July 9, 2020

Dig Deep into the Guidebook on the Historic Artists' Homes and Studios

The studio where Grant Wood painted "American Gothic." The home of pioneering photographer Alice Austen. The home and gardens of industrial designer Richard Wright. Each of these places is a member of a collection of historic sites dedicated to telling the stories of creativity across the United States.

For the last 20 years, the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Historic Artists' Homes and Studios (HAHS) program has addressed the unique challenges of preserving these spaces of creativity. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the program, a first of its kind guidebook to HAHS sites is now available from Princeton Architectural Press.

Featuring the 44 site museums in the network—located throughout the United States and all open to the public—the guide conveys each artist's visual legacy and sets each site in the context of its architecture and landscape, often designed by the artists themselves. To explore the legacy of HAHS and the importance of this guidebook, we talked to Valerie Balint, guidebook author and HAHS program manager:

View from Main Lawn towards Norton House and Ann Norton’s “Untitled Horizontal Sculpture, 1979,” Handmade Mexican Brick, Length 48 feet.

photo by: Courtesy Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens, Capehart Photography

View from main lawn towards the Ann Norton House in West Palm Beach, Florida. You can see Ann Norton’s “Untitled Horizontal Sculpture, 1979,” which is sculpted using handmade Mexican brick.

What led to the idea for a HAHS Guidebook, and why now?

There are many beautiful coffee table books that one can buy that discuss groupings of these sites or artists, but there was no comprehensive guide representing the program as a vibrant and long-standing National Trust initiative, and no book that examined these sites collectively. This year marked the perfect moment not only to celebrate what we had achieved over the past two decades, but also to provide a glimpse of the program's future in terms of its expansion, outward reach to new audiences, and its ever-increasing role as the leading voice of advocacy around the preservation of these sites of our artistic legacy.

Early on, HAHS advisory leadership and staff agreed that what we wanted was a book that would take people on a creative journey. A guidebook for armchair travel or for road tripping across the full breadth and depth of the HAHS network, introducing readers to sites and artists across 21 states and 3 centuries of our nation’s art history. We are thankful that The Henry Luce Foundation, a consistent supporter of the program, provided the underwriting for the project as part of a larger three-year grant to support the program’s commitment for increased impact—both for its members and for the more than 1 million visitors who engage with these sites annually.

What makes an artist's home and studios special?

For me, it is their immersive and experiential quality, which is very distinct from contemplating artworks in a museum or gallery wall. These are the places where some of the most recognizable artworks in the nation were made. The artists who created them did so through hard physical labor and rigorous mental processes, and to achieve that, they each needed to create environments where they could be inspired and productive, while also allowing for opportunities to flex creative muscles in new directions.

As I often say, “you don’t stop being an artist when you close the studio door.” When we visit these places where artists both lived and worked we are able to see how art is made—the tools, the soaring studio windows, the materials and studies for finished works. We also come to understand how the surrounding physical environs nurtured these efforts, and how personal narratives may have impacted them.

photo by: Historic Artists' Homes and Studios

These former homes and studios were deeply personal to each artist. The power of place that is a result of that personal connection is potent and tangible at each of these sites. And so every time I went to write about a site in the network, I sought out that convergence of the personal and the exceptional, because that is the promise each offers to visitors.

Many of these sites are works of art in themselves and provide new ways of thinking about an artist and their approach to creativity. Their fearless commitment to expanding ways in which creativity can be expressed is infectious, and reminds us that we too have that creative spark within us, should we only venture to reignite it. The choices each of these artists made relative to their home, the view from their window, and the objects they surrounded themselves with, remind us that we make artistic decisions in our own life all the time and therefore have a common connection with these great artists.

While doing research for the guidebook, what surprised you?

I’ve had the pleasure of spending the majority of my career at preserved artists’ homes and studios. I began as an intern at Chesterwood, and then worked at the Frelinghuysen Morris Home and Studio before it was open to the public. My longest tenure was on curatorial staff at Olana, the home and artistic masterwork of Hudson River School painter Frederic Edwin Church. These sites represent three entirely different modes of artistic production—monumental sculpture, abstract art, landscape painting—and three different time periods in our nation’s history, yet there are common threads in all three which can also be applied throughout the network.

In reviewing these sites in their rich and dizzying variety, I came time and again to the interconnectivity of artistic evolution, which is not linear. I often compare it to dropping a pebble in a pond and the series of concentric circles that form. This is what process is for many artists, and we witness this through learning about where these artists lived and worked.

Interior of the Studio at Daniel Chester French’s Chesterwood, Stockbridge, Mass., with “Andromeda” and the seated “Abraham Lincoln."

photo by: Photograph by Don Freeman, 2017

Interior of the studio at Daniel Chester French’s Chesterwood, Stockbridge, Massachussettes, with “Andromeda” and the seated “Abraham Lincoln.”

As I worked on the book, I became reacquainted with all the singular magic and idiosyncratic aspects these places had to offer, while also experiencing moments of renewed awe and wonder at the sheer diversity in which creativity can be expressed. Immersed in the artist’s most intimate life and workspaces allows for deeper understanding of the physical and mental rigor of creating art while gaining awareness of how personal narratives play a role in professional endeavors.

