was away from Indiana, his career took off. By 1936, The Monroe Brothers signed to RCA Victor and released a hit single, “What Would You Give in Exchange For Your Soul?” The Monroe Brothers disbanded in 1938, but Monroe quickly formed other groups, including an early version of the soon-to-be legendary Blue Grass Boys. In 1939 Bill successfully auditioned for the iconic Grand Ole Opry, which made him a star. By this time, the four-hour Opry radio broadcast reached country music fans in almost thirty states and its stars became household names. With the addition of Earl Scruggs on banjo and Lester Flatt on guitar to Bill Monroe’s mandolin and high tenor voice, the classic Blue Grass Boys line-up was born in 1945. Over the next two years, the band recorded several successful songs for Columbia Records, including “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” which again became a hit in 1954 when Elvis recorded it for the b-side of his first single.

The Blue Grass Boys, 1945, pictured left to right: Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, and Earl Scruggs, photograph accessed http://www.flatt-and-scruggs.com/monroe.html
The Blue Grass Boys, 1945, pictured left to right: Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, and Earl Scruggs, photograph accessed http://www.flatt-and-scruggs.com/monroe.html

Flatt and Scruggs left the band in the late 1940s, but Bill Monroe success continued. He signed with Decca records in 1949 and recorded several songs which became classics of bluegrass music, the genre named for the Bluegrass Boys. The New York Times referred to Monroe as “the universally recognized father of bluegrass” and reported that he “helped lay the foundation of country music.” The writer continued:

Mr. Monroe, who played mandolin and sang in a high, lonesome tenor, created one of the most durable idioms in American music. Bluegrass, named after his band, the Blue Grass Boys, was a fusion of American music: gospel harmonies and Celtic fiddling, blues and folk songs, Tin Pan Alley pop and jazz-tinged improvisations. The Blue Grass boys sang, in keening high harmony, about backwoods memories and stoic faith; they played brilliantly filigreed tunes as if they were jamming on a back porch, trading melodies among fiddle, banjo, and Mr. Monroe’s steeling mandolin. By bringing together rural nostalgia and modern virtuosity, Mr. Monroe evoked an American Eden, pristine yet cosmopolitan.

Link to NYT article: NYTimes.com

Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys, "My Little Georgia Rose," Decca, 1950, photograph accessed http://www.45cat.com/record/946222
Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys, “My Little Georgia Rose,” Decca, 1950, photograph accessed http://www.45cat.com/record/946222

In the early 1950s, Monroe returned to Indiana and was impressed with what he saw at Bean Blossom in Brown County. The Brown County Jamboree was a country music variety show held in Bean Blossom that became hugely popular in the state by 1941. Thousands of people came to the small town to see local musicians and stars of the Opry. Bill Monroe began playing at the popular Brown County Jamboree by 1951. Likely it was that same year that Bill decided to purchase the Jamboree grounds from local owners Mae and Francis Rund. He took over management for the 1952 season. The Brown County Democrat reported:

The famous Brown County Jamboree at Bean Blossom has new owners. Mr. and Mrs. Francis Rund, founders and owners for 13 years, have sold the Jamboree Hall to the Grand Ole Opry entertainer, Bill Monroe, of Nashville, Tennessee.

Monroe himself confirmed the 1952 date in a later interview, stating:

This festival here in Bean Blossom Indiana . . . It means a lot to me. I bought this place here back in ‘52 and to set out to have a home base here where we could play to the folks and give them a chance enjoy and to learn about bluegrass music. And It’s really growing in this state and I’m glad that it has.

The Brown County Democrat reported that when Bill Monroe purchased the Brown County Jamboree, the show continued to operate “every Sunday night from the first Sunday in May until the first Sunday in November.” Advertisements throughout the 1950s and 60s for the Jamboree at the park and the Jamboree musicians (including Bill Monroe) at other venues and on the radio continued through the next few decades. However, in the Monroe years, there was much less advertising. The regular show was well-known and attended and so most of the advertising was done through posters. Bluegrass historian Thomas Adler also states in his book Bean Blossom: The Brown County Jamboree and Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Festivals that the Jamboree under Monroe fell into a regular pattern: “Bill opened each season and played frequent shows in the barn and also used the park for other non-Jamboree events, especially those involving rural pursuits like fox hunting…”

Advertisement, Brown County Democrat, September 12, 1963
Advertisement, Brown County Democrat, September 12, 1963

With the rise of rock and roll in the first half of the nineteen fifties, people were much less interested in country music, according to Adler. This affected attendance at the Jamboree and less people visited Bean Blossom. However, with the revival of the folk movement in the late 50s and early 60s, Bill Monroe and his unique style of bluegrass attracted national attention once more. Long time New York Times music reporter Robert Shelton noted in 1959 that bluegrass “is enjoying a vogue in city folk music circles.” Shelton wrote that, through changing tastes, bluegrass was “earning the reconsideration of many serious listeners.” This reinvigorated interest in Bean Blossom as well, and the time was right for Monroe’s next move: a large annual bluegrass festival.

Advertisement, Brown County Democrat, June 22, 1967
Advertisement, Brown County Democrat, June 22, 1967

The first annual festival hosted by Bill Monroe in 1967 was called the “Big Blue Grass Celebration.” According to Adler, Bill Monroe didn’t want to put his name on the event and didn’t want the word “festival” because competing bluegrass and folk events used the term. It was officially a two day event, June 24 and 25, but according to Adler, there were a few performances and a dance the night before.

The next year the festival was extended to three days to accommodate the large crowds. This 1968 festival attracted ten thousand people. By 1969 the event was billed as “Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Festival” and the location referred to as the “Brown County Jamboree Park.” This year the festival was extended to a four day event. According to the Indianapolis Star, highlights included “a banjo-pickin’ contest,” a bluegrass band contest, a “sunset jam session,” an “old-time square dance,” a workshop for learning bluegrass instruments, and church services. When the headlining musicians weren’t performing, they participated in “pick and sing” sessions, improvisational jams where the professionals and amateur players exchanged ideas.

David DeJean, photograph of jam session in Jamboree parking lot, 1969, in Thomas Adler, Bean Blossom: The Brown County Jamboree and Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Festivals
David DeJean, photograph of jam session in Jamboree parking lot, 1969, in Thomas Adler, Bean Blossom: The Brown County Jamboree and Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Festivals

The Bill Monroe Bluegrass Festival soon attracted not just fans but also performers from around the world. The 1969 festival included “Pete Sayers, country singer from London, England,” and Adler writes that Sayers returned in 1970. However, Sayers appears to be the only foreign performer until 1971. Writing for Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine in 1971, Frank Overstreet, a musician and festival attendee, reported on the event being the first international festival at Bean Blossom. He wrote, “The international aspect of bluegrass was brought to light at the festival this year by the presence of a New Zealand group, the Hamilton County Bluegrass Band and a Japanese one, The Bluegrass 45.” The 1971 festival included concerts, jam sessions, dancing, a church service, a bluegrass music school, and bands which travelled from all over to perform, including from other countries. Nonetheless, the main attraction remained Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys “who started it all,” according to the Indianapolis Star.

Bill Monroe, Bean Blossom, (MCA, 1973) recorded in 1973 at the seventh annual Bill Monroe Bluegrass Festival, accessed http://www.allmusic.com/album/bean-blossom-mw0000202383
Bill Monroe, Bean Blossom, (MCA, 1973) recorded in 1973 at the seventh annual Bill Monroe Bluegrass Festival, accessed http://www.allmusic.com/album/bean-blossom-mw0000202383

According to Adler, the “golden age of the festival” was 1972-1982, a period which saw steady growth in attendance. In June 1972, the Indianapolis News reported that the previous year’s festival drew 15,000 people and that organizers were expecting up to 35,000 people for the 1972 event. In June 1973, the Indianapolis News reported that 35,000 people attended the festival. In June 1976, just ahead of the festival, the Indianapolis Star reported that festival organizers again expected up to 35,000 people to attend. In the midst of the festival, Monroe confirmed in a locally televised interview that the numbers of attendees was above 30,000. Monroe also stated that attendees represented thirty-six different states and eight foreign counties. In 1977, the festival was extended to nine days (from seven days the previous year) to accommodate the growing crowd; organizers were expecting crowds of up to 50,000 people.

Bill Monroe, circa 1996, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, accessed https://rockhall.com/inductees/bill-monroe/bio/
Bill Monroe, circa 1996, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, accessed https://rockhall.com/inductees/bill-monroe/bio/

Bill Monroe made his festival an international success and repeated that success annually. He died September 9, 1996 in Tennessee days before his 85th birthday. According to the Indianapolis Star, even while he was sick in the hospital, he played his mandolin for the other patients. On September 10, 1996, New York Times reporter John Pareles wrote:

He perfected his music in the late 1940’s and stubbornly maintained it, and he lived to see his revolutionary fusion become the bedrock of a tradition that survives among enthusiasts around the world . . . Every musician now playing bluegrass has drawn on Mr. Monroe’s repertory, his vocal style and his ideas of how a string band should work together. And his influence echoes down not just through country music but from Elvis Presley (who recorded Mr. Monroe’s ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’ on his first single disk) to bluegrass-rooted rock bands like the Grateful Dead and the Eagles.

Bill Monroe Memorial Music Park and Campground, photograph accessed http://www.billmonroemusicpark.com/?p=545
Bill Monroe Memorial Music Park and Campground, photograph accessed http://www.billmonroemusicpark.com/?p=545

Upon Monroe’s death in 1996, the deed for the Jamboree grounds was transferred to his son James. In 1998, Dwight Dillman purchased the park and named it “Bill Monroe’s Memorial Park & Campground.”  This year the park is preparing for the “50th Annual Bill Monroe Memorial Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival” to be held June 11 – June 18, 2016. Bill Monroe’s legacy continues in the larger world of bluegrass and will certainly never be forgotten in Indiana, where he got his humble start at a Hammond square dance. As President Bill Clinton stated the year before Monroe’s death, “Bill Monroe is truly an American legend.”

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