The Stone City art mystery

On CampusSummer 2012

Story submitted by Matt Collins, great-grandson of artist and Stone City Art Colony student Persis Weaver Robertson.

'Deeploma O’Litho'

In the spring of 2009, while preparing my late grandmother’s summer home for rental use, I discovered a painting of unknown provenance. Its creator left only a tantalizing caricature of his face in the lower right hand corner, with the playfully-spelled “Teecher” in a caption below. This story tells how that painting, entitled “Deeploma O’Litho,” went from nearly being trashed to hanging in a museum, and in the process, brought together two universities half a country apart and hinted at a family mystery that may never be solved.

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Going room-by-room through a loved one’s house after she has died forces you to see things as if for the first time. Every item gets evaluated – keep, give away, replace, throw out – in a way that is often loaded with emotion. So it was for me when, in the spring of 2009, my family and I returned to Cutchogue, a quiet village on the North Fork of Long Island, New York, to prepare my late grandmother’s summer residence for renters.

After having spent hours throwing away musty linens and locking away family photos that no renter, eager to indulge a fantasy of ownership, would want to see, I had one more room to inspect: my great-grandmother’s bedroom. Her name was Persis Weaver Robertson, and in addition to being Grammy to me, she was a talented and, in my view, under-appreciated artist. In the family, Persis is known for three distinct genres. Her Depression-era lithographs came first. In the ’50s and ’60s, believing the art world had neglected the sense of touch, she carved soft and soothing handheld pieces made of soapstone, ceramic, and ebony. Finally, in the ’80s, she crafted colorful, whimsical cutouts she made out of scrap paper.

On the walls were several paintings that I had seen before but never really taken the time to study. The last of these I had seen countless times, but quickly realized I didn’t really know.

As I moved to get a closer look, I saw a series of vignettes and captions, almost like a cartoon, which seemed to suggest something about the lithography-making process. A blistered hand, presumably marred from having made prints with a heavy stone, reads, “Where two or three are gathered together.” In its center were the large words “Deeploma O’Litho.”

The captions and images made little sense to me. What did it all mean? Who created this piece? Reflexively, my eyes shifted to the lower right hand corner, where artists usually sign their names. There, though, appeared only a jowly, tousle-haired, bespectacled man with a toothbrush mustache. Under it read the word “Teecher.”

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In the summer of 1932, Grant Wood, arguably the preeminent American painter of the 20th century and most famous for his work American Gothic, founded an art colony in his native Iowa. Located in the quarry town of Stone City, Wood’s program attracted students to the quiet countryside, where they could refine their craft under the watchful eye of expert instructors and without the distraction of daily routine.

In addition to Wood, accomplished regional artists Francis Chapin, David McCosh, Florence Sprague, and Marvin Cone joined the faculty. My great-grandmother enrolled to study lithography.

I concluded that the painting was an artifact of that sojourn, and that Teecher was one of her instructors. A succession of questions raced through my mind. What sort of relationship did she have with classmates and faculty? What did she learn, and did her coursework improve her technique?

As I studied “Deeploma,” I began to suspect that its creator had left clues that might answer some of these questions, which was important, because no one in the family spoke of it in any detail. I suspect that’s because some disapproved of her going. After all, attending meant leaving her two young daughters and husband in Des Moines so she could live and study art in the woods of Iowa.

There also was the alluring mystery surrounding Teecher’s identity. Could he be Grant Wood himself? If so, it was easy to imagine that “Deeploma” might be worth more than the house itself.

Sizing up Teecher’s distinctive face, I felt certain that I could pick him out of a photograph. Such photos and much more about the colony appear on a website hosted by Mount Mercy University, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Entitled “When Tillage Begins: The Stone City Art Colony and School,” the site was created and is curated by Mount Mercy Reference Librarian and Archivist Kristy Raine.  It is the authoritative online resource on the topic. It includes biographies of students and faculty, a history of Stone City and how it came to host Wood’s project, and a trove of photographs.

'Teecher'

After examining a few photos, though, any hopes of identifying Teecher right away were dashed. It seemed that all the male faculty wore glasses, had mottled hair and droopy jawlines. Apparently one couldn’t teach at Stone City and not appear disheveled in a near-sighted sort of way.

