January 05, 2015
Many members of pioneering group were CIA grads and faculty
By Cindi Deutschman-Ruiz
If you were a female artist based in Cleveland just over 100 years ago, your experience was one of relative isolation. Unlike male artists of the time, you had few outlets for your work and no organization to provide a sense of community and mutual support.
But in 1912, opportunities for local female artists exploded when about two-dozen women came together to launch the Women’s Art Club of Cleveland (WACC). A majority of the club’s members studied and/or taught at Cleveland Institute of Art, which was then called the Cleveland School of Art.
“You could say that Cleveland School of Art was the mother ship for these women,” says art historian Marianne Berardi, a co-curator of the exhibition, A Great Joy: The Women’s Art Club of Cleveland, on view at ARTneo in Cleveland’s 78th Street Studios through January 17.
The group’s twin purpose was to enrich and be enriched, according to Berardi, who has studied WACC extensively. Interactions among the women artists themselves were considered no more important than engagement with the community at large. Regular monthly meetings interspersed topical lectures with practical workshops, and annual juried exhibitions featured the very best works produced.
WACC members kept the organization on an even financial keel through effective, ongoing fundraising, while also organizing educational traveling art shows, and opening their studios to the public for wide-ranging social and artistic programs.
From its inception, WACC was a highly structured, tightly organized group that enjoyed a strong and enduring connection to the Cleveland School of Art.
WACC’s first president, Anna Pfenninger, was a sculptor and 1902 graduate. As Berardi explains in an 88-page catalog written to accompany A Great Joy, Pfenninger’s 1926 bust of Cleveland composer, conductor and violinist Johann Heinrich Beck was donated to the main branch of the Cleveland Public Library, and can still be seen there today.
One of WACC’s foremost metalworkers, according to Berardi, was Mildred Watkins (Class of 1901), a master silversmith, jeweler and enamelist whose “magnificent work” established her as “a gifted colorist and designer, capable of creating dazzling jewel-like patterns in a demanding medium notoriously difficult to control.” In addition to producing her own remarkable work, Watkins spent 35 years teaching generations of artists in the fields of jewelry and silversmithing at Cleveland School of Art.
WACC member Thelma Frazier Winter (Class of 1929), was an accomplished ceramicist, becoming in 1939 the first woman to win a coveted national ceramics prize sponsored by the Syracuse Museum of Fine Art.
And muralist Elsa Vick Shaw (Class of 1913) taught decorative art and design at CSA for 15 years early in her career, winning many commissions for residential murals throughout the Cleveland area. Her best-known murals “are the fourteen panels representing the origin of music that she designed in 1931 for Severance Hall, the home of the Cleveland Orchestra,” Berardi says.
All of the afore-mentioned artists are featured in A Great Joy, although they represent just the tip of the iceberg. Indeed, the exhibition itself is really just the start of a long-overdue conversation about the club’s members and their contributions.
Although disbanded in 2006 after an impressive 94-year run, WACC’s influence lives on in a multitude of ways, not least of which is the annual WACC-sponsored scholarship awarded to a female incoming CIA student.
Above: From the catalog for A Great Joy: The Women’s Art Club of Cleveland, Clara Deike (1881-1964, CIA Class of 1912) In Capri Italy, 1927. Watercolor; 16.25 x 14 in. Gary and Rosalyn Bombei. Photograph courtesy of Adrienne French.
Cindi Deutschman-Ruiz is a freelance writer/editor and instructor of journalism and mass communication. She lives on the West Side of Cleveland.
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