Zulma Steele: Artist/Craftswoman: A Co-Curator's Brief View
Updated: Aug 21, 2020
I'd like to welcome everyone to my new blog Learning Woodstock Art Colony. While I'm still in the infancy stage of putting the website together and planning the blog, I thought I would comment on the exhibition Zulma Steele: Artist/Craftswoman which opens on Friday August 21st and runs through November 22nd at the Kleinert/James Center for the Arts in the center of the village of Woodstock, New York. The gallery is open from Friday to Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. There is a formal protocol in place. People must wear a mask, and ten visitors are permitted in the gallery at any one time. I had the special pleasure of co-curating the exhibition with Henry Ford, Derin Tanyol and Tom Wolf. In the midst of the direst months of the pandemic in New York State earlier in the year we were privledged to join and work together as a team to organize the exhibition via Zoom. We worked closely with Karlyn Benson, the new exhibitions director of the Woodstock Byrdliffe Guild.
Zulma Steele: Artist Craftswoman is the most comprehensive exhibition ever organized of Steele's work, and the first solo show of her art since the summer of 1982 when Robert Angeloch organized a Steele exhibition at Paradox Gallery on Mill Hill Road in Woodstock, The show followed in the wake of Steele' death at the age of 98 in 1979, and the distribution of her estate. At the end of her life Steele resided in a nursing home in Westchester County.
Robert Angeloch initially met Steele in the 1950s when she introduced him to her work. Angeloch later related that "She had snow white hair and handsome regular features. She was tall and thin. When she was younger she must have been beautiful. She was very gracious, gentle, lady-like, sensitive in features and also in manner. She was very perceptive” (“Works of Early Ashokan Painter Surface in Dump,” Kingston Freeman, July 21, 1982). There is a review of the exhibition at Paradox Gallery by poet and art critic Tram Combs, wittily titled "Delicacies of Steele at the Paradox," in the July 15, 1982 issue of the Woodstock Times.
Exhibition Zulma Steele Artist/Craftswoman in Process of Installation, August 9th, 2020
The exhibition at the Kleinert/James Center for the Arts touches on all aspects of Steele's creativity. It highlights her talent as a furniture and textile designer, painter and printmaker, and ceramicist. I took the photograph above during the course of working on the installation of the exhibition with my fellow curators. The image features several objects, including a sketchbook, a rare group of photographs of Steele, and an issue dating from March 1918 of the periodical The Plowshare featuring the artist‘s linocut The Prodigal Father, which stylistically foreshadows her later exploration of abstraction. Also on the table is a book featuring illustrations by her mother, the artist Zulma DeLacy Steele, and a drawing by her brother, illustrator Frederic Dorr Steele.
Zulma Steele (1881-1979)
The Big Mountain, c. 1914-1915
Collection of Jean Young
The illustrated 104-page catalog is beautifully designed by Abigail Sturges, and features a foreword by Henry Ford and essays by Tom Wolf, Derin Tanyon and myself. Tom‘s essay touches on all aspects of Steele’s llife and career. Derin focuses on Steele's efforts as a furniture designer at Byrdclifffe, I wrote about Steele's magnificent series of paintings of the Ashokan Reservoir and the surrounding mountains, which were created in 1914 and 1915. They mark the peak of Steele’s aspiration and talent as a landscape painter. Five of the six located paintings in the series are featured in this display. The artist also pictured the area in a group of woodcuts and a monotype, which are also on view.
Zulma Steele (1881-1979)
The Big Mountain, c. 1914-1915,
Oil on canvas
Collection of Jean Young
The paintings in the series range from panoramic views of the reservoir and the mountain ranges in the distance, to more intimate glimpses of the water and the nearer terrain. By the latter part of 1913, Steele had advanced beyond working in styles indebted to Tonalism and Impressionism and ventured into a more subjective, experimental and modern manner of painting. The Ashokan Reservoir paintings rank among the finest landscapes created in the Woodstock art colony during the first decades of the 20th century.
My essay, titled A Minister to the Eye: The Ashokan Reservoir Series by Zulma Steele, was great fun to research and write. I am indebted to Bob Steuding and Marty Guliano who helped identify some of the locations and mountains depicted in the series, and speculated intelligently on others. For those interested in learning the full history of the creation of the reservoir I highly recommend reading Steuding's book The Last of the Handmade Dams: The Story of the Ashokan Reservoir (Purple Mountain Press, 1985).
In recent years, the Woodstock artist Kate McGloughlin has spoken and written eloquently about the history and transformation of the Ashokan area, where some of her relatives resided until they were directed to move away at the time of the reservoir’s construction. In 2017, she curated the exhibition Requiem for Ashokan: The Story Told in Landscape, held at the Woodstock Artists Association and Museum (https://www.woodstockart.org/kate-mcgloughlin-requiem-for-ashokan/). The exhibition, which was later shown in the Olive Free Library, featured prints, paintings, works on paper, historical maps, video, and both written and spoken word installations, and powerfully conveyed the emotional upheaval her maternal ancestors' neighbors and homeland endured during the clearing of the Esopus Valley to make way for the creation of the Ashokan Reservoir. The work on view revealed the devastation, disruption and loss of community from the landscape's point of view. To see more of Kate's Ashokan related work go to https://www.katemcgloughlin.com/ashokan-reservoir.
I hope you will have an opportunity to view the Zulma Steele Artist/Craftswoman, and read the wonderful catalog. For further details about the show see https://www.hudsonvalley360.com/artsandlife/thescene/kleinert-james-center-for-the-arts-reopens-friday-august-21-with-zulma-steele-artist-craftswoman/article_8d7f4e2b-c81b-5be9-956e-909dd2eae426.html.