Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Underground Railroad

Charles T. Webber (1825-1911) was not an Indiana artist, nor is his painting, "The Underground Railroad," set in Indiana. However, two of Webber's subjects, Levi Coffin (1798-1877) and his wife, Catherine White Coffin, were Hoosiers, having lived in Indiana from 1826 to 1847. Coffin's house, located in Newport (now Fountain City), Indiana, was a way station on the Underground Railroad and is now a National Historic Landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places. For his work, Coffin was considered "the President of the Underground Railroad."

Artist Charles T. Webber, born on Christmas Day, 1825, in Cayuga County, New York, was a well known and accomplished artist in his adopted home city of Cincinnati. He painted "The Underground Railroad" to commemorate the work of the Coffins and other abolitionists. Webber considered the painting to be his masterpiece and exhibited it at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. That would make this year the 120th anniversary of "The Underground Railroad." The Cincinnati Art Museum acquired the painting after Webber's death in 1911 and holds it in their collections. So is it illustration or is it fine art? If illustration contains a narrative and fine art does not, then isn't most if not all art illustration? Does the distinction really matter?

Text copyright 2013 Terence E. Hanley

Friday, February 1, 2013

Gorhea M. Offutt (1920-1998)

Gorhea M. Offutt was born on August 11, 1920, in Indiana. As a young woman she lived in Evansville with her parents. Her name appeared several times in the Evansville Argus, a black newspaper in print from 1938 to 1943. Gorhea (which may sometimes be spelled Gorohea) attended the Herron School of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and Butler University. In February 1945 her art appeared on the cover of World Call, the magazine of the Disciples of Christ, illustrating a poem called "For George Washington Carver." The poem, a sonnet, was written by Graziello Maggio, a sixteen-year-old resident of The Bronx, New York, and winner of first prize in an essay contest sponsored by the Grand Street Boys Association. Entries in the contest were to be "on lessons to be gathered from the life of the great Negro scientist, who was born in slavery" (quoted from the New York Times, Feb. 13, 1944). Eleanor Roosevelt took note of the poem in her "My Day" newspaper column of May 4, 1944. Graziella Maggio's poem:

For George Washington Carver
by Graziella Maggio

He took the warm, brown earth into his hand,
The warm, brown earth which matched his own dark skin.
He closed his fist and felt the heat expand,
The heat a Southern sun had put therein.
He took the pure bright colors of the earth
And to the world he made a gift of them.
He took a plant man said had little worth
And found a use for fruit and leaves and stem.
But though he did these things and many more,
He did not take the praise, instead disclosed
That it had been the hand of God that tore
The lock which keeps the Book of Knowledge closed.
Good fertile fields he made from useless sod—
This man with willing hands and faith in God.

And Gorhea Offutt's illustration from the following year:

I know nothing more about the artist except that she lived in Indianapolis and passed away on December 4, 1998.

Thanks to the Indiana State Library for its invaluable work in preserving information and images from the past. Gorhea Offutt's illustration above is from the library's collections. I hope that the Indiana State Library is not the only place where this image still exists.

Text copyright 2013 Terence E. Hanley