STORY WRITTEN BY BRIAN BINGAMAN
@brianbingaman on Twitter
Penn State University has some real American art treasures.
The weird part, though, is there’s an important set of paintings which celebrate Pennsylvania’s industrial heritage that you won’t find anywhere at the university’s Palmer Museum of Art. The Steidle Collection, named after 1928-1953 dean of earth and mineral sciences Edward Steidle, was purchased and commissioned by the dean for educational purposes (and to reassure Americans’ faith in their country’s economic stability), and is therefore property of PSU’s Earth and Mineral Sciences Department.
Fifty-three paintings from the Steidle Collection, which continues to grow as related works of art become available, can be found at Doylestown’s James A. Michener Art Museum in the exhibit “Iron and Coal, Petroleum and Steel: Industrial Art from the Steidle Collection.”
There are a few big names, such as Rockwell Kent and Walter E. Baum, plus a surprising number of women artists, considering the subject matter. Imagine being a woman in the 1930s who was brave enough to put on coveralls and venture out to hazardous, all-male workplaces, like coal mines or coke refineries, just to make a pencil sketch study.
When asked why some of the plates next to the paintings have question marks where the year of the artist’s death would be, Kirsten M. Jensen, the Michener Museum’s Gerry & Marguerite Lenfest chief curator, stated that the women artists in “Iron and Coal, Petroleum and Steel,” such as Olive Hariette Nuhfer, simply stopped painting when the time came to have children and focus on the role of homemaker. After that happens, it becomes challenging to confirm biographical details, she said.
Don’t fool yourself into thinking steel mill scenes are monochromatic. There are shades of green, blue, purple, fiery orange and even picturesque landscape elements amid the intimidating blast furnaces, billowing smoke and molten iron ore. Jensen said she chose marine blue for the wall paint scheme of the museum’s Paton|Smith|Della Penna-Fernberger Galleries because it’s a hue that shows up in all industrial paintings.
“Are you kidding me? This is gorgeous,” commented the Michener Museum’s marketing production manager, Antoinette Maciolek.
Neither is the mood constantly bleak and foreboding. Look for the worker with his arms raised in a triumphant V in the circa 1925 work “Blowing Steel” by George Pearse Ennis.
Geographically, the Keystone State Coal/Rust Belt in the exhibit cuts a broad path, from a lime plant in Chestnut Hill to a steel mill in Pittsburgh, from the Corning Glass Works in Charleroi to the Central Iron and Steel Co. of Harrisburg.
Since “Iron and Coal, Petroleum and Steel” opened July 11, one of the visitor favorites, Jensen said, is Harold Brett’s “The Broadway Limited Passing through the Steel District, Pennsylvania Railroad” from 1924. In this case, the broad way was the railroad’s four-track route from New York to Chicago. “Just think of the drama in being on that train at night and passing by that,” Jensen said.
Also check out the stunning use of small lines of definition in George Zoretich’s 1954 oil painting “Role of Refractories in Steel.”
A three-part, large canvas triptych by Edmund Ashe, who at the dawn of the 20th century was a magazine White House artist-correspondent, captures the hard, dirty work of extracting coal and oil and making steel. “There’s no drama (in drilling for oil) … so they’re just changing the bit,” Jensen said of one image. Another prominently documents the code system of coal mine raps/whistles for signaling an emergency situation, and the need to remind the miners that smoking is not allowed on site.
Jensen leads a curator’s lecture, “The Industrial Sublime,” at 1 p.m. Sept. 8. Julianne Snider, the assistant director of the Earth and Mineral Sciences Museum & Art Gallery at Penn State, drops by for a guest lecture at 1 p.m. Sept. 29.
Veils of Color
Retired Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts professor Elizabeth Osborne, who still lives in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia, specializes in layering swaths of bold color — “color fields,” Jensen calls her paintings.
“Veils of Color: Juxtapositions and Recent Work by Elizabeth Osborne,” is about, “what color and representation — meaning the physical tie to reality — has meant to her throughout her career,” Jensen said.
Osborne’s daughter, Audrey, shows up in a few of the works. On one wall in the Fred Beans Gallery hangs the 2012-2013 abstract “Quinacridone,” next to a painting of the back of Audrey’s head, frozen in fascination, looking at “Quinacridone” hanging in the Locks Gallery in Philadelphia. “Quinacridone”’s color patterns are noticeably different rendered as the backdrop of “Audrey and Quinacriodone.”
Another standout juxtaposition is Osborne’s 1966 early work “Black Doorway I,” a view of her studio that incorporates the three-dimensional textures of a worn metal doorknob and a wooden door frame, next to “Studio 2014,” a painting just completed in December. “Studio 2014” echoes Osborne’s color field works, except the stripes are something tangible — lined up canvases, as well as paint brushes in a vessel.
Jensen will lead a curator’s lecture at 1 p.m. Oct. 6, and a tour of Osborne’s studio will be offered Oct. 16. Call (215) 340-9800 or visit www.michenerartmuseum.org.
IF YOU GO
What: “Iron and Coal, Petroleum and Steel”
Where: James A. Michener Art Museum, 138 S. Pine St., Doylestown.
When: Now through Oct. 25, “Veils of Color” runs through Nov. 15.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays.
Admission: $18, $17 for seniors, $16 for students, $8 for youths 6-18.