When Indiana was still little more than forested wilderness and small farming communities, one of the state’s most famous artists was growing up in Nineveh, located in Johnson County.
William Merritt Chase spent his youth here, before his family moved to Indianapolis. He would grow to become a world-renowned master artist in New York City, dedicating his time to not only capturing life in 19th century America but teaching a new generation of painters, including Georgia O’Keeffe and Rockwell Kent.
His atmospheric portraits, sweeping Long Island landscapes and intimate still-lifes are still studied and admired by art lovers throughout the world.
On Indiana’s 200th birthday, Chase has been recognized as one of the most influential artists in state history. In the midst of bicentennial mania, the Indianapolis Museum of Art is looking at how Hoosier painters, sculptors, fashion designers, metal workers and other artists have shaped not just the state, but the world at large.
“19 Stars of Indiana Art” singles out the most influential creative thinkers, ranging from Indiana’s pioneer days to modern cutting-edge art scene.
“Obviously, we knew 2016 was an important date for Indiana, and we were committed to do something to recognize it,” said Annette Schlagenhauff, the museum’s curator of special projects. “When we had our centennial in 1916, a big push was looking at pioneers — covered wagons and moving further west. So I started thinking about this idea of pioneers and innovators in art.
“These artists do say something about what the Hoosier spirit is.”
One artist was chosen to represent each of the 19 stars on the Indiana flag. The exhibition was built from the museum’s own collection.
The collection featured includes some of the most well-known Hoosiers in the art world, including Brown County-based painter T.C. Steele and Robert Indiana, creator of the iconic “LOVE” sculpture.
But museum officials also wanted to spotlight some of the less famous artists as well, Schlagenhauff said.
Photographer Frank Hohenberger came to Nashville in the early 20th century to shoot the beautiful natural landscape that captured artists’ imaginations for decades. But he gained fame with his examination of country life, particularly during the Great Depression, in Brown County.
Wilhelmina Seegmiller, head of art instruction for Indianapolis Public Schools in the early 20th century, is recognized as an international education leader for her desire to make art accessible to everyone.
“You might recognize some, but you’ll learn something about some people you’ve never heard of,” Schlagenhauff said. “This is a way of broadening the lens.”
The exhibition is broken into five categories. Visitors can learn about artistic pioneers and innovators such as fashion designer Halston, as well as entrepreneurial artists such as the Overbeck Sisters — ceramics artists from Cambridge City.
Nature lovers such as pre-industrial painter George Winter, teachers such as Chase and visionary kinetic sculptor George Rickey also are featured.
“One of the obvious structures of something like this is very chronologically, just tell the history of 200 years,” Schlagenhauff said. “For me, the emphasis was that it didn’t have to be so historical. The key word should be ‘celebration.’ I started thinking about how we could celebrate and still reveal a lot about artists in various periods.”
Within the exhibition, visitors can play with an interactive map of Indiana and a video gallery that further reveals and digs into the artists’ legacies. People can create their own paper flowers, insects and birds as part of a large-scale Indiana landscape.
The museum has also launched an interactive scavenger hunt through its 152-acre campus in conjunction with the exhibition. People are encouraged to discover artwork, natural elements and exhibitions with special Indiana ties, Schlagenhauff said.