Relishing A Regional Legacy, Part 1 of…?
By Tom Wachunas
“With watercolour, you can’t cover up the marks. There’s the story of the construction of the picture, and then the picture might tell another story as well.” – David Hockney –
“Where oils lumber…watercolours prance.” - Doug Mays –
“Watercolor is the first and the last thing an artist does.” - Willem de Kooning-
EXHIBITION: The Cleveland School: Watercolor and Clay, at the Canton Museum of Art, THROUGH MARCH 10, 2013, 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton, Ohio (330) 453 – 7666 www.cantonart.org
This breathtaking exhibition surely rates more than one post. Consider this one, then, as a general introduction, with installments to follow over the next few weeks.
Sometime during my adolescence I acquired the mistaken notion that painting in watercolor was strictly a training exercise, or a medium one graduated from in the pursuit of loftier, more “relevant” painting media. Watercolors were for amateur dabblers, I thought.
My youthful arrogance was promptly extinguished after the crash-and-burn disaster of my first serious collegiate attempt at a watercolor landscape. I fared no better with several following efforts, though I eventually managed to produce a few remarkably mediocre pictures. That experience - coupled with a deeper study of watercolors by such artists as Albrecht Durer, J.M.W. Turner, Winslow Homer, Charles Burchfield and John Marin (among many others) – was humbling. Thus were planted the seeds of real respect for accomplished watercolorists.
When I returned to live in Stark County in early 1992, it seemed to me that an unusually large number of painters on the local gallery scene (pitifully sparse as it was at that time) were watercolorists. Only after several months did I learn that the mysterious ‘OWS’ that accompanied many of the signatures on their works stood for Ohio Watercolor Society, founded in 1978. During the ensuing years, the apparent passion for and practice of watercolor painting in these parts has not significantly waned, even to the extent that at one point I viewed Stark County – indeed Canton - as some sort of watercolor Mecca. Further supporting my perception was the realization that along with contemporary ceramics, the primary focus of the Canton Museum of Art’s (CMA) impressive permanent collection is American watercolors from the 19th and 20th centuries.
As this new CMA exhibit makes clear, watercolor painting is an intrinsic part of our region’s aesthetic DNA. Fully embracing this fact necessarily begins with examining the emergence of the Cleveland School. The term is not a reference to a single academic structure or campus per se. It is rather a general description of a very diverse, expanding sphere of artists – many of them historically significant - who both gravitated toward and emanated from Cleveland’s influential art institutions, working from the late 19th century and forward into the 1960s, throughout a region that ultimately spanned hundreds of miles.
This commanding show, comprised of exquisite works from the CMA permanent collection as well as from regional museums and significant private collections, merits close attention. To better inform your viewing experience, I highly recommend reading the excellent catalogue essay by William H. Robinson of the Cleveland Museum of Art, which can be found on the CMA website (posted above) or in CMA’s Vignette, a free publication available at the museum. Consider the essay, like the exhibit, as a journey into an important legacy.
PHOTO: Cleveland, watercolor by Moses Pearl, courtesy of Rachel Davis