I have passed by the T.C. Steele State Historic Site more times than I can count, always vowing to stop in, never building in enough time in any trip east on State Road 46 to do so. On Sunday, spurred by the tenure of a dear friend as Visiting Artist at the site, I indulged in that long-deferred visit.
Turning off 46, I realized that I had no formed expectations for what the site would hold. I was somewhat familiar with Steele’s impressionist landscapes of Brown County scenes (largely secondhand, through my daughters’ Indiana State History curriculum over the years), and knew that he had inspired the development of Brown County as an artist community. Nothing more.
The site lies several miles back from the main road, along an elevated ridge on a narrow road that turns and rises from the highway. Recurring signage reassures the driver that the road taken is still the correct one, while the lush green of encroaching vegetation continually inspires doubt.
The deep red bungalow anchoring the estate, named The House of the Singing Winds by Steele and his second wife, Selma, appears suddenly from the greenery on my right, set off by a rainbow of garden flowers. The barn-sized Large Studio looms just to the south, its wall of north-facing windows framing the main house beyond the gardens; inside, my friend (Elizabeth Busey, one of WWFaC’s informal “artists in residence” http://elizabethbusey.com/#home) awaited.
Having come largely to take in the scene, and to celebrate Elizabeth’s latest artistic accomplishment, I was unprepared to receive a full hour-long narration on Steele’s life and work by a devoted docent. However, I ended up grateful to learn about the artist, and his vision for both this treasured Indiana historic site and for his own work.
The three non-windowed walls of the Large Studio brim with Steele’s paintings, changed out regularly from a huge collection. As one enters, the near, east wall is largely taken up with breathtaking old school portraits, and a few European landscapes. The first portrait is so Rembrandt-like that I unthinkingly assumed it was a Rembrandt. As the docent elaborated, I learned that it was in fact a brilliant Steele study of Rembrandt, and that his luminous, humane portraiture was the bread and butter of his career, especially early on; it is easy to see why he was successful.
Relatively early landscapes, high contrast, painted in greyed, monochromatic colors were heavily influenced by a patron-funded period of study in Munich, while a series of seascapes and desert-scapes record trips west with his 20-year-old daughter Daisy after the death of his first wife of 29 years.
What stays with me from this visit most strongly, however, is the brightening, colorful, impressionist transformation of Steele's paintings by his discovery of Brown County, as well as his gradual, reciprocal transformation of his Brown County environs. When he and Selma moved to the abandoned farmstead, Brown County was still deeply entrenched in a harsh pioneer existence characterized by deep woods, difficult, undeveloped roads, and rural isolation. The vision of T.C. and Selma--building their artist’s bungalow, studios, and guest cottage, attracting a stream of artists and admirers, and bringing in generators to light their hilltop amid the surrounding darkness (that wasn’t electrified until the 1940’s)--is a striking image. The site, now heavily forested, had been cleared for agriculture and the income the timber provided, and Steele’s paintings depict the now-unimaginably small stature of the surrounding trees.
Elizabeth inhabited the studio space with her gorgeous naturalistic prints, and guided visitors in creating their own hand-printed original souvenirs of a weekend visit. She graciously gathered leaves from plume poppies, ferns, and other native greens, and laid out a sumptuous array of inks and rollers for would-be artists to choose from in making their art.
Here are two prints from our expedition.
Here are two prints from our expedition.
MKP for the Poplar Grove Muse