At the Cabin—
Everybody down here is studying somebody else—I’m studying Mr. Vawter. —Christine Lebline Rapp (November 1917)
Will Vawter didn’t exactly fit the mold. Unlike some artists of his time, he was self-taught and had little formal art training. Yet he did have talent, and as Will grew up in Greenfield, Indiana, (the same town where Indiana poet James Whitcomb Riley lived) his artistic skills became evident to others. In 1893, he was offered an opportunity to provide illustrations for one of Riley’s books of poetry. His pictures were so well received that he continued to do such illustrations until the 1920s. This made Will known to the many devoted fans of Riley’s poems, and by the early 1900s Vawter’s name was prominently displayed on each book’s cover along with Riley’s.
Never before had I been so thrilled by a region; it seemed like a fairyland with its narrow winding roads leading the traveler down creek beds and up over the hills. Everywhere there were rail fences almost hidden in Queen Anne’s lace, goldenrod and other interesting weeds and bushes. Picturesque cabins here and there seemed to belong to the landscape… —Impressions of Brown County in the early 1900s by artist Adolph Shulz
Will Vawter and his artist wife, Mary, bought a small farm in Brown County, Indiana, near the village of Nashville; they moved there to live in 1908. They found the place much to their liking both personally and artistically. Over the succeeding years, a number of other artists joined them and established homes and studios in Brown County. A community formed that attracted eighteen artists who lived there year around, and another thirty or so who spent at least part of each year in residence. The Brown County Art Colony, as it became known, was one of several that came together about that same time in various places across the U.S. The artists who were attracted to these rural, often isolated communities favored realism in their work and rejected the more modern, abstract techniques that were gaining popularity in Europe and some of the larger U.S. cities. The artists who were drawn to Brown County continued to follow early impressionist styles that placed emphasis on “plein air” (outdoor) landscape paintings in real time. Art historian Rachel Perry described their work as “…depicting the native characteristics of the land filtered through the artists’ profound personal reactions.” By the 1920s, the Brown County Art Colony had become the largest and best known in the Midwest. It helped stimulate tourism and visitors increasingly came to view the artists’ studios to buy their works directly from them.
The artists also offered a marked contrast to the poorly-educated people who originally settled in Brown County. They possessed, in the words of one observer, “cosmopolitan educations, worldly sophistication, unusual lifestyles, and unorthodox religions.” It was these aspects of the artists of Brown County that most likely attracted Christine Lebline Rapp.
New experiences every moment. Eye openers of how the rest of the world lives and thinks. For although they play cards profusely and drink, etc., they have worked and thought. Good ideas even in heads foreign. For instance “Roc” and the Italian woman’s ideas on socialism…Everybody is older in experience and thought, it seems, than I…
—from Christine’s journal during her ship voyage to Europe (July 1911)
In the summer of 1911, twenty-two year old Christine Lebline journeyed alone to Europe to better learn the languages and experience the cultural and artistic treasures there. She had graduated from Indiana University in 1910, and had just completed her initial year of teaching German at Seymour, Indiana. She taught in the same high school from which she had graduated in 1906. In early July, she sailed from New York aboard a steamship. During her voyage across the Atlantic, she became acquainted with a number of interesting people, some of whom were intellectuals whose ideas stretched her prior notions and understandings. She embraced these, and after returning home from Europe she wrote about her response to the journey:
All my interests are intensely alive and every little picture or work or book has taken on infinite meaning. It is all still coursing through my veins and I’m happy as one of the gods in spirit. But what will I do next? Another trip? Another field? New things, new work? Heaven only knows, I don’t, but I can’t, I won’t go back.
Sometime in 1912 or 1913, Christine and several other single women from Seymour went together and bought a log cabin in Brown County. Although the Brown County State Park, Indiana’s largest, had not been established yet, the county’s reputation for grand scenery was well known, partly because of the works of the early landscape artists there. Besides Will and Mary Vawter, the renowned painter T. C. Steele also made Brown County his home, as well as well-known artists like Adolph and Ada Shulz, Gustave Baumann and L. O. Griffith. Some of these artists had studied in Chicago, New York and Europe and brought unique perspectives into Christine’s world whenever she visited Brown County.
Within a few years, Christine purchased the cabin outright from her friends and become its sole owner. The presence of the Brown County Art Colony may have positively influenced her decision to do so. Coming so soon after her positive experiences with the travelers she met during her European adventure, I expect she would have welcomed the opportunity to engage the “cosmopolitan educations, worldly sophistication, unusual lifestyles, and unorthodox religions” of the artists who established residence in Brown County during this time.
Because of the close proximity of Christine’s cabin to the home of Will and Mary Vawter, she soon made their acquaintance. She often went to Brown County by herself in the early years, and after she married John Rapp in 1913, he sometimes accompanied her. By 1914, Christine had clearly formed a friendship with Will and Mary. By the end of 1915, they had established an even stronger relationship, and she sent them for Christmas that year a box containing a cake she had baked. Will wrote her a note to express his gratitude:
I couldn’t wait until Christmas to open the box when I saw who it was from—and you can’t think how much I enjoyed getting it. It was so nice and sweet of you to send it…I think it is the very best cake I ever had.
