ILLINOIS HISTORICAL ART PROJECT
No. 57 Frances Strain
Frances Strain is confident the severe frosts of the Depression haven’t killed the roots of art in Chicago. She detects evidences of new sprouting that will luxuriate at no very distant ultimate. Nobody has had better experience to judge, for as treasurer, at times, and at times secretary of No-Jury over a combined period of eight or nine years, she came into close contact with youngsters submitting their work for the first time for exhibition, and she watched them grow into either weeds or flowers.
The Depression was withering and searing. Artists don’t mind poverty so long as there is hope ahead. They scorn hardship when banded together in good fellowship.
But the Depression, which ground down remorselessly the spirits of everybody, wrought havoc among the artists. The sensitive shrank into themselves, becoming solitary hermits. The aggressive, finding their up-and-doing energies getting them nowhere, grew bitter and bickering. Good-natured battles of opinions were no longer possible; everybody was suspicious of everybody else.
It became the era of the “sourpuss,” to use Miss Strain’s own bitter and sarcastic expression, for being an artist herself — and a good one — and being in the midst of the turmoil, she has felt it as keenly as anybody, despite her philosophy — her superior powers of analysis.
But the era of the “sourpuss” is vanishing, she is quite sure. The artists who are thoroughly saturated with wormwood and gall — the incorrigible belligerents — are segregating themselves into a well-defined faction that will be allowed to eat their hearts out in “their own way.” The oncoming youngsters have no interest in old feuds. The “isms” in painting are “isms” of yesterday — modernism, conservatism, cubism, fauvism. Let the “old cranks” quarrel about them, if they want. It is the job of the young to paint!
“Let’s cheer up! Let’s snap out of the headaches!” she says.
She’s doing it herself, forgetting any “isms” she may have harbored, even temporarily. She is of today responsive to the same soil and weather conditions that are making the dormant art roots sprout.
These are the things she deems important toward a “biography” of herself — the things that have been happening to her in Chicago in the pursuit of art, not the places she has been nor the sights she has seen.
She likes to go places and do things but, to her, the 50 weeks that people put into their work are the important weeks of the year, not the two weeks’ vacation, fishing in Minnesota, Kodaking in the Rockies, or swimming in Florida waters. Yet, she finds, it’s what people do on their vacation that they talk about.
Through considerable coaxing, she revealed in conversation a few facts about herself, such as the humdrum biographers — from Plutarch down through Vasari to poor me — deem matter for their pages.
She was born in Chicago in 1898 and doesn’t care if you add up on your fingers to establish what her age, in consequence, would be in 1936. Her father was a politician and a man of culture — a combination not inevitable. The fact that when she was cutting out paper dolls as a little girl, her father brought her home an expensive pair of scissors and not a pair form the “dime store” is symbolic to her of the care with which he supervised her earliest art education.
At high school age, she went to a private school or girls, though one boy was admitted to the classes whose quarters were in a rambling old church, ghostly and eerie in its atmosphere, if not actually haunted.
From earliest recollection, she dreamed of being an artist but doesn’t know why, for she didn’t like the pictures she saw hanging in the Art Institute galleries. She had no active dislike, either — and wasn’t even bored, just indifferent.
But somehow the idea of being an artist, of being able to make pictures even like those, intrigues her.
One day when a small girl, she saw in the galleries of the Art Institute a real live artist! Somebody pointed him out to her. She regarded him and his striped trousers with awed interest, and followed him timidly, discreetly, around, watching him intently, seeing how he would act.
The artist, who will find out for the first time on reading this article that he was the object of such magnificent admiration from that mite of femininity, was Adam Emory Albright.
After high school, Frances Strain entered the school of the Art Institute, still not knowing what she wanted nor why. But one day in the galleries upstairs, she found herself in the room of the French Impressionists, whose colors began to say things to her excitedly. She returned again and again, and found art having a purpose and a stimulus.
Then George Bellows made his advent in the school as visiting instructor. His instructions, in the tradition of the Impressionists via Henri, electrified her, as it did a choice group of eager students that deserted for him their more academic instructors. One of these students was Fred Biesel, and Frances Strain (a few years later) became Mrs. Fred Biesel.
Bellows didn’t stay long but was followed by Randall Davy, his friend, and also a pupil of Henri. After Davy left, the students who had had the Bellows-Davy instruction got permission from the directors of the school to continue their classes, going their own way, without formal teachers.
Not many months later, a party of these students, mostly girls, emigrated to Santa Fe, invited by Davy to continue their studies there. They had living quarters in an old parsonage and studios in an old church. Frances Strain, Martha Simpson, Myra Thomas, Lois Wright, and Mae Larsen were of this party, as was Fred Biesel.
Here they met John Sloan, head of the New York Independent Society of Artists, one of the first to go to Santa Fe to paint, prophet of what was to become a thriving colony. A number of the Santa Fe party, including Frances Strain, Myra Thomas, and Fred Biesel, returned with the Sloan’s to New York where they remained studying and painting for nearly a year.
Later, the group went to Paris for five months but, though the post-war “isms” were in full swing, they didn’t associate themselves with any of the groups,. They spent their time in the Louvre, largely, and the other galleries.
Back in Chicago, Frances Strain took a little studio on 55th Street where she spent the lonesomest year of her life, painting away from her family, carving out a path of her own.
In 1922, she and Fred Biesel married and took themselves a studio on the lakefront at the foot of 76th Street. It was an old shack with a skylight, formerly occupied by a photographer. They repaired and rebuilt it into a comfortable little house, with flowers and a garden all around it, and for the next six years it was their home. A cornfield, in summer, hid their shanty from passersby — a thick cornfield within the corporate limits of the city of Chicago.
It was in the early days of their residence there that they began participating actively in the No-Jury Society, then young and lusty, one of whose founders was Charles Biesel, father of Fred.
Frances Strain has a young son, 4 or 5 years old. He is not her favorite model — indeed, she scarcely has painted him at all.