Dayton Art Institute opens 2 new exhibits

Ralston Crawford’s Red and Black (U.S.S. Nevada), 1949, screenprint. Collection of John Crawford. CONTRIBUTED
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Ralston Crawford’s Red and Black (U.S.S. Nevada), 1949, screenprint. Collection of John Crawford. CONTRIBUTED

Norman Rockwell, Ralston Crawford are featured artists

Do you ever wonder what a particular piece of art looked like on its way to being complete? Two new exhibits at the Dayton Art Institute featuring nationally-known artists will help answer that question. Both shows also have interesting connections to Dayton.

The special exhibition entitled “Ralston Crawford: Air + Space + War,” opens this weekend and is guaranteed to appeal to a wide variety of museum visitors. The American abstract painter, born in Ontario and reared in Buffalo, is credited with creating the visual language for weather patterns that we still use today. His focus on aviation and his military career make the art on display a fitting match for our city.

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Beloved artist/illustrator Norman Rockwell is featured in a charming exhibit that opened last weekend. The anonymous private collector who graciously loaned paintings and drawings to the museum for this show resides in the Miami Valley. His father and Rockwell were neighbors and best friends. They traveled abroad together in 1928 and his father was also the architect who built Rockwell’s studio in Vermont.

It’s exciting to note that you won’t see either of these exhibits elsewhere. The Rockwell show, curated by the DAI’s chief curator, Jerry N. Smith, is exclusive to the DAI. The Crawford show recently premiered at the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford, Pa., a town where Crawford once lived and painted. Dayton is the only other stop.

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Ralston Crawford’s original artwork for “Transatlantic Round Trips Follow the Pattern of the Weather,” Fortune, November 1944, p. 159. Gouache on paper mounted on board. Collection of John Crawford. CONTRIBUTED

Ralston Crawford’s original artwork for “Transatlantic Round Trips Follow the Pattern of the Weather,” Fortune, November 1944, p. 159. Gouache on paper mounted on board. Collection of John Crawford. CONTRIBUTED
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Ralston Crawford’s original artwork for “Transatlantic Round Trips Follow the Pattern of the Weather,” Fortune, November 1944, p. 159. Gouache on paper mounted on board. Collection of John Crawford. CONTRIBUTED

Meet Ralston Crawford

“I hope people who aren’t familiar with Ralston Crawford will take this as a great introduction to his art and to him as a person,” says Emily Schuchardt Navratil, who curated the show on behalf of the Vilcek Foundation in New York. “He was famous before World War II, he worked through the war, and then worked 30 years after. So his work spans the century.”

Crawford was known as a Precisionist at a time when art was very exacting, hard-edge, sharply defined. His art reflects advances in industry, engineering and technology.

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Smith likes the idea of examining a short period in an artist’s career — in this case, not quite two decades. Over that period, he says, we can explore how Crawford developed as an artist and began creating abstract works.

Among the defining aspects of his career you’ll see displayed:

  • In the 1930s, while working as a visiting art instructor at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, Crawford documented his aerial experiences with photos, drawings and paintings.
  • When the U.S. entered World War II, Crawford enlisted and served in the Weather Division of the Army Air Force, creating pictorial representations of weather patterns for pilots.
  • He was commissioned by the Miller Lighting Company to commemorate the nine miles of fluorescent lighting installed in the Curtiss-Wright aircraft plant in Buffalo, N.Y. His photos became ink studies; the ink studies became paintings. That commission turned into a Christmas card for the company. Inspired by photos Crawford took at the plant, he later captured plane parts and factory elements in his abstract paintings.
  • After the war, Fortune magazine was looking for a fine artist to witness and interpret the atomic bomb test at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. The assignment went to Crawford. “The USS Nevada was a target ship and they painted it orange for high-visibility so the bombers could see it from far away,” explains Navratil. “You’ll see that red-orange in Crawford’s abstract painting and screenprint.”
  • In 1951, Crawford traveled to Germany to photograph the ruins of the city of Cologne. “Bikini is Cologne,” he wrote to an art historian.
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Ralston Crawford's Bomber, 1944, oil on canvas. Vilcek collection. CONTRIBUTED

Ralston Crawford's Bomber, 1944, oil on canvas. Vilcek collection. CONTRIBUTED
Caption
Ralston Crawford's Bomber, 1944, oil on canvas. Vilcek collection. CONTRIBUTED

The most interesting aspect of the exhibit, believes Navratil, is that it allows us to trace the artist’s process and see how photos and/or sketches were transformed into abstract works of art. “It’s like a fact-finding mission to reverse the process and connect-the-dots from the abstract paintings back to the original object he was seeing — whether that was fluorescent lighting at an airplane factory or a bomb being exploded,” she adds.

Curators say there’s something for everyone in this exhibit — engineers, military folks, history buffs. Art lovers will appreciate what Navratil calls Crawford’s “beautiful artistic hand and gloriously colored paintings.” If you’re an aviation buff, notes Smith, you can see how the experience of flight affects the artist’s finished products. “You see it in his drawings, photography and finished paintings,” he says.

Much of the Crawford art you’ll see on display comes from the Vilcek Foundation, an organization devoted to raising awareness of immigrant contributions to the United States and to fostering appreciation of the arts and sciences. “The art began as a personal collection of Jan and Marica Vilcek, who escaped to America from Czechoslovakia in 1964 with only two suitcases,” says Navratil. “Part of what’s on view in this exhibit was purchased from Crawford’s son, John, in 2013; the rest we borrowed from John’s personal library.”

