T.C. Steele Site
Celebrates Birthday

by Andrea deTarnowsky, Historic Site Manager, T.C. State Historic Site

Say the words “September 11” aloud, and it evokes strong emotions. Celebrating September 11 seems somehow… inappropriate.

But September 11, 1847, was a day of celebration for a certain frontier family in Owen County, Indiana, as they welcomed their first-born child into the world. On that day, Samuel and Harriett Steele held their infant son in their arms. They had high hopes for young Theodore Clement Steele. Perhaps Samuel Steele, a farmer and saddlemaker, envisioned his son following in his footsteps. Or perhaps—since he was a man who believed in God’s will and the importance of education—his dreams for his son were greater.

As he grew, it was obvious that young Theodore’s talents lay in art rather than farming. Although his parents encouraged their son’s talent, however, they had no idea that their son would become one of Indiana’s most famous artists: a man who would rub shoulders with Indiana’s “rich and famous” as he painted their portraits, and who would capture on canvas the beauty of southern Indiana for future generations. The home of Steele’s later years in Brown County, the House of the Singing Winds, would become a Mecca for young artists who came to Brown County’s “Art Colony of the Midwest.” Eventually, Steele’s home would become a state historic site for all to enjoy.

Certainly, T.C. Steele left behind a legacy worthy of celebration.

Fast forward to 1988.

Staff members and volunteers at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site decide to celebrate the artist’s birthday in style, complete with a giant birthday cake. At the same time, they ponder the best way to permanently celebrate Steele’s birthday. The Great Outdoor Art Contest is born.

The idea behind the Great Outdoor Art Contest was (and is) a simple one. Each year on the Saturday closest to Steele’s September 11 birth date artists of all ages spend the day drawing and painting as Steele did, outside in the open air. Works of art to be judged must be created on the day of the contest. First place award winners in six categories display their work in Steele’s studio for one month, for all to enjoy.

Fast forward to September 13, 2003.

Cars begin to line up at the gates of the T.C. Steele State Historic Site at 6:00 a.m. At 7:00 the gates finally open. Bleary-eyed volunteers—some have already put in a couple of hours work—take their places at the check-in tables and pour gallons of coffee for bleary-eyed artists.

It is year fifteen for the Great Outdoor Art Contest. Many participants are veterans of previous paintouts. For others, like the five-year-old already busy with her crayons, and the elderly man in paint-stained overalls, it is the first-time. Staff members joke that Steele would have considered them to be latecomers—he once commented that no serious artist should be in bed after 4:00 a.m.

Not everyone is registered. Pre-registration for contest participants is required, but some come to work for their own enjoyment. Others come to support their favorite artists and enjoy the beauty of the setting. Favorite painting spots sprout easels and umbrellas as artists jockey for the best views of the buildings and of Selma Steele’s restored gardens. Others head for the seclusion of the trails. A few leave the historic site entirely. Everyone must have their work back at Steele’s Large Studio by 2:00 p.m. for judging. Prizes have been donated by local merchants. A weekend in a Brown County bed and breakfast is always an attraction, and a gift certificate for art supplies is a useful addition to the prestige of a first-place ribbon.

The general public also arrives enjoy the artists at work and the attractions of the site. In the afternoon, the added attraction of a 1:00 p.m. jazz concert by the Residue Jazz Society of Bedford is planned.

At the end of the day, the artists will pack up their supplies and call out to each other, “See you next year!” A few may notice that the 2004 Great Outdoor Art Contest will be held on Steele’s actual birthday, on September 11, a day to once again celebrate the birth of a Hoosier artist and to witness the creation of beautiful works of art.

For further information about T.C. Steele State Historic Site and the Great Outdoor Art Contest, please call (812) 988-2785 or e-mail <tcsteele@bloomington.in.us>. The T. C. Steele State Historic Site is part of the Department of Natural Resources’ Division of State Museums & Historic Sites.