ILLINOIS HISTORICAL ART PROJECT
No. 82 Ethel Spears
Ethel Spears came definitely into the “art consciousness” of Chicago when, as an undergraduate in the class of John Norton at the Art Institute, she was commissioned to paint two murals for the tearoom at the museum. Those murals established her as both skilled painter and humorist. Even the heavy “Depression” frowns on faces of visitors to the tearoom have been smoothed out all these years in presence of “Life Class” and “Dudley Crafts Watson Telling the Ladies’ Clubs about Art.”
Miss Spears, there and in her subsequent work, has been no cartoonist nor even the militant satirist. She sees life as something funny — people all about her are a little grotesque, doing humorous things without knowing it. There is nothing unkind in her painted comment.
Once, in struggling days in New York, following her graduation from the Art Institute, she was so reduced in funds that she took a job as night switchboard operator in a woman’s club
She picked up the mechanics of the switchboard — a previous mystery to her — in a little while, but real troubles developed when calls came in for resident women, some dead, some moved away.
Her greatest problem, however, arose when an elderly resident walked in late at night and asked to be taken up in the elevator, protesting that the former night switchboard operator performed that service.
Miss Spears, who knew no more how to run an elevator than airplane, put the woman off as long as possible but, seeing she was in for it, told her to step in. By dint of nonchalant trials of the “gun” back and forth, she landed her unsuspecting passenger on her proper floor, but lost a pound or two of weight in the process.
Thereafter, as long as she stuck to her job as switchboard operator, she was also official elevator girl.
Miss Spears, born in Chicago in 1903, hasn’t inherited any art tendencies she knows of, unless it’s from her paternal grandfather who ran away to sea. In the family is a diary he kept, illustrated in something that looks like tempera. The picture that clings most persistently in Miss Spears’ memory is his version of the Rock of Gibraltar.
While she failed to distinguish herself in either common school or high school in the art classes, Miss Spears knew she wanted to be an artist and to make her living by it. SO after graduation, she entered the Art Institute, in the textile-designing department, where she studied for three years and got her certificate.
Textile designing, after the finish, appealed less to her than at the start, so she began her art school career all over again, this time in the painting class of John Norton.
Her textile education wasn’t a loss. Besides switchboard and elevator operation in her days in New York, she worked for six months in a textile studio and eventually got a “high-powered” job with a famous silk company — which she didn’t take.
That job calls forth from her another of her droll recitals, parallel with her paintings.
Indeed, Miss Speaks is free to acknowledge a “literary” method in her art, once severely tabooed by the “moderns.”
When she starts a picture, she doesn’t know how it will finish. She keeps building it up, character by character, incident after incident — and that’s the way you have to look at her pictures if you want to get the full force.
Generally, a glance tells you the main “story.” But as you examine the details, your grin grows broader and broader.
Oftener than not, her canvases are alive with tiny figures and each of these figures is doing his or her significant “bit” to contribute to the whole design.
But to the silk company — she had made an appointment over the telephone with the art director. She arrived bright and early next morning, portfolio under arm, and passed through a revolving door. There, she encountered a liveries doorman, as important as the flunkies in a smart English comedy.
“You can’t see the art director,” he said when she inquired her way.
“But I have an appointment.”
“You can’t see the art director,” he repeated, like the automatons in the “information” department of the telephone company.
She turned and started out, but as she walked through the revolving door, she got madder and madder at the flunky’s supercilious stupidity and, without stepping outside, continued to revolve until she confronted him again.
Further argument was unavailing, however. So she left and from the corner drug store called up the director by phone. The secretary answered, and was profuse in her apologies for not having sent Miss Spears a card that would get her past the doorman. She told Miss Spears to go home, that she would have the card presently in the mail, and then come back. Just why somebody didn’t step out of the office, speak to the doorman, and make it all right for her to pass this morning, Miss Spears doesn’t know until this day.
