WEST BEND, WI, August 6, 2007 – For Immediate Release -- The art of Lois Ireland Zwettler will be on exhibition at the Museum of Wisconsin Art from Friday, August 10th through September 30th. A very special exhibition with a new catalog produced by MWA in conjunction with Michael Hall, seventy-nine-year-old Ireland will attend the opening reception and gallery talk at MWA on Sunday, August 12th from 1:30 – 4:00 p.m. (talk at 2:30 pm with Michael Hall).
In 1936 the University of Wisconsin-Madison began a bold artistic experiment to help alleviate the rapid modernization of urban Wisconsin that was polarizing life in their state. Social progressives within the University agriculture school determined that the arts might provide a corrective for this transformation and proposed that the University employ a nationally prominent painter to draw Wisconsin’s rural amateur artists into a campus based cultural interface with their city brethren. They hired the famous American Scene painter, John Steuart Curry, to serve as its first ever “artist-in-residence.” One of his responsibilities was to be a mentor for the painters and craft workers brought together in the newly formed Wisconsin Rural Art Program – a cohort of largely self-taught artists comprised of teachers, blacksmiths, mail carriers, farmers and housewives residing in various small agricultural communities around Madison.
The star pupil of the RAP was a girl from Waunakee called Lois Ireland whose work was discovered in a Westport steak-house by Curry as he dined there. Lois’s luminous moment in the twilight of the American Scene is only now attracting the attention it deserves and the present exhibition is, in fact, the first solo exhibition ever accorded to her paintings.
Between 1943 and 1948, Lois displayed twenty paintings in the annual Rural Art Show in Madison. From the start, her style possessed a kind of freshness typically associated with folk and naïve art – a visual simplicity that remained constant even as her technical and design skills became more sophisticated. With Curry’s support and mentoring, Lois found her own voice as a painter of Wisconsin landscapes. Between 1945 and 1948 Ireland sold numerous paintings from the Rural Art Annual and won prizes and cash awards for other works submitted to museum exhibitions in Milwaukee and even as far away as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
After graduating from high school in 1947, Lois entered the University of Wisconsin where she learned lithography from the noted Wisconsin printmaker Alfred Sessler. In 1949, however, she left Madison to enroll at the Art Students League in New York where for the next year she studied painting with Frank DuMond and Yasuo Kuniyoshi. A good student, Lois, nevertheless, had her own ideas about her art. She recounts at least one New York critique in which an exasperated Kuniyoshi branded her “a stubborn Midwestern.” After a year in Manhattan, Ireland returned to Waunakee in 1950. There, she resumed painting in her old bedroom studio on the second floor of her parents’ home.
By the time she turned twenty-four, Lois Ireland had created a significant body of paintings that uniquely texture and enrich the great collage of locally inspired art images from the 1930s and 40s known as the art of the American Scene. Painting in her own largely self-taught style, Lois became a late master of the regionalist idiom that she first encountered in Curry’s work and later admired in the paintings of Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, Reginald Marsh, Aaron Bohrod and others.
The decade of the 1950s, however, was not an auspicious time for regionalists of any stripe – especially a small town, female regionalist from Wisconsin. By 1950 Curry and Wood were both deceased and abstract expressionist painters like Jackson Pollock had taken center stage in the American art world. Frustrated and discouraged Lois began to turn away from her art. In 1958 she married John Zwettler and moved to Oconomowoc, Wisconsin where John worked as the town barber. Lois soon became a mother of two and found her time totally consumed by her responsibilities as a homemaker.
In the late 1970s Lois rediscovered the painter within herself. In 1978 she even exhibited some of her pictures at a commercial gallery in Madison. Her newer works continued to address the American Scene subjects she had first portrayed in the paintings she submitted to the Rural Art Shows of the 1940s – farms, barns and daily life in agricultural Wisconsin. More recently, a cultural and academic reevaluation of the American Scene that began in the 1990s has prompted some museums to take a fresh look at Lois Ireland and her art. Consequently, one of Ireland’s early pictures was prominently included in the exhibition Illusions of Eden - an extensive survey of regionalist paintings that toured museums in both the U.S. and Europe between 2000 and 2001.
Today, at seventy-nine, Lois Ireland Zwettler lives outside Minneapolis, Minnesota and remains the self-possessed “Midwestern” that Kuniyoshi encountered at the Art Students League in 1950 “In New York, they hang a chair by a rope and call it art,” she chuckles.
Retrospectively assessed, the best Ireland paintings epitomize the populist and democratic spirit of the American Scene. Unswerving in her adherence to John Curry’s dictum, “paint what you know,” Lois Ireland Zwettler painted a crystal clear record of the world she knew as a teenager and as a young woman living in rural Wisconsin. These paintings, in turn, are indelibly marked by the democratic vision of the Rural Art Program that first shaped Lois’ worldview as an artist.
The Museum of Wisconsin Art is proud to host the first retrospective of this significant Wisconsin artist. Special thanks are extended to Jack and Marion Bolz, John and Fanny Garver, Pat Glascock and Michael Hall and, Ken Marx, Daniel Shogren, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Jim and Randi Williams, Williams Galleries of Nashville, TN, Chris Zwettler, and, of course, Lois Ireland Zwettler.
Lois Ireland will be present at an opening reception on Sunday, August 12th, 1:30 – 4:00 p.m. with a gallery talk by noted collector Michael Hall at 2:30 p.m. An illustrated catalog of the exhibition is available.