Long before there was David Lee Csicsko (see our post of Jan. 26th), there was Hildreth Meière.
The exhibit, “Walls Speak”, currently running at the Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts in St. Bonaventure, NY and companion catalogue are musts for any mosaicist or large format artist who wishes to collaborate with architects, designers and clients in creating art that transforms public spaces and people’s lives.
For the better part of my adult life Hildreth Meière has been like one of those neighbors we meet regularly but whom we don’t get to know very well or whose name we somehow fail to learn. And then suddenly, on revelatory day, we realize that a person we’ve taken for granted has ad an impact on the world around us beyond our imagining.
Hildreth Meière was one amazing woman. Born in New York, educated at the finest private schools, she fell in love with large-format artwork while studying art in Florence. The woman wanted to work BIG — and so she did creating narrative murals, sculptures and mosaics that adorn some of our most iconic buildings . . .
and government places . . .
and sacred spaces.
Synonymous with the Art Deco Movement, Meière was the first woman artist to receive the Fine Arts Medal of the American Institute of Architects. Her citation from 1956 reads:
A Master of Murals: the world of art might write your name high on the list of the great among our painters and write truly, but not fully. Mosaic, terra cotta, leaded glass, metal, gesso — these and still other media respond gratefully to the direction of your heart and hands. Your collaboration with architects and other artists brings more than the addition of beauty; it transfuses the joint concept and makes it indivisible. In accepting one more token, added to all the expressions of grateful appreciation your work has earned, you will permit us the realization that you are giving the Institute the greater honor.
Oh, my. High praise indeed. Especially coming from a male-dominated industry and association. It is hard to understand why we know so little of Ms. Meière when someone like Julia Morgan is so well known.
In this post, we’re going to try to rectify that a bit and quickly take a look at several of Ms. Meière’s projects. We’ll focus on how she worked as an artist and collaborator in creating extraordinary environments to gather, work, pray and play in. We are much, much indebted to Ms. Meiere’s granddaughter, Hilly Meiere Dunn, for providing all the photographs (unless noted) and coordinating our communications with the Exhibit’s Curator and author of the catalogue, Catherine Coleman Brawer. At the end of the post, you’ll find links of interest.
Excerpts from “Walls Speak”, the catalogue:
Curator Coleman Brawer has done an incredible job of documenting how Meière collaborated with architects like the celebrated Bertram G. Goodhue (1869-1924). Coleman Brawer writes:
Meière immediately grasped the role Goodhue required of her: to complement the architecture by translating abstract symbols and themes into narrative images that augmented his vision and emphasized a building’s cultural significance.
The Temple Emanu-El, NYC (1929)
Let’s take a look at Meière’s narrative gifts at work in the sacred space of Temple Emanu-El, which, at the time of its completion in 1929, was the largest synagogue in the world. Meière incorporated geometry and Jewish symbolism in her design – The Tree of Life, a prayer shawl, a wedding canopy and more.
Coleman Brawer writes:
For the apex of the arch, Hildreth Meière designed an image to represent day two of Creation as described in Genesis 1:7-8 “So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.”
Meiere’s design is simple, elegant, concise and totally conveys the intent of the scripture used as inspiration. As one small component in a very large, ornate canvas, it is that brevity that makes “Creation” a focal point.
The Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis, (1945-1961)
Coleman Brawer’s description of the Drinking Deer for the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis provides a wonderful lesson in design for mosaic artists. As you can see, Meière’s studies were all done to-scale and often indicated the placement and andamento of tesserae with separate brush strokes.
Gouache on cartoon paper, 104 x 48 in.
The scale of Hildreth Meière’s mosaic was so large that she needed two sheets of four-foot-wide cartoon paper to draw each deer. Her depiction of the deer, the stream they drink from, and the fish in the stream is striking in its naturalism and attention to detail. Even though she was designing for a mosaic to be seen from at least fifty feet below, Meière included different species of fish and flowers, as well as subtle shadings of her figures that give the mosaic depth and realistic appearance. The shimmering gold of the grapevine augments the mosaic’s liveliness. — Coleman Brawer
The Nebraska State Capitol, Lincoln, Neb. (1924-1932)
Equally valuable for mosaic artists is Coleman Brawer’s exhaustive research and documentation of the give-and-take between artists, clients, designers and architects while working on large-scale projects together.
Case in point: Hartley Burr Alexander (1873-1939) was asked to develop the icons and symbols that served as the basis for imagery used throughout the Nebraska State Capitol, one of this country’s architectural treasures. Rare for his time, Alexander had a great appreciation for the people and culture of native Americans. For the rotunda, he chose a theme of “Native American Life on the Plains.”
Coleman Brawer writes:
Hartley Burr Alexander was not happy with four of Hildreth Meière’s early studies for War Party: “The meaning . . . is simply not present. It is not war.” He found her studies too “ceremonial.” “I do wish you at least try out an exploit picture, which does not mean war as the Indian understands it.” Meiere kept submitting revised studies to Alexander, who commented on the plume-banner as overdone, the shields as too subordinate, the warriors as all left-handed, the lance as incorrectly held, and the charge itself as lacking “go.”
Ouch. It took six weeks for Meière to submit designs that Alexander was finally happy with. And these were only a small portion of the work Meière did with Alexander over the eight years it took to complete the statehouse. Her work there ranged from fabulous floor mosaics in the foyer to the tapestry you see below the rotunda.
Beyond the glorious studies and photographs of actual work in situ, the exhibit catalogue offers wonderful “behind the scenes” photographs that we found enchanting.
The Travelers Insurance Company
For the Travelers Insurance Company headquarters in Hartford, Connecticut, Meière designed a series of marble mosaics. The V. Foscato Factory in Long Island City, NY was responsible for the fabrication.
Working in reverse from the suspended cartoon behind them, craftsmen at the V. Foscato factory are placing marble tesserae free-hand within the outlines of different sections of Hildreth Meière’s design for the Travelers Insurance Company lobby mosaic. — Coleman Brawer
The full-scale cartoon tacked to the wall and the to-scale study propped on the floor to the left enable Hildreth Meière and Vincent Foscato to compare the completed section of the marble mosaic and Meiere’s original design. The mosaic sections on the floor have been glued to a paper backing and are in reverse from the study, cartoons, and final mosaic. — Coleman Brawer
Once again, we wish Scotty were around to beam us up — this time to St. Bonaventure and the Quick Center. If you go, let us know. If you can’t go, then we do highly recommend the catalogue. What you have seen here is just a taste of the treasures that await within the gorgeous, 112 page book.
UPDATE June 7, 2013
Since Walls Speak first debuted in 2010, the exhibit has been mounted at the Museum of Biblical Art in New York and the National Building Museum in Washington DC. For a quick look at the exhibit, check out the video below:
And don’t miss more glorious photos by Hildreth Meière Dunn in this PBS Photo Essay: The Art & Architecture of An Art Deco Muralist: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/multimedia/meiere/index.html
For much more about Ms. Meière, upcoming exhibits and lecures visit her website at: www.hildrethmeiere.com
All photographs Copyright 2009 Hildreth Meière Dunn unless otherwise noted.
Again, our profound thanks to Ms. Dunn and Ms. Coleman Brawer.
Enjoy — Nancie