Art review: the evolution of the art of Columbus

We are at a point in our collective gallery calendars where Central Ohio art is front and center. In a New Light: Alice Schille and the American Watercolor Movement and Great Columbus 2019 (both on display at the Columbus Museum of Art through September 29) filled our summer with amazing local talent. Likewise, the Ohio Art League Fall Juried Show at the Cultural Arts Center offers a chance to admire the works of many other outstanding artists who call Ohio home. From this vantage point, now may be the perfect time to appreciate the rich history of Columbus artists and their work. To that end, there is perhaps no better occasion for such reflection than The evolution of the art of Columbus currently on display at the Columbus Historical Society.

Organized by Fred Fochtman and David Terry, the Evolution of the art of Columbus traces the development of Columbus art through the exhibition of nearly 100 works spanning 150 years. As for good faith, Fochtman and Terry are as qualified as anyone to organize such an exhibition. Both are accomplished artists and collectors in their own right, and both have strong ties to the Columbus art scene. Their know-how bears fruit both in terms of the breadth and depth of the works presented. Not content with simply spotlighting the most well-known artists (although there are many), Fochtman and Terry dig deeper, introducing viewers to some of our city’s hidden artistic gems.

Lucius Kutchin (1901-1936) | Still life (nd) | Oil on canvas

The result is a sprawling exhibition in an intimate space. It is an exhibition that manages to highlight a wide range of styles and approaches while maintaining its focus. While there are many notable works to enjoy, one of the most striking and well-made is Lucius Kutchin’s Cezannesque. Still life. Kutchin (1901-1936) was an early Columbus Modernist; a painter whose national reputation was just beginning to blossom before he died of bronchopneumonia at the age of 35.

Another Columbus artist who embraced modernism in the early 20th century was Yeteve Smith. Smith studied at Ohio State University and was active in the Columbus Art League (later the Ohio Art League). Her market scene features a crowded street market in bold, impressionistic colors applied with bold brushwork. Given the strength of this work, it’s no surprise that Smith exhibited in New York alongside the likes of Alice Schille, Hoyt Sherman and Clyde Singer.

While the exhibition pays a deserved tribute to the past, it also recognizes the achievements of Columbus’s more recent artists. As viewers move through the exhibition roughly chronologically, they will eventually come across works by Barbara Chavous (d. 2008), Denny Griffith (1952-2016) and Levent Isik (1961-2019) . All serve as recent reminders that art in Columbus continues to grow and evolve.

Carl Springer (1874-1935) | Snow scene (nd) | Oil on panel

Thematically, it should be noted that Evolution pays special attention to the location. Fochtman and Terry have made a special effort to present works with the aim of understanding how the place can focus and inspire artists. Whether it’s images of Old Union Station, the Winchester Canal, Red Bird Stadium, or Mary Merrill’s interpretation of I-70 West, Evolution presents Christopher Columbus as fertile ground for the creative impulse.

It should be noted, too, that The evolution of the art of Columbus well represents the contributions of women artists and artists of color. It is important. The visual arts in Columbus have always been supported and advanced through the contributions of women and African Americans. Artists like Edna Boies, Hopkins, Barbara Chavous, Harriet Kirkpatrick, Aminah Robinson, Roman Johnson and a host of others created works that brought unique perspectives to the arts in Columbus and helped establish the rich and vibrant arts scene which we enjoy today.

It’s an exciting time for the visual arts in Columbus. As we imagine where the arts will take us, it’s worth considering where we’ve been. The evolution of the art of Columbus allows exactly that. It’s unlikely we’ll see a group of paintings like this come together again for quite some time, so take the opportunity to savor the past and learn from it.

The evolution of Columbus’ art is on display at the Columbus Historical Society, 717 W. Town St., through October 29. For more information, visit columbushistory.org.

Mary Merrill (1920-1999) | I-70 West (nd) | Acrylic on board
Yeteve Smith (1888-1975) | Market scene (nd) | Oil on panel