Most important for forming her friendship with the Vawters were the many conversations they shared. In November of 1917, Christine wrote about an especially enjoyable talk she had with Will one evening at her cabin:
After supper we drew up to the fireplace and it’s funny what all we talked about. He likes our cabin so well—its simple completeness seems always to start him off on his philosophy…Then he talked of icebergs and their forming and glaciers and the Alps and the tobogganing and ice sports and daring feats…
It’s noteworthy that their conversations went well beyond the world of art. They included discussions of the natural world, which so fascinated Christine. I don’t know if Will Vawter ever experienced glaciers or icebergs in person, but I know Christine did. She had walked on a glacier in the Alps during her time in Switzerland six years earlier, and she had seen icebergs in the North Atlantic on her return steamship voyage from Europe to America. I can imagine her hearkening back to these times as Will Vawter spoke to her of such things. Having grown up with only sisters, and no brothers, I sense that Christine may have come to think of her friendship with Will as like that with an older brother; he was 17 years her senior. He was also a storyteller and Christine found him “very amusing.” She once remarked in her journal:
I don’t know when I have laughed at anyone as I did at him last night. During supper he was very entertaining…Mary even laughing till the tears streamed down her face…
There was playfulness in Christine and Will’s friendship too. In her thoughts about one of the times they spent together in 1917, she wrote:
Then he pulled from his pocket a brand new set of cards to show off some more card tricks—and here he got too amusing to contain myself easily…Too bad I can’t reproduce that scene. But that evening with that child-man mind was very amusing.
Christine’s description of Will Vawter as having a “child-man mind” captures the essence, I think, of her fascination with him. He may have found the times he shared with Christine to be equally charming, as suggested in a letter he sent to her in 1915:
How I wish you were at the cabin and could come running down the hill about dark to spend these long winter evenings by our fire and hear some new facts about the habits of ghosts and witches which our new girl tells me (when Mary is not listening). I even know how one may become a witch, but Mary says it is very wrong for as big a man as I am to encourage such ideas. Well I don’t know [but] it seems to me there is little enough romance and mystery in things, and when the cold light of science sends its rays into the valleys of Brown County and destroys the last witches in this part of the country, I shall feel the loss. Come down when you can.
There were few in Christine’s circle of friends at her home in Seymour with whom she shared conversations as she did with the Vawters and the other artists she knew in Brown County. Although not an artist herself, Christine’s university education and wide-ranging interests, including her firsthand acquaintance with Europe, made her an exceptional young woman for the artists to know as well. As captivating as they were to Christine, I expect she was equally intriguing to them.
Sometime in 1914, Christine bought a couple of oil paintings from Will Vawter. One was a large landscape showing a typical Brown County rural scene while the other was a smaller picture of The Teachers’ Cabin. She kept these for the remainder of her life. In early 1917, Christine asked Will to offer some of his paintings for a public exhibition in Seymour sponsored by the local Art League. The League had developed an interest in works of the Brown County artists and later bought paintings by T. C. Steele, Adolph Shulz and Ada Shulz. In responding to Christine’s request, Vawter indicated that he “couldn’t give anything like a whole exhibit at Seymour,” but he offered to send “five or six things if…I am not so unlucky as to have them sold before that time.” It isn’t clear whether an exhibition of Vawter’s work was ever shown in Seymour, but the exchange exemplifies the kind of relationship that he and Christine had formed around his artwork.
In 1917, Christine received an “illustrated” letter from Will that exemplifies once again the playfulness of their friendship. He began the letter by scolding her for not responding to the “two nice long letters” he had sent earlier. He wrote: “I hope you got them for they were nice letters.” Then the tone changed:
I was up past your cabin and it seemed as though you might come fluttering down with the early spring birds that hopped about, but I suppose if those birds had to come in an automobile from Seymour through the mud they wouldn’t have been there [either].
He returned to scolding her for not responding to his past correspondences:
I don’t believe you ever answer any letters, but I hope you will answer this one.
Finally, he concluded his letter on a light note by drawing a cartoon-like sketch showing a man loaded down with goods climbing a hill as his dog extols the man’s strength. The relationship of this sketch to the contents of the letter isn’t clear, although in at least one other case, Will included a humorous sketch with his correspondence. I expect these were yet more examples of his whimsical, “child-man mind” at work.
He concluded the letter with a personal touch:
I hope to hear from you soon. When the roads get better, you and John must come down.
Sometime in 1916 or 1917, perhaps after an enjoyable evening of conversation around the fireside with Christine, Will wrote her a brief note. It said:
Dear Mrs. Rapp
Here is a sketch somewhat typical of the social situation in Brown Co.—which I beg you and Mr. Rapp to accept with my very best wishes.
This note accompanied another of Will Vawter’s pictures that Christine came to own. I don’t think the “sketch” was ever given a title by Vawter because he considered it a preliminary work to help him conceptualize an illustration he was preparing at that time for another of James Whitcomb Riley’s poetry books. In his sketch, Will depicted five elderly men seated in front of a small hotel in downtown Nashville. For such illustrations, Vawter often used residents as models, and I expect the characters in this picture were actual people he knew. The Mrs. Cook Hotel was also a real establishment in Nashville in the early 20th Century.
