Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Clyde Singer

Screenshot of Vindicator art critic Clyde Singer via Google News Archive, September 12, 1971.

This is how I saw Clyde Singer when I was growing up in Youngstown. He wrote articles about new art shows at the Butler. I noticed them but cannot say I paid much attention. What I did not realize was his role at the Butler nor his body of work as a celebrated American artist. In researching him online, I discovered that one of his paintings, “On 14th Street” was sold by Christie’s for $50,000 on October 27, 2020.

Singer was a native Ohioan, born in 1908 in Malvern, Ohio, a small village in Carroll County, about 15 miles southeast of Canton. He was an artist from childhood, and much of his early art captured scenes and people from everyday life around Malvern. After high school, he worked for a time as a sign painter and then went to art school in Columbus before returning to Malvern. In 1933, he won a scholarship to the Art Students League in New York, where his teachers included John Steuert Curry, Thomas Hart Benton, Kenneth Hayes Miller, and Ivan Olinsky.

His style was characterized as Social Realist. While in New York, he painted in some of the same places famous painters of his time like George Bellow and John Sloan, including McSorley’s Saloon. But when he finished his studies, he returned to Ohio with $1.10 in his pocket. Soon, though, he received $500 for a large canvas exhibited at the Chicago Art Institute in 1935. Other exhibitions followed, but a steady income can be elusive for an artist.

In 1940, Joseph Butler III offered him a job. He was able to marry Bernice Shimp, an art student in 1941. Apart from war service from 1942 to 1945, he worked at the Butler until his death in 1999. He rose to the position of associate director. He also took on the work of writing articles for the Vindicator introducing new art shows at the Butler. He contributed a column every week.

He kept painting. He loved painting the blue-collar workers of Youngstown and the scenes of their lives. In all, he painted over 3,000 paintings, many in his basement studio in his home in Boardman. The Butler owns about 75 of them. He helped the Butler acquire a number of important works in its collection. He taught art classes at the Butler. And he made yearly trips to New York.

The advent of Abstract Art spelled the end of Social Realism and Regionalism in the art world. He tried his hand at this, sold some, but returned to what he loved because of his passion to capture everyday American life. The basic character of his paintings, including his humor, did not change–only the clothes–miniskirts and hippies replaced earlier styles.

He lived simply. He didn’t drive, his clothes looked like gifts and hand-me-downs. He could hold his own with other Social Realists but when the Butler acquired a painting of Kenneth Hayes Miller, Lou Zona, Butler director describes what happened in these words:

“He came in one morning, and I said, ‘I want to show you something.’ Instead of another electrical failure or a hole in the roof, the kind of things you have to deal with in an old building, I walked him over to the Kenneth Hayes Miller painting. He looked at it and his eyes filled with tears. He said, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’”

His reputation has only grown since his death in 1999, purchased by collectors around the country. He is contribution to the cultural life of Youngstown during his nearly 60 years in the city is immeasurable. By the same token, the city and its people contributed so much to his work. In 2008 PBS Western Reserve filmed the video above on the occasion of a joint exhibition at the Butler and the Canton Museum of Art. It is a wonderful tribute to this man who did so much for Youngstown while creating a body of work that makes him one of America’s great artists.

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Snap The Whip

Snap the Whip, Winslow Homer, 1872. Butler Institute of American Art. Public Domain

When I was growing up, I was told this was the most famous painting in the Butler. If it was on display, every school tour stopped to see it. If memory serves, we had a print of the painting hanging in our school library. I can’t say it was, or is, my favorite. That honor goes to Robert Vonnoh’s In Flanders Field. Art tastes are an individual thing! But it does remind me of some of the playground games we played…

Snap the Whip was painted in 1872. It captures a rural scene in post-Civil War America. It is recess from a one-room school house. You can see the teachers (playground monitors!) standing in the distance. The nine boys are barefoot with a variety of hats, suspenders and jackets, in a grassy field (with a few rocks!) sprinkled with wild flowers. The school and field are nestled in a hilly wooded landscape, thought to be somewhere in upstate New York, perhaps near the Hudson Valley or near Easthampton, on Long Island, both places where Homer spent time.

The painting captures a favorite playground game, Snap the Whip. The lead boy runs back and forth causing the line to weave, and then comes the snap, when the boys in the lead plant their feet and everyone tries to hang on with the “snap” of momentum. Two of the nine boys have let go and are tumbling. Will the rest of the line tear apart as some boys plant their feet and others are still striding?

