Of Woodblocks and Puppets

by Joanne Nesbit

German born Gustave Baumann found his way to Brown County in the early part of the 20th century via the Art Institute of Chicago and a return to Germany. After studying printmaking in both locales, Baumann set up a press in a vacant store in Nashville and there perfected his skills.

A trip into Brown County to investigate art possibilities led the artist to tell a biographer that “Brown County was easy to commute to, and I found that restful something we all yearn for. Life was simple. I could stay two months for $100.”

Baumann leased or rented the rooms over Genolin’s drug store—four rooms for $4 a month.

During his time in Brown County, Baumann was commissioned by Indianapolis based children’s poet James Whitcomb Riley to create 12 illustrations for his book, “All the Year Round.” “I did the book, but not knowing the rules of the game, it turned out to be a Baumann book with Riley text. It consequently was a dismal flop,” Baumann told a biographer.

“I liked the place,” Baumann said. “Someone has said that literature and art flourish wherever people give themselves time to think. Indiana was one of those places. The artist was accepted with amused tolerance. As such, he could move around freely without being exploited as a strange creature who radiated publicity value. But art is a kind of tyrant. It pushes you around. It came to me dressed up in wanderlust.”

The same wanderlust that brought the printmaker to Brown County is the same wanderlust that took him away.

He once wrote, “Instead of being tied to a musty museum, the artist likes to herd in colonies where life and landscape are a source of inspiration. There are many of these all over the United States. Some of them have worn themselves out. Of those that persist, Provincetown, Brown County, Indiana, Taos, New Mexico, and Laguna Beach, California, are perhaps the best known.”

It was New Mexico that lured him from Brown County.

The Baumann’s home in Santa Fe became a meeting place for all kinds of poets and writers. “In fact, the whole artistic community met there,” said one of their friends. “Jane had a sort of open house tea every single day, and anyone who wanted to could come and join. She was a wonderful cook and baker.”

Baumann had started making marionettes around 1930 for a change from prints and oil painting. “He never worked them, though,” said his daughter Ann. “He couldn’t coordinate speaking and manipulating them. Mother could and he advised.”

Over time the collection of carved wooden marionettes grew to about 60, with three modeled after Ann, Jane and Gustave himself. And the family and their friends began putting on puppet shows in the Baumanns’ living room. They also took the show to various schools, to Colorado, and to Albuquerque.

The artist’s talented work in the wood for blocks for his prints carried over into his marionettes, leading one of his New Mexico friends to say, “They’re remarkable things, just as artistic as his wood blocks. He loved working in wood, was a master carver, and this is where he put his creativity. They [the marionettes] brought an awful lot of enjoyment to a lot of people.”