At this point, I had reached the limits of my investigative ability. Thankfully, Raine includes her name and contact information on the Mount Mercy website on Stone City, so I emailed her. She responded right away. After learning what I knew about Persis’ study of lithography and examining photos I had taken of “Deeploma,” she confidently asserted Teecher’s identity, though she could not prove it. She believed him to be David McCosh.

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David McCosh was born in Iowa in 1903. He studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and polished his craft in Iowa, New York, and Paris, eventually becoming a master lithographer. Wood invited him to teach the subject at Stone City. He could pass as Teecher, though again, so could others. Raine then pointed me to the University of Oregon; McCosh taught there for decades, and the school maintains a sizable collection of his work.

In the fall of 2009, I contacted Danielle Knapp, the University of Oregon’s Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art’s McCosh Fellow Curator. She eagerly took up the challenge, and after comparing the penmanship in “Deeploma” to his writings, she confirmed that Teecher was, in fact, David McCosh. An added bonus: among McCosh’s belongings, Knapp found one of my great-grandmother’s lithographs.

Though I had started this inquiry with the thought of selling “Deeploma,” I had a change of heart. It belonged with the community dedicated to preserving McCosh’s legacy. I therefore donated it to the University of Oregon. “Deeploma” thus completed its journey from Iowa to New York to Oregon, barely avoiding a dumpster in the process.

Though Raine and Knapp had solved the question of Deeploma’s origins, my inquiry had exposed another mystery, one that no expert is likely to solve. What circumstances led McCosh to make “Deeploma” for Persis? Raine said that it was not unheard of for Stone City faculty to create gifts for their students. Deeploma’s imagery mostly suggests playfulness, and Knapp confirmed that many of the captions refer to poetry and song that might have been popular in the 1930s. Yet aside from its title, its central image is a shapely woman, almost certainly Persis, bent at the waist with her face angled away from the viewer, rolling a stone. Its voyeuristic caption: “View from my window.” Might “Deeploma” have meant something more than just an expression of appreciation for a capable pupil? Did it remind Persis more of the place she had been, or the man who taught her? McCosh chose anonymity rather than to sign his name. He wanted to remain hidden to all but Persis. Why do that unless there was something to hide?

'View from my window'

I believe “Deeploma” is evidence that McCosh and Persis enjoyed a harmless but meaningful flirtation. Knapp and Raine downplay that possibility, both noting that during the summer of 1932, McCosh had begun a courtship by correspondence with his future wife, Anne Kutka. True enough. But I have a feeling Stone City was ephemeral and precious to Persis. For a few weeks, she shed her spousal and parental duties to pursue her artistic passion and to linger among those who shared that passion. In the process, she earned the admiration of a young, bachelor instructor. She’d have to have been made of the limestone bedrock under Stone City itself not to have felt a stirring about the place and people she met there.

Over the last two years, I have enjoyed nothing more than this investigation. The core of its story makes for a compelling tale, but so much more has emerged. In August, 2011, I took my then nine-year old daughter with me to Oregon to see the painting in its new home, giving her insight into an important ancestor and me one of a dwindling number of chances to spend time with her before the onset of adolescence. As a result of collaborating on this project, Knapp invited Raine to lecture at the University of Oregon on the Stone City Art Colony, advancing scholarship on the subject.

Ironically, the one actor in this story with whom I am the closest – Persis herself – is also the one whose role will most likely elude me forever. My deceased grandmother was Persis’ older daughter. My great-aunt was just seven years old in 1932. I long for more information about their relationship, but I’m resigned to the possibility that only Persis and her “Teecher” will ever know the truth.

Want to learn more about Stone City? Check out Mount Mercy’s website: http://projects.mtmercy.edu/stonecity/colony.html

For information about David McCosh, visit
http://jsma.uoregon.edu/collections/americas-regional-art/david-mccosh/default.aspx


Special thanks to Mount Mercy University Reference Librarian/Archivist Kristy Raine; Lawrence Fong, Curator of American and Regional Art, Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art; Danielle Knapp, McCosh Fellow Curator, Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art; and Karin Clarke and Margaret Coe. Special thanks to my family, who have brought me both enlightenment and satisfaction in seeing a painting from an important artist return to its rightful home. I think Grammy would have approved.

~ Matt Collins

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