I believe these are things we can all relate to. Those most universal of human experiences of loss and triumph are what endure most for me, such as trailblazer Alice Austen, fighting all convention of her day by photographing everyday people in lower Manhattan and defying family by living with her life partner Gertrude Tate in a decades-long relationship. Or sculptor Albin Polasek who suffered a debilitating stroke just after retiring to Florida following a highly successful, thirty-year teaching career at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, who still found ways to keep making monumental sculpture.

The book also allowed me to shine a light on the sites and artists who might be lesser known, than say, Andrew Wyeth or Jackson Pollock. I hope that in reading about American Impressionist painter Theodore Steele’s home in rural Indiana, and figurative painter Grace Hudson’s Arts and Crafts home in Ukiah, California there is a discovery that their art, and the artist-designed homes and landscapes they each created are as compelling as the narratives and spaces of iconic names such as Thomas Cole and Georgia O’Keeffe—who are also in the book, of course!

The Living/Dining Room, Maloof Historic Home, Alta Loma, Calif.

photo by: Courtesy Sam and Alfreda Maloof Foundation for Arts and Crafts.

The living/dining room of the Maloof Historic Home in Alta Loma, California.

How has the HAHS program evolved and changed over the years?

Last year marked the 20th anniversary of the start of HAHS, but this past month (June 2020) was the anniversary date of the launch of the program with a dozen members. Over the years we have expanded the geographic diversity a great deal and the current membership is 44 sites.

I think the breadth and reach of the representation is what always strikes me. There are homes and studios in major cities, such as the Chicago home of painter Roger Brown, but also those artists who chose to work in more remote and rural areas such as the Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania homes and studios of illustrator N.C. Wyeth and his son, painter Andrew Wyeth. We have grown to include sites of self-taught African American artist Clementine Hunter, who began work at mid-life and created an epic mural at the plantation you worked on her entire life in rural Louisiana, and also brought in artists whose sites have only recently been preserved such as the former home of Conceptual artist David Ireland in San Francisco, California.

This has expanded the range of art and artists we represent stylistically, but also in terms of the types of spaces where artists are inspired to live and work. I like to think we have something for everyone—from Abstract Expressionists to Impressionists to industrial designers to figurative sculpture, and everywhere in between—and new ways of learning about art.

Over the years the network has provided a critical forum for members to engage in dialogue around ideas of best practices of stewardship, interpretation, and education. With consistent underwriting support from the Wyeth Foundation for American Art, we have been able to bring the membership together in person for active discussion and peer exchange. We have also used their support and that of The Henry Luce Foundation to expand visibility of the program and the sites individually through our marketing efforts, for the benefit of all.

As HAHS looks to its future, we are committed to becoming more outward facing and engaging the public more directly. This past year we collaborated with the John F. Peto Museum in Island Heights to develop a K-6 STEAM program centered around more than a dozen artists within the HAHS network. These resources, which are being finalized, will be available to every site, but also educators and parents, etc. There are so many other opportunities for this type of outreach programming, which HAHS is uniquely poised to spearhead.

Exterior of African House on the Melrose Plantation, Natchitoches, La., which is home to the Clementine Hunter murals.

photo by: Courtesy Melrose Plantation

Exterior of African House on the Melrose Plantation, Natchitoches, La., which is home to the Clementine Hunter murals.

How are HAHS Sites responding to the current pandemic?

As for everyone, the pandemic has presented challenges for these sites, that have up until now, been centered around in person and immersive experience, which is not possible at present. Many have viewed this new paradigm as an opportunity to release new and robust digital offerings that range from online lesson plans for parents home-schooling children to virtual tours of sites and digital exhibitions to live streaming content produced on a wide range of topics—both historic and contemporary.

Others have engaged their staff and their communities to give voice to what is important about these sites and their collections through surveys, perspective videos and object highlights. Three of the sites, the Winlsow Homer Studio (Portland, Maine), Olana State Historic Site (Hudson, New York) and Georgia O’Keeffe’s Abiquiu Studio in New Mexico have live streaming cameras that illustrate the ever-changing landscape and atmospheric conditions that inspired these artists.

This content is varied and rich, which I think people are really craving right now. But it is also wonderful that some sites additionally have online coloring pages and digital puzzles to help with the decompression we all need during these times.

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Many of these sites continue to have their historic buildings closed to the public to ensure both public safety and safety of the collections. Sites that have opened for touring are doing so on a restrictive basis. But many sites have kept their landscapes open throughout the pandemic as places of inspiration, retreat, and renewal for visitors. The artists who lived in these homes and studio were drawn to places of beauty, and often designed their own extensive landscapes, so it is fitting that these sites can provide a natural oasis for community right now.

The HAHS website artistshomes.org provides a full directory of the HAHS network, with links to respective sites' websites. We encourage everyone to visit individual site websites and social media pages for the most up-to-date offerings.

HAHS had planned to debut the Guidebook at a series of public events in the summer of 2020, which have been put on hold due to coronavirus. We encourage you to purchase the book through Chesterwood’s online Gift Shop or online. Learn more about HAHS on their website, follow them on Facebook, or sign up for their newsletter on their website.

Grant Stevens

Grant is proud to be from a Main Street Community and the Black Dirt Capitol of the World—Conrad, Iowa! You can most often find him reading, running, or out on the road saving places.

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