Exhibits celebrate printmaking in era when Wichita was a mecca for the arts

04/14/2013 7:53 AM

08/08/2014 10:33 AM

During the early 20th century, Wichita was a hotbed for art – specifically for printmakers. Internationally renowned printmakers, sculptors and painters sent works to exhibitions here. Other printmakers moved to Wichita to work at the Western Lithograph Co.

Kansan Coy Avon (C.A.) Seward was the catalyst for this movement. This country boy from Chase wanted to make Wichita a mecca for artwork. His legacy – and the artwork it produced – is being celebrated at four museums in Wichita.

Through the efforts of Barbara Thompson, an art historian and granddaughter of Seward’s, the Wichita Art Museum, the Wichita Center for the Arts, the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum and Wichita State University’s Clayton Staples Gallery have exhibitions covering the man, his work and the lithographs and engravings of other Wichitans during the 1920s and ’30s. There also are etchings and woodcuts of internationally renowned artists, many of whom showed their works in Wichita during this period.

“Wichita was considered for a time of being the fastest-growing city in the U.S.,” said Eric Cale, executive director of the county historical museum. “We have a very vibrant visual arts culture in Wichita, but many people don’t know that you could trace it back 100 years.”

Not only does the museum have a display that showcases the history of Seward and his contemporaries, but it also has advertisements and packaging made by the print studio they founded.

The works of internationally renowned lithographers are on display at the Wichita Center for the Arts, originally the Wichita Art Association, founded in 1921. Seward, a board member, was instrumental in the organization.

Works by Rockwell Kent, Hans Sebald Beham and John Taylor Arms are on view in a room that features more than 30 works that Elise Allen bequeathed to the association. Arms’ intricately etched church engravings open a window into the dynamic abilities of these master artists.

The center also has books and other memorabilia related to Seward, the Western Lithograph Co., Wichita print artists and the Prairie Print Makers, a national organization jumpstarted by Seward and a handful of others.

“Wichita was in the mainstream because of the commercial printing industry that attracted these people,” said Howard Ellington, the executive director of the center. “They were highly organized.”

During the day, many printers worked at Western Lithograph. But at night, they produced their own work. This group of artists traveled together, shared studios and formed many organizations.

“It was a phenomenal group of people,” Ellington said.

The prints of the artists that settled in Wichita are on display at the Wichita Art Museum. These more than 70 works are from the private collection of Thompson, curator of the exhibit. The museum owns 277 prints by the artists who were members of the Prairie Print Makers, 13 of which are by Seward.

“You think of Seward as an entrepreneur for the arts,” Thompson said. “He (Seward) wanted to make fine art available across the country.”

At the Wichita Art Museum, viewers can see works of Kansans in the early 19th century hanging on mustard and slate blue walls on the museum’s first floor. Works by Seward, Birger Sandzen and Otto Schneider demonstrate the craftsmanship and depth of the printmaking movement in Wichita.

Through the help of Arms, the Prairie Print Makers had connections to many major art colonies.

“It was quite an amazing time,” Thompson said.

Along with the multiple exhibits related to printmaking during Seward’s time, Thompson also has established a guest printmaker program at WSU. This endowed position will bring an internationally renowned printmaker to campus each year. Francisco Souto was the first guest artist. He spent the first week of April in residency and produced a work of art. That piece is on display and for sale at the WSU gallery.

“The best way to pay tribute is to pay forward,” Thompson said. “And to revive printmaking at WSU.”

Thompson has dedicated much of her life to documenting the Midwestern printmakers of her grandfather’s time. She has become an authority on this era. She, like her grandfather and those who surrounded him, want to bring art to the forefront in Wichita.

“Seward took on various activities to create a universe around him to create a heightened awareness for artwork,” said Patricia McDonnell, Wichita Art Museum director. “Through his support and exhibits, the public was able to cultivate their eye and taste to become collectors. He was an impresario in the art world.”

Visitors can visit each of the participating museums to gain a greater understanding of the art and the time.

“It’s so remarkable when all of these organizations can work together,” McDonnell said. “It’s wonderful when the sum of the parts become more.”

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