Mary Vawter, too, continued to paint, although she spent much of her time running the farm. Unlike her husband, Mary was never accepted by local residents. She was perceived as eccentric and bitter, and no one could understand how she ended up with such a kind husband…They were divorced in 1923…Finally she sold the farm and moved back East, joining family members in Virginia, where she died on March 28, 1950. —from The Artists of Brown County by Lyn Letsinger-Miller
Most of the early-1900s artists of Brown County, Indiana, were men, although a few women associated with this early art colony did achieve a significant measure of artistic success. Yet one woman in that early guard of artists who was not so recognized in her time was Mary H. M. Vawter. It wasn’t because she lacked an artistic pedigree; on that score she could hold her own with the best of them. Born into a wealthy family in Baltimore, she had studied at a number of elite schools including the Maryland Institute School of Art and Design. After marrying artist Will Vawter in 1902 they moved to New York City where they both were associated for a year with the Art Students League. Mary studied portrait painting there.
When Will and Mary made the decision to move to Brown County in 1908, they both still aspired to establish themselves as artists in their new place. Yet as time went on, Mary felt compelled to take on the primary responsibility for operating their farm while Will continued to pursue his successful vocation as artist and illustrator. To my knowledge, Mary made few works of art during the initial fifteen years of her time in Brown County.
Christine Lebline Rapp (who eventually became my grandmother) purchased a small log cabin next to Mary and Will Vawters’ house in about 1912. They soon became friends and formed relationships that were to last for decades. In the earlier years, I don’t think Christine related to Mary as an artist. Rather as a farmer herself, I expect that Christine’s conversations with Mary then more often concerned their common interests in agriculture.
One senses from Christine’s journal writings during this time that she considered Mary to be the antithesis of Will’s agreeable, fun-loving persona. There were exceptions, of course, as illustrated by one of Christine’s early journal entries. She recounted spending time with the Vawters one evening around the fireplace in their home. She observed: “Mary even [was] laughing till the tears streamed down her face.” However such light, fun-loving times appear to have been rare for Mary and her reputation as a quirky, contentious woman prevailed.
As noted earlier, Christine’s friendship with Mary and Will began because her cabin was near their house on Town Hill outside of Nashville. Although Christine got to know both Mary and Will, she seemed initially more interested in spending time with Will who had already attained a measure of fame as illustrator of books by popular Indiana poet James Whitcomb Riley. In a 1917 journal entry Christine wrote: “Everybody down here [in Brown County] is studying somebody else—I’m studying Mr. Vawter.”
After Will divorced Mary in 1923 he moved into Nashville. He soon began seeing a local widow and they married later that year. Christine’s relationship with Will changed thereafter, and although she continued to follow his artistic accomplishments she no longer saw much of him. Her daughter Margaret later recalled that her mother sometimes made visits to Will’s studio in Nashville to view his latest paintings, but the playful conversations like they shared during the early years were past. Her time for “studying Mr. Vawter” was over.
To be fair, Christine’s life had also changed over this period of time. Her first child Margaret (who became my mother), was born in 1918. Then three more children came along during the early 1920s. Importantly, Christine’s own marriage hit troubled water during the mid-1920s and she also divorced in 1928. Thereafter Christine, like Mary, continued to operate her farm, which was located in nearby Jackson County. She remained a regular visitor at her cabin in Brown County during the 1920s and ’30s, usually in the company of her four children. During this time her relationship with Mary Vawter grew closer.
After the divorce Mary Vawter’s farm declined. She came back to her art and began painting Brown County landscapes and trying to sell them as a way to augment her income. She produced a number of artworks during the 1920s and ‘30s. In four years between 1929 and 1938 she exhibited paintings at the prestigious Hoosier Salon in Chicago. She did sell paintings—including three to Christine. Margaret later recalled that her mother acquired some of those in times when she knew her friend needed additional income.
Mary and Christine continued their friendship for the remainder of Mary’s life. She sold her Brown County farm in 1947 and moved to Virginia. The two women occasionally corresponded, and Mary’s last letter to Christine in January 1950 was written just two months before she died. In that letter Mary acknowledged receipt of a holiday gift from Christine and referenced a number of negative changes in her health situation including high blood pressure, a fall and a serious case of shingles. In a note to Christine written a year earlier, Mary had mentioned possibly building a new house in Virginia. Such aspirations were not expressed in her final letter; she probably sensed that the end was coming when she wrote: “The years have finally tried to claim their own.”
Mary (who was seventeen years older than Christine) then concluded her letter by counseling Christine in a big-sisterly sort of way to “eat vegetables and fruits—raw as far as possible—and don’t indulge in hot breads and fancy foods.”
