In honor of women’s history month, here is one of the Museum collection’s most striking objects from the Arts & Crafts Movement–an object that happens to have been designed by a woman.
This poplar wood chest was made at the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony near Woodstock, New York and features a relief panel designed by Zulma Steele. Steele–a talented painter, potter, and designer–arrived at the idyllic community of craftsmen at age 22 in 1903 and became a lifelong resident. She was one of many women drawn to the community in search of an independent artistic career instead of the traditional, subservient role of wife that was prevalent among her contemporaries.
Like other artists associated the the Arts & Crafts movement, Steele was inspired by nature. She sketched from the trees and flowers in the surrounding Catskill Mountains. This chest and the design drawing below show a chestnut floral design, and on other works we see irises, wild carrots, maple leafs, or the ampelopsis (a vining shrub) on the desk and three design drawings in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).
Byrdcliffe was a Utopian community of people that believed in the spiritual value of arts. Its wealthy founders, Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead and his wife Jane Byrd McCall Whitehead, were followers of Arts & Crafts movement writer and social thinker John Ruskin (English, 1819-1900). The Whiteheads used an industrial inheritance in 1902 to found a community of men and women making arts and crafts in a healthy, beautiful setting. At its peak between 1903 and 1910, Byrdcliffe had about 200 working artists and artisans. The Colony’s mission was to produce beautiful handmade objects that would finance the community, to offer classes in all the crafts to train future generations, and to promote a healthful working farm lifestyle.
However, in many ways, Byrdcliffe was a failure. Its objects were never commercially profitable and they probably produced only about 50 pieces of furniture. “Artistic” temperaments gave rise to some infighting. For years the colony languished in relative cultural obscurity.
In other ways, though, Byrdcliffe was immensely successful. It was host to numerous writers, artists and musician. Today as we review the cultural force of the turn-of-the-century Crafts Movement through exhibitions or art history criticism, artists and objects from the Byrdcliffe colony are stalwart to the American discussion. And, however commercially disastrous the original venture, the founders’ ideal is still alive today in the current Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild of artists.
In celebration of the 100th anniversary of Byrdcliffe, in 2004 the Milwaukee Art Museum was the opening venue for the major museum exhibition Byrdcliffe: An American Arts and Crafts Colony. The exhibition traveled to Cornell University’s Johnson Museum of Art, the Albany Institute of History and Art, the New York Historical Society, and the Winterthur Museum. The companion catalog, edited by the exhibition’s curator Nancy E. Green, is out of print but can be found on the second hand market and is a tremendous resource of images and scholarship on everything Byrdcliffe.