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Norman Rockwell’s Study for Artist Facing Blank Canvas (Deadline), 1938, oil on board. On loan to the Dayton Art Institute from a private collection. CONTRIBUTED

Credit: CONTRIBUTED

Norman Rockwell’s Study for Artist Facing Blank Canvas (Deadline), 1938, oil on board. On loan to the Dayton Art Institute from a private collection. CONTRIBUTED
Caption
Norman Rockwell’s Study for Artist Facing Blank Canvas (Deadline), 1938, oil on board. On loan to the Dayton Art Institute from a private collection. CONTRIBUTED

Credit: CONTRIBUTED

Credit: CONTRIBUTED

Rockwell gifts on display

Although Norman Rockwell created art at roughly the same time as Ralston Crawford, their approaches were dramatically different: realism vs. avant-garde abstraction.

Rockwell, America’s premier illustrator for more than six decades, was best known for the colorful story illustrations and covers he created for magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post. He captured both humorous and inspirational scenes from everyday life: trimming the Christmas tree, gathering around the Thanksgiving table, changing a flat tire, going fishing.

In the DAI exhibit, it’s fun to see the final magazine layouts after looking at the artwork that led up to them.

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It’s thanks to a close friendship that the DAI is able to display 12 original Rockwell paintings and drawings, three lithographs and other related items. (The exhibit includes a few works by other illustrators that help put the Rockwell art in context. )

The famous artist was well known for giving away his preliminary studies and sketches; much of it went to one of his best friends and you’ll see personal inscriptions on much of the work on view. “Rockwell’s reputation was based on reproductions that everyone has seen,” says Smith. “But not everyone has seen his original work and this gives people that opportunity.”

Chances are you’ll recognize some of the studies. “Artist Facing Blank Canvas,” for example, is one of Rockwell’s most famous illustrations. “Home for Christmas (Stockbridge Mainstreet at Christmas), was featured in McCall’s magazine in 1967 and captures an ideal New England Christmas street.

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Norman Rockwell’s People We All Like, 1930, oil on canvas. On loan to the Dayton Art Institute from a private collection. CONTRIBUTED

Norman Rockwell’s People We All Like, 1930, oil on canvas. On loan to the Dayton Art Institute from a private collection. CONTRIBUTED
Caption
Norman Rockwell’s People We All Like, 1930, oil on canvas. On loan to the Dayton Art Institute from a private collection. CONTRIBUTED

Curator Smith believes this is the perfect time to showcase Rockwell’s work, art that tells a complete story especially through facial expression and hands.

“It’s so relevant right now at a time when all of us are wearing face coverings,” he says. “It makes you realize how important it is to see people’s faces to understand what they are trying to express.” His observation is reflected perfectly in the faces portrayed in the 1930 oil painting on display entitled “People We All Like.” Featured in the oil painting are some of his favorite models. “Children and older people and small-town folks are the best characters to use in telling a human story in pictures, because in real life they express their emotions naturally,” he says.

With the upcoming holidays, it’s the perfect time for the feel-good stories told through Rockwell ‘s illustrations.

“The view of life I communicate in my pictures excludes the sordid and ugly,” Rockwell once said. “I paint life as I would like it to be.”

HOW TO GO

What: “Ralston Crawford: Air + Space + War” and “Norman Rockwell: Stories of Emotion.”

Where: Dayton Art Institute, 456 Belmonte Park N., Dayton

When: Museum hours are 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. The museum is closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. The Crawford exhibit runs through Jan 23. The Rockwell exhibit will be on view through Feb. 13.

Admission: $15 adults; $10 seniors (60+), active military and groups (10 or more); $5 students (18+ w/ID) and youth (ages 7–17); free for children (ages 6 and younger) and museum members.

More info: Go to www.daytonartinstitute.org/visit for the latest museum updates and information about safety protocols. Masks are required when inside the building.

RELATED EVENTS, PROGRAMS AND DIGITAL RESOURCES

Visit www.daytonartinstitute.org to learn more about these programs.

Interactive Virtual Tours: Join a museum educator on Zoom for an interactive discussion of the major themes on view in “Ralston Crawford: Air + Space + War.” Virtual tours are one hour and free, but advance registration is required. Check the website for specific times and dates.

Up…Up…Away! Paper Airplane Project & Fly Off: Follow the DAI’s downloadable instructions to create a paper airplane at home and then share photos on social media using the hashtag #AirSpaceWar. The Paper Airplane Fly Off on the museum grounds at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 7, is free, but advance registration is strongly encouraged.

Curatorial Conversations: Live via Zoom at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 20 and Thursday, Dec. 2, with Jerry N. Smith, chief curator. Free with advance registration.

Online Learning Library, Youth Art Project: Download a guide to create a papier-mâché abstract airplane. Best for ages 7-12. Available for download Friday, Nov. 19.

Draw from the Collection: Download and use this drawing lesson based on Ralston Crawford’s Curtiss-Wright Aircraft Plant Study — Aircraft Factory (about 1946) featured in the exhibition. Best for ages 12 and up. Available for download Friday, Dec. 10.

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