Rachel Berenson Perry is the former fines arts curator at the Indiana State Museum. In addition to organizaing art exhibitions at the ISM, she is the author of numerous articles for such publications as the American Art Review, Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History, Outdoor Indiana, and Southwest Art Magazine. Her new IHS Press book Paint and Canvas: A Life of T.C. Steele, examines the career of the famous Hoosier Group artist. Here she answers some questions about her own life and what drew her to write about Steele.
How did you get interested in art?
Like almost any child, I used to draw. I took studio drawing classes while in high school and created various occasional art projects after going out into the world. My interest in art and art history was rekindled when I began to work at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site in 1985.
Had you heard of or known about T.C. Steele before you started work at the House of the Singing Winds in Brown County?
Yes. I visited Steele's Brown County home and studio in the 1960s, before it became more regularly open to the public.
Can you remember the oddest or strangest question you received from a visitor during your time at the historic site?
An illustration of how some people take for granted that the world has always been what they now know is a question one young man asked when I was giving a tour of Steele's studio. He looked at the paintings and asked why Steele had never painted the Monroe Reservoir (which was built in the early 1960s; Steele died in 1926).
In your opinion, just how good an artist was Steele?
There are a myriad of good artists historically and today. Steele was one of the first artists to study abroad, and then return to Indiana to paint our state's subtle landscape. Some say that, if he'd re-located to New York (as did William Merritt Chase), he would have become more nationally known and made a better living. I think some of Steele's best landscapes are as good as any American impressionist painter's.
In doing your research on Steele’s life, did anything you find surprise you?
I think the thing that surprises most people today is how difficult it was for Steele to make ends meet financially. They think that, because his paintings sell for several thousand dollars today, he must have been a rich man.
During my research, the thing that most surprised and delighted me was finding Steele's inked palm prints that were made when he had his fortune told by Nellie Simmons Meier in Indianapolis.
Do you have a favorite Steele painting?
Im drawn to some of the landscapes that he painted in Munich, and one of my favorites is The Birches, a small painting of many vertical tree trunks in muted grays and browns.
What is your next project?
I'm currently working on a biography of Steele's compatriot, William Forsyth, to be published by Indiana University Press in 2013. The Indiana Historical Society holds a large archive of his personal letters that were donated by his granddaughter, Susan Forsyth Selby Sklar.