Executive director and chief curator of the Butler, Louis A. Zona says, “Homer was to painting what Mark Twain was to literature. It shows what life was like in America after the Civil War. Homer has captured the wonders of youth at a special moment in time.” The painting captured for people of the time innocence, simplicity, and play in a peaceful setting after so much turmoil. Even today, it recalls a simpler, agrarian day. I suspect in our risk-conscious, litigious society, Snap the Whip would no longer be permitted (at least when adults are around).

The painting featured as one of the most celebrated works at the 1876 Centennial International Exhibition, held in Philadelphia. Joseph G. Butler acquired the painting in 1919, the year the Butler Institute of American Art opened. Butler grew up with William McKinley, with whom he remained friends and about whom he wrote a biography after McKinley’s death. The painting reminded him of their friendship and shared boyhood. There is a second, smaller version of the painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The big difference is that Homer has removed the hills, replacing them with blue sky. My personal opinion is this makes it a less interesting painting. What do you think?

Snap the Whip, Winslow Homer, 1872. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Public Domain.

Winslow Homer lived between 1836 and 1910. Many people consider Snap the Whip to be the greatest work of one of America’s great artists. He was Norman Rockwell before Norman Rockwell. One of Homer’s lesser works, Lost on the Grand Banks, sold in 1998 for approximately $30 million. It makes one wonder about the worth of the painting in the Butler. Hopefully, it never will be sold–the Butler’s own website describes it as “the heart and soul of the Butler’s collection.” I personally think the Butler is the heart and soul of Youngstown–built and funded to this day out of an industrialist’s fortune. If so, the painting is at the heart of this heart, the soul of this soul. Writing this article and looking at the painting makes me want to sit with the actual work the next time I visit Youngstown. And it reminds me of what a treasure we have in the Butler.

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Butler Institute of American Art

800px-butler_institute_of_american_art_07

Lorinda Dixon [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons

The Butler is 100 years old this year! In 1919, the Butler Institute of American Art was dedicated, named after industrialist, author and philanthropist Joseph G. Butler, Jr., who contributed the funds to establish the museum. The original museum building, designed by architects McKim, Mead, and White, is an architectural gem and on the National Register of Historic Places.

Butler always felt that American artists had been overshadowed by those from Europe. As an art lover, he assembled a significant collection at his Wick Avenue home, that he intended would form the beginning of the collection of the museum he envisioned. Much of this was lost in a fire in 1917, but by then, plans for the museum were already underway. In 1919, Butler helped dedicate the first museum in the country devoted to American art.

One of the conditions that Butler set when he established the museum is that it would operate on a pro bono basis, on which it has operated to this day. This sets it apart from many museums (the Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Toledo museums are also free, except for special shows). The Columbus Museum of Art, where I live is free only for members and young children. Adults under 60 pay $14, students and seniors $8 (Sundays are free for all, however). When Butler died in 1927, most of his estate of $1.5 million was bequeathed to the museum, and fittingly, his memorial service was held at the museum.

I first visited the museum as a child, enjoying the collection of Remington works depicting Native Americans and western life. Later, as a college student at adjacent Youngstown State, I loved going over to the museum on class breaks. I discovered that there was such a thing as a “Hudson River School” due to the museum’s collection of these paintings. I’d seen prints of “Snap the Whip” by Winslow Homer on the walls of Washington Elementary. At the Butler, I could sit and study the original. But my favorite, then and now, is Robert Vonnoh “In Flanders Field-Where Soldiers Sleep and Poppies Grow.” I grew up in the Vietnam war era, and the painting symbolized to me both the futility of war and the longing that peace and flourishing would prevail.

1024px-robert_vonnoh_-_coquelicots

Robert Vonnoh, “In Flanders Field-Where Soldiers Sleep and Poppies Grow” [Public Domain] via Wikimedia

We’ve visited the museum several times since and witnessed its growth including the new south wing, The Beecher Center. There is also a new Andrews Pavilion with a gift shop, cafe’, and sculpture atrium. In 2006, the museum also acquired the adjacent property formerly belonging to the First Christian Church, using it as an education and performing arts space. The museum collection now exceeds 20,000 works, which now include works in new digital and holographic media. One of the museum’s major acquisitions in 2007 was Norman Rockwell’s, Lincoln The Railsplitter, previously owned by Ross Perot. They also operate a satellite museum in Trumbull County with its own schedule of shows.

