ILLINOIS HISTORICAL ART PROJECT
No. 40 Julia Thecla
Julia Thecla is the mystery girl of Chicago art — shy, self-effacing, seldom saying more than half a dozen words to anyone, gliding abruptly but quietly away after briefly acknowledging an introduction to a stranger. She is almost as evasive an enigma, as the original Thecla for whom she is named – that St. Thecla who became infatuated with the eloquence of St. Paul and followed him everywhere disguised as a boy, possibly acting as his secretary.
But don’t make the mistake, when you meet Julia Thecla, of starting to psychoanalyze her for she is engaged as swiftly and more keenly in sizing you up. She was an assistant for two years in a hospital for mental cases, so she has the drop on you. She knows you better at a glance that you could know her in an hour – if she would give you the hour.
Her experiences at the hospital, however, have made her tolerant. She forgives your whimsies and chuckles at her own eccentricities.
Julia Thecla is maker of the most sensitive water colors, jewel-like in quality, unlike airy water colors ever seen. She is a “maker” of them, rather than “painter.” For she lays her pigments on hard paper as a thick paste, instead of floating them in water and letting soft paper absorb them, blotter fashion. There result, in consequence, none of the chance effects the rank and file of the water colorists. Her pictures are as delicate and meticulous as the work of the most skilled of amateurs, and ordered with exquisite taste. They originate in a poetic imagination as sensitive as her fingers.
Thecla’s fine skill is the result of seven years of application to the art of restoring antiques – statuary, paintings and jewelry. Only she has a quality of mind rare in working of that profession – an impulse to invent. When she lays aside the tools of the restorer and takes up her own brushes, she can create things as good as those she has been working on, but without copying.
As an example of the perfection of her skill with the antique may be cited a watch she was given to “restore” dating to the days of Henri IV. It had long ceased to run; nobody had the idea it would ever tick again; her job was to give it it’s original surface appearance as nearly as possible. But she opened it up and was struck by the beautiful simplicity of the works. Not being a clockmaker, she, nevertheless, started tinkering, and when eventually she had “restored” the watch it was not only running but keeping good time.
About that odd name of hers - it’s Julia Thecla, all right, but Thecla is the middle name, given her by a devout cousin, who, becoming a nun, elected to be known as Sister Thecla from the saint who suffered martyrdom for her idol and has become the “promo martyr among women.” Her last name is, for the present, of no more consequence to either you or her present biographer than Titian’s. She is of Irish and Scotch descent, and a grandfather a generation or two back was an Eskimo.
“Born–U.S.A.–Date ______” is the cryptic memorandum she jotted down for me on a street car, and she handed it over with one of her bright, inscrutable smiles.
But, relenting a little, she vouchsafed “a village in Illinois” as the specific spot of the “U.S.A.,” and, as for the date, she isn’t the first artist feminine or masculine, who has sidestepped it, but she is the youngest in my experience.
Near this “village in Illinois” there is a spring of water running crystal clear from a cave in the hillside. The floor of the cave is of wet clay of a texture that lends itself readily to modeling, but more important, that will stand firing without breaking or crumbling. The children of the village fashion bowls of pipes, bake them in glowing embers and then stick wheat straws into them for steins and proceed to smoke “corn silk.” Children of less-favored localities have to wrap the “silk” in bits of newspaper and make cigarettes.
Julia Thecla, as a little girl, produced her quota of clay pipes. But one day a peddler came through the village selling little terra-cotta figures of saints and gods and goddesses, Christian and pagan. Julia Thecla, struck by a Buddha, was inspired to model him from the clay of the cave. Thereafter, came other “sculpture,” chiefly of farm animals.
But even before this, Thecla was an “artist”. She doesn’t remember learning to draw, but when she was 5 she made a picture with pencil on brown paper which she still has. It demonstrates a talent to make less miraculous the exhibits of Prof. Cizek of Vienna.
It is a picture of a little girl in an amusing but well-ordered landscape, with a name scrawled under her in childish lettering, “Queen Lil.” This “Queen Lil”, was a girl from the city, who hadn’t turned up her nose at the shy little country girl, but had extended a sympathetic understanding. In gratitude, Julia made the picture of her “Queen Lil” was really 23, but in Julia Thecla’s drawing, as in the sympathy of her understanding, she is pictured as of Julia’s own age.
A self-portrait when she was 6 or 7 and a startlingly “professional” landscape with rolling hills are other souvenirs of Thecla’s dawning powers. She admits that she may have used her doll’s face in art.
It was necessary for her to support herself, but she managed to get in two years of art training and two years of college work, the latter devoted chiefly to poetry, which has held almost as much of a place in her affections as painting. She writes poetry, herself, that has in it something of the evanescent, haunting quality of her pictures. Judge:
THE MAGIC POOL
go in bowed silence
to the dark pool
others are there,
it is holy water
into the magic circle …
the hypnotic sleep
from which the word
will awaken you …
the word forgotten
by the hypnotist.
Another of her poems, much longer, recites a vagrant dream, filled with rococo fantasies like her watercolors and her sculpture.
For she has followed up the art she first practiced in the Illinois village cave. Her work in mending and restoring antiques has brought into her supple hands many bits of delicate statuary and pieces of rare pottery. She felt a mighty heart throb once when there was brought to her to mend a vase by Renoir, whose formative days were spent in a porcelain factory transferring paintings by Watteau, Boucher and Laneret to those wares.
One of Thecla’s biggest jobs as an artisan was to copy, over a period of two years, a long series of great religious paintings for use as lantern slides by lecturers.
The pictures, in this particular series and on this particular commission, had to be uniform in size, whatever may have been the ideas of the original painters. So Thecla had to use her judgment at times in “amending” her originals. For instance, in adapting Rubens’ “Descent from the Cross,” she had to paint in a figure that Rubens “forgot.”
There was no intent on her part of improving on the masters, as Matisse did after ten weary years of copying pictures in the Louvre for sale by the French government to outlying museums – an “editing” that cost him his job.
Thecla’s series of religious pictures, if they served to convert listeners to the lantern lecturers to a more devout life, had the opposite effect on her. She had been brought up in an atmosphere where religion was accepted without question and without curiosity. For the first time, and in the maturity of a college-trained intellect, she was brought in contact with, for instance, the store of Jonah and the Whale. As she copied somebody’s painting of the adventure – she forgets whose – she found her Irish sense of humor getting the better of her faith.
I have a guilty fear that I added to her confusion a few days ago by telling her the whole legend of St. Thecla instead of leaving her content with the martyr part. But, she had read, by that time, Nietzsche and Hegel, Kant and Schopenhauer, James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and his “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” (which she thinks superior in the Dublin Odyssey), so I guess no great harm was done.
Thecla exhibited publicly her first picture in the International water color show at the Art Institute in 1931, and has been in all the internationals since.
The artists first “discovered” her at the first Grant Park art fair.
She was represented in the World’s Fair show at the Art Institute in 1934, and that same summer she sketched portraits on the world’s fair grounds. But she sketched only a few. The only “model” who interested her was an old-school gentleman of 70, who sat for her one day. There was something about his mind and manner that inspired only World’s Fair sketch she remembers with pride.
She doesn’t care for portraiture. She likes better dream figures, knights of old with waving plum (unclear) ladies in ornate dresses – exquisite fantasies.
She paints dainty and delicate nudes, too. When she did her first nude (at 13), she felt she had committed a horrible sin. She nursed it three years in secret, telling nobody. But her subsequent encounter with figures in her “antiques” gave her the new outlook that led to her little nymphs now so admired