I have a long, deep connection with the three pictures acquired by my grandmother from Mary Vawter during the 1920s and ‘30s. One of those–my favorite–depicts fall-tinged foliage (possibly sumac) in a meadow near Mary’s house in Brown County and it may have been painted sometime during the 1920s. It’s been part of my life as long as I can remember. One photo of me from 1954, taken during a family visit to my grandmother’s house when I was eight years old, shows the same painting sitting atop a bookcase in her living room. This painting remained in this place at my grandmother’s house until she moved out in 1965. After her house was sold later that year the painting came to my mother’s home in New York State, which is where my grandmother also lived until she passed on in 1967.
After my grandmother died, the Mary Vawter painting continued to be displayed in my mother’s various homes over the next almost fifty years. When my mother finally moved into an assisted-living facility in 2015 and sold her house, the picture came to be with Mary Ann and me at our house in Minnesota. It’s still in its original frame and hangs where I can view it daily in our apartment.
Another of my grandmother’s paintings by Mary Vawter came to me even earlier. It shows a late summer/early fall Brown County scene with a country lane, a fence and distant hills. Again, it was probably painted somewhere near where Mary’s and Christine’s cabins were located. When I left home after graduation from college, this painting went with me as I began my tour of duty with the Air Force in Wyoming. I don’t recall the circumstances, but my mother may have given me this painting in hopes that it would help keep me connected to my native land of Indiana. If so, it worked. Mary’s depiction of the autumn haze and sky continues to remind me of my childhood and regularly calls me “back home again in Indiana.” After settling into my Air Force base in Cheyenne I had the painting cleaned and re-framed, and it’s been with me ever since. It has occupied places of prominence in our homes over the past fifty years.
Another early Brown County painting of personal significance to me hangs alongside this Mary Vawter picture in our current home. It’s of my grandmother’s long-ago log cabin (where she initially met the Vawters), but its artist was not Mary. Rather it was painted for Christine by Will Vawter sometime during the first few years of their friendship. It also made an early impression in my life; it’s on the wall in an early-1950s photo taken at my grandmother’s house that shows Christine and her daughter Margaret playing the piano together.
When my grandmother died her Will Vawter painting of the cabin went to my Aunt Julia in Louisiana. Decades later, after Aunt Julia herself had passed on, the painting came to be with my mother at her house in New Jersey. Now it is with Mary Ann and me.
The final one of my grandmother’s Mary Vawter paintings depicts yet another Brown County scene. I think this one may have been my mother’s favorite since it was prominently displayed in her homes over almost sixty years. She rotated her artworks in her houses, yet to my recollection this one stayed put. Perhaps it depicts a scene that my mother recalled from her childhood visits to Brown County during the 1920s and ’30s. The cabin in the picture appears to be a substantial one, perhaps made of logs, with a fireplace at one end. As with her other paintings, Mary endeavored in this picture to capture the hazy sky characteristic of autumn in southern Indiana. There’s a lane receding back towards the distant cabin in the picture; it seems to be inviting viewers to “stop in and sit a spell.”
This painting is also now with Mary Ann and me. I’ve chosen to hang it in our apartment alongside a sketch of young Mary Vawter drawn by Will soon after they married. This was before they moved to Brown County and during a hopeful time for Mary as she and Will dreamed of a new life in which each of them could express their artistic bents. Of course, Mary’s aspiration in this regard were not immediately realized. Yet despite her subsequent disappointments and setbacks, I sense that Mary remained—at her core—a hopeful person. Her faith was strong, and upon the death of a Nashville friend she penned a short poem to be read at the woman’s memorial. It begins with words that I think could describe Mary too as she is depicted in Will’s early sketch:
A little smile as if some secret held
By you alone were sweet, nor might you tell
Its charm to others—they must wait to know.
Landscape paintings by Mary Vawter are finally receiving some of their just due. This was pressed home to me during a recent trip to Indiana to participate in a benefit for the Brown County Art Gallery in Nashville. It was held at the home of a gallery supporter who is also a collector of early Brown County art. As I entered the home, one painting on display immediately caught my eye. It was a large landscape prominently hung on a wall facing the front door. This painting also features some colorful red sumac growing alongside a country lane in the early fall. Beyond is a typical Brown County vista including one large tree with bright yellow foliage. Considering the prominent location of this picture within the home, I expected that its artist must have been one of the prominent early landscape painters such as V. J. Cariani or Dale Bessire. Then I looked at the artist’s signature in the lower-right corner of the painting–it read: Mary H. M. Vawter.
Perhaps Mary Vawter wasn’t as talented as the other early Brown County artists–maybe. There were, of course, others of the almost one hundred artists who painted in Brown County during the first part of the 20th Century who, like Mary, did not receive artistic acclaim during their lifetimes. And I’m sure that Mary’s reputation as a contentious person, plus the perception that she dampened her likeable husband’s fun-loving disposition, didn’t help her cause.