Concurrent with its one hundredth birthday, the Butler is hosting a show titled “100 Years of Printmaking II” that surveys printmaking in America over the last 100 years. The museum offers ongoing educational programs for parents with young children, youth and seniors. Dr. Louis Zona, executive director and chief curator of the museum, offers periodic Sunday afternoon lectures, the current schedule of which may be found on the museum website.

The Butler Institute of American Art is not only a Youngstown treasure. It is an American treasure, displaying the creativity of American artists from every period of our history. Happy one hundredth birthday, and may you see many more!

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Joseph G. Butler, Jr.

Jgbutler

Joseph G. Butler, Jr., Author Unknown. Source: The Youngstown Telegram. Public Domain-US, via Wikipedia

I visited the Columbus Museum of Art on Friday. One of the reasons was to see the actual painting of “Morning Drive” by Christopher Leeper, about which I wrote in an earlier post, “The View From Home.” Leeper’s painting is the view of downtown and the Valley from the corner of Mahoning Avenue and North Portland, where I lived. It is in an exhibit of the Ohio Watercolor Society until September 10, and captures the view that is in my mind’s eye when I think of looking down Mahoning Avenue toward town on a cold and clear winter morning.

The visit to this museum, which has been expanded in recent years, reminded me what a treasure Youngstown has at the Butler Institute of American Art, which easily goes toe to toe with the Columbus, in a far bigger city. For one thing, from its establishment, admission to the Butler has always been free, in comparison to what we paid for admission (even with AAA discount) plus the add-on fee for a special show plus parking. It reminded me of the gift Joseph G. Butler, Jr. gave to the city, and the wider art world in establishing this museum and generously funding it upon his death. And so it made me wonder a bit more about the man behind the museum.

I discovered he was a multi-faceted individual:

He was a pioneer steel-maker. Butler’s father and grandfather were iron manufacturers and blast furnace experts and Butler brought this to Youngstown and facilitated the transition to steel manufacturing. He joined Henry Wick in organizing the Ohio Steel Company, building two Bessemer plants along the Mahoning River, which later became the Ohio Works of Carnegie Steel, later U.S. Steel. His industrial leadership formed the core of his wealth and led to directorships on numerous boards including that of Youngstown Sheet and Tube and the Youngstown and Suburban Railway Company.

He was a dedicated civic leader. He led the fund-raising drive that established St. Elizabeth’s Hospital and worked with the Niles Board of Trade to establish the McKinley Memorial for William McKinley, a classmate of his during his youth in Niles and friend. He also donated monies for libraries and a number of other community institutions.

He was a collector of American art. Butler realized that the works of American artists were overshadowed by those from Europe. He assembled a significant collection in his Wick Avenue home, much of which was lost in a 1917 fire. Plans had already been laid for the Butler, a museum to house his collection, which opened in 1919. When he died in 1927, most of his $1.5 million estate was bequeathed to the Butler.

I found two other interesting aspects to Butler as well.

He was a political insider. His prominence and wealth as a national leader in industry gave him access to most of the presidents of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. He was a staunch Republican, and his support was considered indispensable in any national campaign.

He was a historian. Amazingly, this busy man had the time to write a biography of McKinley, a memoir titled Presidents I Have Seen and Known, a history of steel-making, and a three volume History of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley, which has been digitized and may be downloaded here. His other works are also in digital form and came up on this search result.

Thriving cities do so, I’m convinced, because they enjoy dedicated, competent, and honest leadership from three sectors: civic, political, and business. Butler represented all three and a number of the bright spots in the city from its hospitals to its libraries to the Butler are a consequence of his influence. His foresight in recognizing the dearth of talented American artists works being represented in museums led to establishing what is arguably the foremost museum of American art in the country. His careful historical writing provides a bedrock of historical information about his times, and our hometown. The impact of his philanthropy continues to make its mark in the Mahoning Valley nearly 100 years later.

While times have changed, communities will continue to need men and women who use the benefits of wealth, access, education, and leadership skills for the benefit of their communities. People like Joseph G. Butler, Jr. and Volney Rogers are worth the study of contemporary community leaders in Youngstown. Both invested nearly 50 years of their lives in Youngstown, around the same time. One gave us a world class museum. The other, a jewel along Mill Creek. Whose investment in the Valley will make a difference in the next century?