Two books recently published by the Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend celebrate the artistic lives—as well as the married life—of two beloved Milwaukee artists: Schomer Lichtner and Ruth Grotenrath.
Author Susan J. Montgomery, a close friend of the couple, provides vivid profiles of Lichtner (1905–2006) and Grotenrath (1912–1988) in these two tightly woven biographies. She highlights the artists’ creative endeavors through anecdote and colorful detail, making clear from where their inspiration and art came—a valuable service to those (like me) who are familiar with the art of Lichtner and Grotenrath but largely ignorant of their personal histories and relationship with each other.
Though grounded in the visual virtues of the rural Wisconsin landscape—Grotenrath’s parents owned a much-visited 216-acre farm in the Kettle Moraine area northwest of Milwaukee—and also in the art scene of urban Milwaukee, these two artists were cosmopolitan in their influences and outlook. Both were extremely prolific, and images they created, especially later in life, are icons of Wisconsin’s art history: Grotenrath’s vibrantly colored floral landscapes, interiors, and still-lifes, and Lichtner’s paintings of brightly patterned and Matisse-like cows and ballerinas, were much reproduced and exhibited during the artists’ lifetimes.
Both artists were home-loving and truly devoted to their Wisconsin surroundings (indeed, they have been described by some as regionalists). But the events and powerful personalities they encountered here and abroad served to broaden their perspectives and foster universal elements in their art.
We learn from Montgomery how in the late 1920s and early 1930s, when Lichtner and Grotenrath were in their teens and early twenties, both pursued the conventional art education paths available at the time. Lichtner took high school art classes with Gustave Moeller, a noted German-trained artist and teacher, and he and Grotenrath both studied with Moeller at the college level. Lichtner went to New York in 1926 to study at the Art Students League, having already spent time at the Art Institute of Chicago. He also studied with famed art historian Oskar Hagen at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1928 and 1929. Grotenrath at this time was studying with Elsa Ulbricht at the Milwaukee State Teachers College where she was influenced by Ulbricht’s design ideas and also by her energy and her liberated personality.
Schomer often told the story of seeing Grotenrath for the first time as she focused on her work in a drawing class. Watching her from behind as she was totally immersed in her art, he was struck with the idea that here was the woman he would someday marry. He later said that he had been in complete awe of her from the very beginning of their relationship and had spent his whole life trying to be worthy of her. They were eventually introduced to each other by Gustave Moeller and were later wed in 1934. The first summer of their marriage they lived in a small, rustic rented cabin in the middle of a cow pasture outside of Milwaukee near Holy Hill, reveling in their quiet immersion in nature. With no electricity or plumbing (baths were taken in a nearby stream), the experience was a prelude to their later simple lifestyle and the imagery of plants and animals that would preoccupy them for all their creative lives.
Both artists worked in the sober tones of the social realist style typical of the austere 1930s. It’s interesting to note, especially in this era of reduced public spending on the arts, that Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal helped to financially support these two artists during the Great Depression. Lichtner and Grotenrath both produced post office murals for the WPA. They were thrilled to receive $94 for 98 hours of work per month, and they carried forth the lessons of this era: even when times were better, they always lived frugally and supported themselves entirely from sales of their artwork—a feat many artists never fully achieve.
In 1943 Lichtner and Grotenrath moved into a rambling frame house on Maryland Avenue on Milwaukee’s East Side. Montgomery describes how the Lichtner and Grotenrath house and surrounding garden quickly became a living, changing complement to their art:
Their home has been described by many friends as peaceful and serene, an oasis in the middle of a busy city block … decorated with natural wood, featuring their own creations, Asian ceramics, woodblock prints, hand-printed fabrics and eventually small murals on the walls and designs on the floors. Ruth’s charming painting of a fish was above the stove for many years. Their living environment was obviously integral to their lives and provided a haven that inspired them and reflected their creativity. Their home could truly be described as a work of art in itself.
The interior of the house was transformed over the years by Lichtner’s carpentry skills and the developing interest they shared in Japanese art and the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. Lichtner had met Wright in 1929 while he was an art history student at UW–Madison. This acquaintance led to later visits to Taliesin where Lichtner and Grotenrath absorbed Wright’s vision of the organic relationships between nature and art.
According to Montgomery, another important influence on their lives and art came in the form of the 1960s Zen guru Alan Watts, British author and interpreter of Zen Buddhism for an eager American audience. The couple heard him speak at Beloit College in 1962 and offered him a ride back to Milwaukee. They became fast friends with Watts, even traveling to Japan with him in 1955. The author’s narrative and the accompanying illustrations make clear how the spontaneity and directness of Japanese art were key ingredients in the evolution of their art.
Both books, In Celebration and In the Moment, beautifully trace the parallel journeys of these two artists, from the serious subjects and somber hues of 1930s social concerns to the exuberant color and bold patterns of their more personal, more mature art. Lichtner and Grotenrath’s lives were entwined with each other and the home life they made together; but their art was always recognizably distinct. They shared the joy of living in the moment and the making of art with that joy in it.
Artists who were very successful and visible in their time may be superseded by flashy new artists, their works sometimes abandoned in the feverish attention given to current art trends. Biographies like these serve to slow us down and remind us to pay attention to what has come before. Many thanks are owed to author Susan Montgomery and the Museum of Wisconsin Art for showing us that what was once good art still is, and is still there for the looking.