I suggest that this “sketch” was sent by Will as a gift to Christine to symbolize and affirm their friendship, which had formed and deepened over the preceding three to four years. However, there are only two letters from Will Vawter to Christine after 1917, both written in 1919. By that time, Christine had given birth to her first child, Margaret. More significantly, Will and Mary had begun divorce proceedings by then. Although she thereafter continued her friendship with Mary (who remained in the house near Christine’s cabin), Christine distanced herself somewhat from Will after the divorce, probably in keeping with norms of propriety for that time and place. There would be no more dinners and lively conversations around the cabin’s fireplace. Will eventually moved into Nashville and remarried in 1923.
On New Year’s Day of 1919, Christine experienced her own setback when her house in Rockford burned down. As might be expected, Christine made fewer visits to Brown County for a period of time after that. Will’s last letter to Christine, written at the end of December in 1919, revealed a tinge of melancholy and finality:
…[I had] a big family Christmas dinner—only it wasn’t my family, but it was nice anyway. I hope you and John and the baby had a good Christmas, as I know you must have had. With all my best wishes for all the best for you always.
His last written words to her were a tender affirmation of all that had come before:
I am your sincere friend,
The most vivid memories I have of my Grandmother Christine’s house are of its large rectangular living room with classic fireplace, mantle and windows along the long west wall, a baby grand piano at the south end of the room, and a wall of bookcases at the other end. These cases held many of the books Christine regarded as her “personal library,” some of which I now own and treasure. This living room also contained original works of art that Christine had collected during her adult years. Over the fireplace was a painting by artist Derk Smit, another of the prominent landscape painters of Brown County. He came there later than artists like Will Vawter and T. C. Steele, and it’s likely that Christine didn’t become aware of his work until the 1940s. Sometime early in the 1950s she purchased a painting of his at an exhibit sponsored by the prestigious Hoosier Salon. Thereafter the picture hung over her mantel where it formed a deep impression on me as a child. It showed a large beech tree growing by an idyllic stream, a scene similar to those I witnessed myself whenever I hiked in the nearby “Beech Woods” with my grandmother. As its name implied that wood lot contained many beech trees, as well as a small stream similar to the one depicted in Smit’s picture. This first-hand familiarity with the content of the painting as a boy may account for why I remember it so well.
Christine’s living room also contained the three Will Vawter pictures she acquired during the period of their friendship from 1913 to 1919. I only can recall one of them well—and it now hangs on a wall in my home. It is the “Sketch” that Christine received from Will Vawter as a gift in 1916 or 1917. I remember the picture well as a boy when it was displayed atop the bookcases at the north end of my grandmother’s living room. When her house was sold in 1965, some of her artwork was dispersed among members of the family. The two Vawter landscape paintings went to one of her daughters and I don’t recall seeing those again. Because of my affinity for the Vawter “Sketch,” my grandmother gave it to me before she died. My mother had it re-framed while I was in college, and I took it with me to Wyoming when I moved there in the late 1960s. It has been with me ever since.
Sometime during the 1980s, I was given a book of James Whitcomb Riley’s poems. It is titled Songs of Home. It belonged to my other grandmother, Grace Simmons Goss, who received it as a gift after her husband Lee (my grandfather) was killed in a railroad accident in 1924. She later gave the book to my father who, in turn, passed it to me. I kept the book in a safe place for a number of years, but never examined it closely. Just a few years ago, I gave it another look because I knew it contained illustrations by Will Vawter. On page 19, I came across a picture that stunned me. I’m sure it is the illustration for which Vawter had created the preliminary “Sketch” he gave to Christine Rapp almost a hundred years ago. The “Sketch” has, by the way, now become known in my family as “The Old Men of Nashville.” The picture in Riley’s book of poems depicts just four elderly men, but they are in similar poses and garb to some of the ones shown in my picture. There is even a woman looking much like Mrs. Cook who stands in the background of the illustration. There is little doubt in my mind that “The Old Men of Nashville” and Will Vawter’s illustration in Riley’s book are related.
But mostly I am glad to watch [my children] claim my own best secrets for themselves. –Barbara Kingsolver from “Knowing Our Place” (2002)
A few years ago, I asked my three daughters to independently make lists of the objects in our home for which they have special fondness. I asked them to rank the things on their lists. To my surprise, each listed “The Old Men of Nashville” as their top choice. Their reasons varied, but I’m impressed that this one piece of art, which so endeared itself to me as a child, has also deeply affected them. I guess that’s what family heirlooms are supposed to do.
When the time is right, I intend to place “The Old Men of Nashville” into their care, just as my Grandmother Christine did with me almost fifty years ago. When I do, I’ll express to them my aspiration–one I expect my grandmother would have also shared–that this heirloom picture will continue to symbolize the enduring significance of the sincere friends who enrich us through all time.
Steve Robert Simmons wrote this personal essay in 2013. All rights reserved.