One reason to be captivated by Laying the Foundation: UNT Art Faculty, 1890-1970 is that it takes you far away from the present while leaving you in familiar surroundings. Looking at “Portrait of Mrs. Turner,” an undated oil painting by Martha Simkins, you feel a grand sense of history belonging to both the Oak Cliff Society of Fine Arts (Oak Cliff is a Dallas neighborhood) and to Denton, where Simkins was one of the earliest teachers at what is now the art department at the University of North Texas. I didn’t go to that school (and don’t live in the O.C., for that matter), but the impact of UNT’s art department on the Texas art scene is pretty monumental, both in the talent produced and the talent professing. And so I went to Denton to see this exhibition. And it’s as much a history of art in Texas as of a specific institution.
The school was founded in response to the Industrial Revolution. Product design became a major concern in keeping the United States competitive economically, so teaching students to draw became a major concern in education. That meant training more art teachers. The Texas Normal College and Teachers’ Training Institute implemented its first drawing class around 1893; over time it became the College of Visual Arts and Design.
The exhibition shows works in all sorts of mediums: paintings in oil, tempera, and casein, sculptures in bronze, granite, stone, and walnut, serigraph prints, collage, photography (including a stunning 1938 photogram by Gyorgy Kepes), woven panels, architectural designs, and charming instructional materials co-authored by Cora Stafford, UNT’s historical local legend and namesake of its Stafford Gallery. I am especially in love with Georgia Leach Gough’s silver and porcelain “Six Liqueur Cups” (1978). The exhibition is loosely arranged by era, each as strong and delightful as the next and with surprises laced throughout.
Laying the Foundation: UNT Art Faculty, 1890-1970 runs through Saturday, February 11, 2012, at UNT on the Square in Denton.
This blog is Don’t Look. Okay Look.
Betsy Lewis is a writer from Dallas who usually tries to avoid I-35.