ILLINOIS HISTORICAL ART PROJECT
No. 97 Kathleen Blackshear
Chicago’s most sympathetic, most understanding painter of the American Negro is Kathleen Blackshear. There is no “social significance,” no “American scene” in her approach. She detests the jargon. She’s from the Cotton Belt of Texas, and she goes home twice a year, at Christmas and in the summer vacation period, to visit her mother and to renew her contacts with the village life of Navasota, halfway between Houston and Dallas — and the Negro is an integral part of that life.
Negroes are her friends, people she loves. She thinks them droll and beautiful — “the most beautiful people I know.”
Herself of the aristocracy of Virginia and Georgia, she played with Negro children on two ancestral cotton plantations near Navasota when a small child. She spent the summer with one or the other of her grandmothers, and when autumn came, the had almost to hunt her out from the cotton fields and the Negro cabins to take her back to school.
The Negro, to her, is no potential Communist to help bring the Stalin “democracy” to America, nor is he somebody the Nazis can use, as the Kaiser thought of doing in the early stages of the World War, to bring about a revolution.
Quick sketches of the Negroes of Texas fill the largest of Kathleen Blackshear’s sketch books. Another is devoted to Chicago’s Negro version of “The Mikado.” These sketchbooks of hers are nearly as voluminous as Leonardo Da Vinci’s, and have in them a whale of a “kick.” Her Negroes in these slight but expert drawings live and breathe a happy, wholesome life.
She has sketchbooks of stuffed animals at the Field Museum and others of live animals at Brookfield Zoo. To her, the rhinoceros is a creature of beauty, and the gorilla is handsome.
But what you find in Miss Blackshear’s sketchbooks are not what you find in her paintings she exhibits around town in the various shows. Her sketches are realistic and ever-flowing with verve. Her paintings tend to the abstract.
This summer indeed she is conducting a class in abstract painting in the school of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she has been employed since 1982 as an instructor in the history of art.
Miss Blackshear, as honest with herself as with her interviewer, admits a certain amount of cowardice. She seldom shows her sketchbooks, since artist friends have “pooh-poohed” their “photographic” realism. Her sketches are not that at all, incidentally. “Realistic,” they are but not “photographic,” since everything she does has a “mood,” even a stuffed animal in the Field Museum. “Still life” can have moods — witness Cezanne’s apples or Chardin’s onions. A stuffed gorilla in Kathleen Blackshear’s sketchbook is as much “alive” in a different way as one she has done from a breathing brute in the zoo.
But Miss Blackshear is fascinated by the “abstract” and believes she can best “interpret” that way. Her love for “realism” — which is huge — she expends on her sketches. She argues convincingly when she shows an interviewer some “abstracts” in the backs of her sketchbooks.
Here, she has reduced a drawing of a rhinoceros or a gorilla to the lowest terms of simplification — to lines and volumes, to nonobjective forms that “make sense,” like the “oil mills” of Cezanne which are the basis of the “cubism” of Picasso.
By combining a front view and a side view of the young Negro’s face, she demonstrates the logic of Picasso in another phase and of Modigliani. An African anteater she has simplified into the “cones” of Cezanne.
Speaking of Cezanne, Miss Blackshear has found in her classes in history in art that Cezanne is still the most abstruse problem her students have to solve. Matisse, Picasso, and the major “Surrealists” are comparatively easy. But Cezanne, whose centenary is being observed this year and whom the “moderns” are trying to relegate into the archives of “old masters,” is still the most “modern” of them all.
In the course of her career as a teacher of art history, Miss Blackshear has surveyed the entire field the ninth time, each time with a new slant. “Art history,” she believes, hasn’t yet been written with any sort of finality. New and disturbing factors are being dug up, particularly in central Asia.
“I’d like to be around 50 years from now,” she said, “to see what art history is like.
Sometimes she experiments in her classrooms. She has her students try to work out a fresco of modern life — baseball or European dictators — in terms of the Etruscan or the Minoan. Some of the results are startling in their restatement of the commonplace.
Art history and art expression will be fuller as the years go by, she believes, and “abstraction” has by no means run its course.
Big metropolitan visions for a village girl from Texas!
The village of Navasota, in which she was born June 6, 1897, was surveyed and laid out by a grandfather from whom she either inherited her own liberality and broadness of vision, or had it grafted on her as a small girl by his teaching by example. A fighter for the Confederate side of the Civil War, he considered the war over after the surrender of Lee, and didn’t hold any prejudices against the “Damned Yanks.” Bygones were bygones and the future belonged to the future. He saw no valid reason for institutions like the Daughters of the Confederacy, keeping alive the memories of old and bad times.
For Kathleen, he made bows and arrows in his carpenter shop, and he encouraged her in outdoors activities.
Girlhood passed without much interest in art, except the copying in color of Gibson girls and such like drawings for magazine covers. Miss Blackshear finds many students entering the Art Institute school now with similar background and ideas about art.
Entering Baylor University at Waco, she majored in modern languages. But the personality who influenced her most here was a professor of English who idolized Browning.
So she wrote her thesis for graduation in the English department — “Art Criticism in English Literature.” The “critics” she discussed were Hazlitt, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and — Browning! Browning was rung in because of his frequent use of Italian painters and their pictures as poetic themes — a practice that also impressed the pre-Raphaelite painters.
After Baylor, Miss Blackshear, making up her mind to be an artist, went to New York and the Art Students’ League. She wasn’t very happy there after her chief instructor told her he thought she belonged to “the doughnut school of painting.” He explained that she found the outer rim of a face more intriguing than the nose and the mouth.
So she spent the great part of the time that year in the Bronx Zoo, sketching. The animals were more sympathetic, the lonely girl from Texas found.
Next year, she went to California where she got a job making posters for the movies. Also she was put to work at Culver City, coloring films. Those were the days before Technicolor, and when every little transparency had to be hand-colored under a magnifying glass.
Returning to Texas, she found her English professor at Baylor was taking a party on a tour of Europe and she joined up. His enthusiasm was for localities Browning had trod and for cemeteries.
Back home (it was now 1924), she came to Chicago and to the school of the Art Institute where she graduated in due time. John Norton, painter, and Helen Gardner, instructor in art history, were her chief enthusiasms. Norton, now dead, she regards as a sort of Dr. Samuel Johnson — of greater importance as an intellect, a philosopher and a conversationalist than for what he himself actually accomplished.
Under Miss Gardner she specialized in art history and after graduation she joined (in 1928) the schools’ faculty and there she has been ever since.
A class she teaches in composition is of more recent origin, and she has another “research” group that haunts the halls of the Field Museum, storehouse of antiques and of specimens of animals, vegetables, and minerals from the corners of the world.
The Field Museum’s “races of men” figure slightly, if at all, in her sketchbooks. She prefers her own Texas Negroes.
Curiously enough, neither has she made a book of Indians of Texas and the neighboring New Mexico she has frequently visited.
“Indians are foreign to me,” she says. “I look on them as does any tourist, and curiosities spread for tourists don’t interest me.”