I had an art professor who said he used to love to go out onto the Brooklyn Bridge in winter to paint, because the watercolors almost instantly turned to ice crystals, creating the most enchanting effect once he got back in his studio and the crystals began to melt.
I can feel the chill just thinking about it.
Frostbite aside, there are those who are immensely fond of watercolor, and through their devotion have come to recognize that few places have raised the medium to such lofty heights as Northeast Ohio.
As William Robinson, art historian and curator at the Cleveland Museum of Art, puts it in an introductory essay available on www.cantonart.org, “The artists of Northeast Ohio developed their own watercolor traditions and raised the medium to such heights that it stands out as an area of special achievement.
“They learned to exploit the medium’s most distinctive quality — transparency — and to paint quickly and freely, sometimes without preliminary drawing.”
Much the same could be said for artists who work in clay, a favored medium in the area. Many have not only developed their own traditions, but have likewise risen to the level of national recognition.
The members of these two traditions have been assembled into an exceptionally pleasing exhibit at the Canton Museum of Art.
On view through March 10, The Cleveland School: Watercolor and Clay contains 85 works by 35 artists, two of whom (Frank Wilcox and William Zorach) are represented by work in each medium. The show was curated by Lynnda Arrasmith, curator of collections/registrar for the museum.
Even though the exhibit is titled The Cleveland School, Robinson acknowledges in the essay the title is one more of convenience than of any one unifying element.
The term, he says, identifies “a group of interconnected artists active in a confined geographic region, many of whom … shared common experiences, backgrounds, training, professional challenges and aesthetic philosophies.”
The Cleveland Society of Watercolor Painters was founded in 1892, and its members helped to spearhead the concept of watercolor as a medium sufficient unto itself — that watercolors weren’t just tinted drawings, nor preliminary sketches, but an independent form of painting with unique sensibilities, technical concerns and approaches.
There was, for instance, the development of the American style of watercolor, wherein the white of the paper served as the color white, and works in transparent watercolor were approached with that effect in mind.
English (or European) watercolor style, by contrast, is approached in a manner similar to oil painting, with opaque white used to create highlights in conjunction with both transparent and opaque (gouache) watercolors.
With transparent watercolor, colors are lightened with water, whereas with opaque watercolor, colors are lightened with white gouache. Darks are produced the same way in opaque and transparent watercolor: by painting heavily with dark colors, adding only as much water as needed to move the paint around.
In both mediums, painters must work swiftly and precisely as there is almost no margin for error. Similarly, watercolorists must be careful about overpainting or reworking a composition as the pigments very easily can become muddy.
The Northeast Ohio watercolor tradition can be traced to Ora Coltman (1858-1940) from Shelby and Henry Keller (1869-1949) who taught at the Cleveland School of Art from 1903 to 1945, both of whom were masters at using both transparent and opaque watercolors.
An exhibitor at the 1913 Armory Show, Keller, whose work ranged from experiments in abstract design to views of the Ohio countryside, was a highly influential teacher, introducing an entire generation of students and colleagues to modernist principals of abstract design and color theory.
He established a summer plein air painting school in Berlin Heights in 1909 and some of his students were Grace Kelly (1877-1950) and Clara Deike (1881-1918).
William Sommer, the Sage of Brandywine, was also part of this tradition and among the best-known of the Cleveland School members.
Such notable potters as Viktor Schreckengost, R. Guy Cowan (Cowan Pottery), Claude Conover, Leza Sullivan McVey and Clement Giorgi were also recognized on a national level.
Today, Northeast Ohio is rich in not only well-known artists and art schools, it’s permeated with studios and potteries, plein air clubs and art societies devoted to promoting the work of their members.
Watercolor lives on as an independent medium. Fine art works in clay are more important than ever in the area.
This show surveys only a brief span in two particular art traditions in Northeast Ohio, but it highlights the importance of art in our area and brings us both satisfaction and joy at the same time.
Not a bad way to spend a winter afternoon.
Dorothy Shinn writes about art and architecture for the Akron Beacon Journal. Send information to her at the Akron Beacon Journal, P.O. Box 640, Akron, OH 44309-0640 or email@example.com.