Yet there was also the knotty truth that women artists during this early time were not generally encouraged to tread onto the hallowed ground of landscape painting, which was dominated by male artists such as the iconic T. C. Steele. Women artists then were mostly expected to work within the genres of portraiture and still life painting. Even renowned Brown County artist Ada Shulz didn’t paint landscapes until after she and her landscape-artist husband Adolph divorced in the mid-1920s. Similarly sister artists Marie Goth and Genevieve Goth Graft attained their substantial artistic reputations as principally portrait and/or still life painters. The lone exception to this rule seems to be artist Lucie Harthrath who first began visiting Brown County in 1912 and executed a number of highly-regarded landscape paintings. Yet she never moved to Brown County permanently preferring instead to live in Chicago where the artistic norms for women may have been less constraining. She also was never married.
There’s no doubting that Mary Vawter initially came to Brown County with strong aspirations of becoming a successful artist. Whether it was her inability to adapt to Brown County cultural norms of the time or the notions about what kinds of art women should undertake–or both–Mary never attained the level of artistic recognition to which she aspired. Now, almost 70 years after her death, the level of esteem for her work is rising. Her painting so prominently displayed in that collector’s home in Nashville confirms this point.
A few days before I attended the art gallery event at that collector’s home in Nashville, I stopped to visit my cousin, Dr. George Rapp, at his home in Indianapolis. Among his many distinctions, George is known as a connoisseur of early Brown County artwork. Within his personal collection are paintings by most of the principal artists of that era including T. C. Steele, Adolph and Ada Shulz, V. J. Cariani, Marie Goth, Will Vawter, Dale Bessire, and Carl Graf. Yet it came as a surprise to me when I learned that George also owned a painting by Mary Vawter and had it displayed in his home. It’s a relatively inconspicuous painting hanging on the wall in one of the guest bedrooms. George explained to me that he had acquired this work a number of years ago when he first began collecting Brown County art. At that time he intended to acquire paintings by as many of the original Brown County artists as possible. Since Mary Vawter was counted in that group it made sense to at least have one of her paintings.
When I encountered Mary Vawter’s work in George’s home, I was surprised by its subject. It’s very different from the Mary Vawter paintings my grandmother acquired or the one I saw at the Nashville collector’s house. It’s a Brown County scene all right, but it’s not a typical landscape. It simply depicts a lane receding into a woods, possibly in early autumn. There’s a large tree trunk framing the painting to the left, but no other distinguishing features draw the viewer’s eyes away from following that lane into the distance. Where the lane leads is uncertain—there’s no cabin or colorful trees. It seems to lead only into the light, which in reality may have been a distant clearing. The painting is not titled nor dated, so I suppose I’m free to offer my own speculations as to its context and meaning.
Considering the very different subject of this painting, compared with other works by Mary with which I’m familiar, I believe this picture may have been made at a time when she was experiencing especially uncertain or difficult times. Perhaps it was after her divorce from Will when everything must have seemed very uncertain for her. Another possibility is that the work was painted during the Depression when Mary’s farm was struggling and her artwork wasn’t selling. Or maybe she painted it even later after she’d begun thinking of leaving Brown County and moving to Virginia. She loved the hills of Brown County and her home there, so thoughts of leaving certainly would have created their own sadness and questions for her.
Although each of these speculations is reasonable, I prefer to believe that this picture was painted by Mary simply as an allegorical work. I think she intended it to represent “hope,” and especially a perspective she drew from her faith whenever times were difficult. Despite her eccentricities, I think Mary believed that, in the end, all would be well for her. It’s possibly what sustained her through the darkest of times.
I think that Mary may have regarded the forested lane in her picture as symbolic of her own life–splotches of sunlight mixed with shadows. Yet in the distance, that lane would eventually lead to a place of constant light. It’s a perspective that she would have shared with her longtime friend Christine, whose own faith in the ultimate goodness of her life’s path ran deep. These two women experienced many similar disappointments and difficulties during the years they knew each other, and their shared hope may have been part of what nourished their long friendship. With this in mind, it’s fitting that Mary’s final words in her last letter to Christine went straight to the point: Your hopeful friend, Mary H. Vawter. Christine would have understood, and I’m sure it was enough for both of them.
Mary’s untitled painting in my cousin George’s home now has a new title for me. From now on it will be known simply as “HOPE.”
Even in the small things—for of these grow large ones.
May kindness, honesty and honor find
In every land firm foothold.
—Mary H. W. Vawter from Comes Lasting Peace
This personal essay was written in 2018 by Steve Robert Simmons. All rights reserved.