by Joanne Nesbit
Artists who flocked to Brown County in the early artist colony days relished in the soft colors of spring, the intense colors of summer, and the vibrant colors of autumn in the hills and valleys. When those colors were gone and the starkness of winter arrived many artists retreated. Yes, some of them painted the shadows and shades of snow-covered fields and roadways, but many of them gathered up what they had produced during the “painting season” and ventured into warmer, more affluent environs to exhibit and sell their work.
T.C. Steele was one of those who traveled from his hilltop home and studio above Belmont to the galleries of Indianapolis and competitions throughout the country.
During his early Brown County years Steele and his wife Selma resided in The House of the Singing Winds only from spring through autumn. They spent their winters in a home in Indianapolis. Steele exhibited his works and gave talks on Sunday afternoons about the current exhibits at the Herron Art Institute, where he was chairman of the Fine Arts Committee.
Steele always had a large audience. His talks were promoted by Indianapolis newspapers. The artist took no fee for these presentations, which were free to the public. In regards to his criticisms of the work of others, Steele once said, “The first thing in art to be considered, as well as the last, is truth. Different men may have different impressions, and consequently there follows different work from different artists.”
In 1909 Steele exhibited at Sander and Recker’s Gallery in Indianapolis, where 40 of his pieces hung. Roderic S. Mumford of the Indianapolis Star wrote of this exhibit, “The artist comes up to the city with the pictures he has been painting all through spring, summer and fall, each one a record of nature in some one of her thousand moods. He has returned from out of doors with the bright pictures that the eye sees, suddenly arrested in their variations of color and light and fixed forever on canvas….T.C. Steele has brought up from his studio in the Indiana hill country the results of some of the most profitable months this artist has ever given to his work.”
That same year Steele won $500, the Chicago Fine Arts Building Prize given for best entry in the annual exhibition of the Society of Western Artists. This winner was a 35 x 45 inch painting titled “A March Morning.” Steele told a reporter, “I painted the picture last March. It represents a broken country with a roadway running over the top of a Brown County ridge, and the view is on my Brown county farm…an admirable farm for landscape purposes, and pictures are the only crop it products.”
The same winter, but in February 1910, Steele held a retrospective exhibition of 70 canvases in the main gallery of the Herron Art Institute. A Mr. Fox, director of the Institute, wrote in the Indianapolis News that “It must be of interest to every Indianian, and indeed to all Americans of the west and the east who feel a pride in the growth of a native school of painting, and who can appreciate Mr. Steele’s influence, potent and widespread, yet quietly and modestly exerted, that it is proposed to honor him by assembling his representative life work in the institution which he has done so much to build up.”
By 1912 The Steeles decided to give up their residence in Indianapolis and began living year ‘round in Brown County. Selma wrote, “The new little hut-studio in the ravine recently built was to provide a comfortable place for midwinter painting. It followed then that on a morning in early February of 1912, with temperatures hovering near the zero mark, we left the city for some deep winter experiences in the country. When we arrived at the hilltop home there were only the tracks of the furred animals in the snow to give evidence of life. All else was still and profound.”
During that year T. C. Stele painted “Winter in the Ravine.”
And so the artists came to stay in Brown County through the rains of spring, the heat and humidity of summer, the breezes of fall, and the cold of winter. To the people of Brown County the artists were welcome at any time.
Sophia Lucas Vossmeyer wrote several years ago that “The coming of the artist, T.C. Steele, and his wife, Selma, was the greatest single event that ever happened to Brown County.” The Lucas family and the Steeles became friends, Vossmeyer wrote, and the artist enlisted many of that family to help with the construction of The House of the Singing Winds and to clear timber from some of his property. Mrs. Steele used them in the house and in her gardens. While the Steeles gained neighbors and physical help from the Lucas family, Vossmeyer wrote that “the neighbors needed the culture the Steeles brought and the cash they could earn by working.”