She followed instructions, and sure enough, the card worked its proper magic. Getting finally to the director, she underwent a long verbal examination. When he found she was from Chicago, he almost broke off the interview but, discovering she had been “more than two years in New York,” he informed her that “that made her a New Yorker.” Her “citizenship” thus established and her work meeting his approval, she must still undergo a physical examination.
“But why?” she asked.
“It’s required of all employees — besides, you may be color-blind, for instance.”
The company’s doctor examined her throat, made her say “ah,” and found out she wasn’t color blind.
She finally measured up to all requirements of red tape, and was told to report for work the day before Thanksgiving.
“No,” she replied, “the day after Thanksgiving.”
“I don’t want to spoil my holiday.”
The director evidently didn’t detect anything person lint he remark, for she won her point.
But over Thanksgiving, she got another job she wanted worse — a job to illustrate a series of school readers being projected by a professor at Columbia University.
She went back to the silk company on the appointed day. She came pretty near not getting in again, for the revolving doorman, all smiles, told her to register that she was not an employee.
“No, I’m not.”
“But you are.”
She brushed past. She “resigned” to the secretary, who insisted that she resign to “the boss.” He was terribly hurt, put on an act before the office employees, then “fired” her when, relenting, she offered to help him out of any difficulty until he could find another artist.
Life’s that way with Ethel Spears — so are her pictures.
Funds derived from her new job of illustrating readers enabled her to go to Paris for four months.
Grotesque adventures of herself and another young woman, a New York music teacher, traveling through rural France are too long to relate here. Always, her sense of humor persisted, even when they got down to their last $10, strangers in a strange land.
Where was I? Oh, yes, with Miss Spears in John Norton’s class. Early in her career there, she won a little prize in a contest for a mural sketch, and that confirmed her in an ambition already budding to be a mural painter. She made such progress that, in her final year in the “painting course at the Institute, she was appointed to do the tearoom murals.
Finishing school and feeling that Norton’s careful instruction had too “lightened” her technique, she went to Woodstock to study in the drawing class of Alexander Archipenko, the sculptor, extreme “Modernist.” Later, she attended his classes in New York — and in New York she remained for five years, living as she could, fighting the “Depression” that ultimately sent 85 per cent of New York’s artists (it is said) to relief rolls and federal projects.
While she was in Paris, the schoolbook publishers for whom she was working got into financial difficulties. She tarried in New York for a time, on coming back from Europe, and then returned to Chicago.
Murals loom large in the federal projects, and Miss Spears, of late, has been working for WPA. Among her accomplishments here are murals for the Crippled Children’s Ward, Illinois Research Hospital; for the Cakton School, Evanston; for the Lowell Elementary School, Oak Parks; for the Hans Christian Andersen Community House, Oak Park; and now (unfinished) for the Lewis Carroll Community House, Oak Park. Before the “Depression” and the WPA, and in the days of her Art Institute tearoom murals, she already had made her mark in Oak Park with a “Peter Pan” series for the James Barrie Community House.
For the Lewis Carroll house, she is doing, of course, an “Alice in Wonderland” series. While letting her playful imagination take its course, she is beholden to the classic Tenniel illustrations.
“The world knows Alice through the eye of Tenniel as well as through the pages of Carroll,” she explains. “Any other ‘Alice’ wouldn’t be Alice.”
In New York, she had an exhibition at the Weyhe Gallery, and the very discriminating Mr. Weyhe bought for his own personal collection a sketch she did of the quaint front of his gallery store on Lexington Avenue, known to art lovers the world over.
After coming back to Chicago, she went on a visit to Los Angeles. She got across the California border on her way back home before the “native sons” (and daughters) had seen the sketches she did of poor crippled and doddering, World-whipped human beings who have gone out there to die in the famous sunshine.
“In New York, atop a Fifth Avenue bus, you look down into alert faces, full of fight and determination to get somewhere,” she ways by way of contrasting the extremes of the continent.
Chicago, she finds, is slower than New York; faster than Los Angeles — its people willing to be assimilated in the great “melting pot” but not ready to give up the ghost.