Today we will visit William Ellisworth Artis.
Born in Washington, North Carolina, William Artis became a prominent Black-American ceramist, sculptor and teacher. He was best known for a series of terra cotta* and stoneware* heads of black youths, which he created in the 1930s and 1940s such as Head of a Girl, 1933, exhibited at the Harmon Foundation*, and Weariness, 1934, exhibited at the Salon of America* at Radio City Music Hall. Of these types of work, it was written that they are Art Deco in style and “typically have an introverted impassivity and a spiritual appeal.” (James, 23)
In 1933, Artis studied at the Art Students League* in New York City, where he won the Harmon Foundation Prize in 1933. He then served in the U.S. Army during World War II, and after the war, studied on the G.I. Bill at Syracuse University with Ivan Mestrovic, Yugoslavian expatriate sculptor. Artis earned a B.F.A. from Syracuse University in 1950 and an M.F.A. in 1951, and was a student at the Harlem Community Art Center with Selma Burke and with Augusta Savage at the College of Ceramics at the State University of New York in Alfred from 1946 to 1947.
In the late 1940s, having focused on realistic figurative sculpture, Artis changed his style and direction significantly by creating elongated abstract figurative forms with special glazes. He also produced functional ceramic objects such as ceramic tile room dividers, ceramic jars, vases and jugs, which “seemed to reach upward, from stem-like bases to bulbous bodies with conical lids.” (James, 23).
From 1954 to 1965, William Artist was an associate professor at Chadron State Teachers College in Chadron, Nebraska, and from 1966 to 1975, was an associate professor at Mankato State College in Mankato, Minnesota. In 1970, he was named Outstanding Afro-American Educator of America.
Exhibitions include the following: Whitney Museum of American Art; New York City Art Center, 1933; Art Students League, 1933; Salons of America, 1934; Harlem Art Committee, 1935; Texas Centennial, 1936; National Arts Club, New York City, 1940; American Negro Exposition, Chicago, 1940; Syracuse Museum Fine Arts, 1940, 1947-51; Grace Horne Galleries, Boston, 1942; Atlanta University, 1944, 1951; USO Exhibition, New York City, 1944; New York State Museum, Trenton; Albany Institute History and Art; National Portrait Gallery; Walker Art Center; Chadron State College; Pennsylvania State College; IBM; Hetzel Union Building 1956-61; Scripps College, California; Joslyn Art Museum, 1962; Xavier University, 1963; Great Hall, City New York, 1967; Creighton University, Omaha, Nebraska , 1969; Slater Memorial Museum, Norwich, Connecticut; Howard University; Goodall Art Gallery, Doane College, Crete, Nebraska ; Fisk University; Johnson Public Co., Chicago; National Sculpture Society; James Art Porter Gallery, 1970.
Peter Hastings Falk, Editor, Who Was Who in American Art
Theresa Leininger-Miller, William Ellsworth Artis, St. James Guide to Black Artists, p. 23
What was left behind by an art professor more than four decades ago may bring increased prominence for Chadron State College.
That professor was William Artis, who is often mentioned in national conversations about African American art history in the United States. Artis taught ceramics and sculpture at CSC from 1954-1966.
“William Artis has turned out to be one of those people who has become very recognized as an artist of New York’s Afro-American black movement in the late ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s,” said Richard Bird, chairman of the CSC art department.
Bird said he knows of about 20 books in which Artis has gained mention, and said the former professor’s name shows up frequently on Web sites about art and black history. Bird said most of the references give little mention to Artis’ time in Chadron. If they do refer to that period, the professor’s place of employment is given as “Nebraska State Teachers College,” the institution’s former name.
Artis was born in Washington, N.C., in 1914. Records indicate that he moved to New York in 1927 where he studied sculpture and pottery at Augusta Savage Studios. He then furthered his education at Syracuse University where he earned two degrees in fine arts, a bachelor’s in 1950 and a master’s in 1951. Before long, Artis headed west. Bird said he’s been told that Artis first came to the Great Plains to work on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, but soon became employed at CSC.
“He may have been the only black man in Chadron at that time,” Bird said.
After leaving Chadron in 1966, he was hired to the faculty of Mankato State College in Minnesota. He taught there until 1975, just two years before his death.
While Artis’ work is becoming more prized by museums and collectors, Bird believes CSC’s collection may be on the brink of gaining national status. CSC has a number of pieces that Artis either left behind or that the late professor’s surviving friends and students have donated to the institution.
“Most collections are lucky to have one to three pieces of his, and we’re sitting on almost 20,” he said.
In addition, Bird said most collections don’t match the variety of Artis work found at CSC.
“Most other places have his ceramic sculptures and portraits, but we have mosaics by him, we have drawings by him, and we even have a painting by him,” Bird said.
Artis’ work can be found on display in Memorial Hall.
During the next few years, Bird plans to contact many significant galleries throughout the nation to let them know artwork from the CSC collection is available for their exhibits. He also wants CSC’s alumni to know of the effort to build upon the collection in case they have pieces stored away they might donate to the college.
A few alumni already have been generous with their artifacts.
During an alumni gathering in Arizona, 1964 graduate Bob Yost of Kingman donated some of his Artis pieces to the college. Connie Rasmussen, executive director of the Chadron State Foundation, returned to campus with three pieces of ceramic and mounds of correspondence between Artis and Yost.
Helen Funkhouser, a 1936 graduate who lives in Loveland, Colo., donated pieces that had been given to her parents as gifts. While employed at CSC, Artis lived in her family’s basement apartment on Main Street.
“He was a really nice man and my parents loved visiting with him,” she said.
In addition to artwork, former students and faculty also have made monetary donations in Artis’ name. Mike Chipperfield, a retired Ohio University art professor who studied under Artis and graduated from CSC in 1964, spearheaded an effort to start a scholarship endowment in Artis’ name. The foundation began awarding scholarships from that account in 2005-2006.
Thanks for your attention.
William Artis works: