STORY WRITTEN BY TARA LYNN JOHNSON
For Digital First Media
It’s possible that works of art can have hidden meanings, but for John Sloan that was literally true. The artist, who grew up in Philadelphia and whose paintings and illustrations are included in most major American museum collections, made a living by creating intricate and decorative newspaper puzzles. Some are on view in the exhibit “The Puzzling World of John Sloan” at the Delaware Art Museum through Sept. 6.
His weekly series of word and picture puzzles were featured in the Sunday supplement of the “Philadelphia Press,” an illustrated newspaper, in the early 1900s. “The puzzles demonstrate the artist’s imagination and verbal and visual wit, as well as the fluid boundaries between fine art and newspaper illustration in the first decade of the 20th century,” according to the press release.
Heather Campbell Coyle, the museum’s Curator of American Art, revealed in a telephone interview that the exhibition features mostly actual newspaper pages. One original drawing is on view — Sloan’s Halloween puzzle. It shows a woman who just peeled an apple and dropped the paring on the floor. The puzzle was to figure out what letters of a man’s name she could make with the apple paring. The first reader who figured it out won $10.
Not only is the puzzle fun and challenging, the artwork is beautiful and in color, which was new for the times, she said. Coyle’s happy this part of Sloan’s work and history will be known.
“We’re excited to have people see them,” she said. “Puzzles were a big part of his career for so long.”
Sloan, who was born in 1871 in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. He worked in the art department at The Philadelphia Inquirer before moving to the Philadelphia Press, a newspaper published from 1857 to 1920. In the early 1900s, he also drew illustrations for books and magazines, like Good Housekeeping and The Saturday Evening Post. His elegant newspaper style drew elements from Japanese prints, French posters, and art nouveau decorations, according to the museum.
The Delaware Art Museum is the primary repository for his work, Coyle said — they house more than 2,600 pieces. The “Puzzling” exhibit focuses on what is a lesser known part of his artistic career, she said. And not only will viewers see the works, but they’re encouraged to solve Sloan’s complex puzzles (answers are available, some on the museum’s website, so people will know if they solved them correctly).
Some are “find the hidden object” puzzles. One asked solvers to find more than 20 types of pie. Some items were easy to find, Coyle said — a cherry, a raspberry. Other items were more difficult — pineapples, coconuts, oysters. “They’re not things we think of as putting in pie today.” She said.
Some of the puzzles he created required cutting and pasting or folding the paper a certain way to make a particular object or, in one puzzle, to make a crooked man straight. Some puzzles involve math. One puzzle, the Sherlock Holmes one, doesn’t tell people how to solve it. Coyle learned finally that it could be solved if the newspaper was held in reverse to a light or in front of a mirror. The people of the time would have been used to Sloan’s methods and perhaps figured it out quicker, she said. If not, the puzzle solutions were published two weeks later. Funnily, the newspapers also featured letters from people who had difficulty solving Sloan’s puzzles.
Even if they’re difficult, Coyle enjoys them and the fact that they can be shared with art lovers who may not know this side of Sloan.
“He consulted books of puzzles. He was really clever and literate,” she said. “When you get used to it, you can see he has a great sense of humor.”
Although “puzzle people will love this,” she said, everyone can enjoy the exhibit because of Sloan’s lively style. Plus, trying to solve the puzzles can be a great way to spend a summer day.
“It’s challenging and fun for the whole family,” she said. “Here’s art that demands participation. Hopefully, people will try to figure them out.”
IF YOU GO
What: The Puzzling World of John Sloan
When: The exhibit is on view 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wed., 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thu., 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Fri.-Sun.,
through Sept. 6.
Where: Delaware Art Museum, 2301 Kentmere Parkway, Wilmington, Del.
Admission: $12, Seniors (60+) $10, Students and children ages 7-18 $6, children age 6 and younger free. Admission free for all on Sundays.
Info.: Call (302) 571-9590 (or 866-232-3714) or visit www.delart.org