Your writer’s excuse for scribbling for the holidays about somebody who summered in Lake Forest almost 80 years ago is that she also is the subject, like my November story’s Cissy Patterson (Newspaper Titan…), of a major new biography published this year by Knopf in New York.
In this case, Joan Mitchell: Painter Lady—A Life by Patricia Albers is a fitting gift for readers interested in Lake Forest and who also want to discover something new about mid-20th century American art. Like the future newspaper publisher Cissy, the notable Abstract Expressionist artist’s life included an important interlude in Lake Forest, in Joan Mitchell’s case, during the 1930s.
Chicago-born Joan (1926–1992) was the daughter of Marion Strobel (Mrs. James) Mitchell, who was part of another local cultural story, the local support behind Chicago’s Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, the first little poetry magazine. These were not the banker Mitchells, John J. Jr. and William, who married Lolita Armour and Ginevra King, but the family of Dr. James Herbert Mitchell, a notable downstate-born Chicago dermatologist married to an heiress. Marion’s father and Joan’s grandfather was Carnegie Steel’s inventive bridge-building engineer Charles Louis Strobel, who amassed a fortune along with Andrew Carnegie, Henry Frick, and others in the mighty firm. The James Mitchells, then, were part of the privileged circle that summered at Onwentsia, the Aldis Compound, etc., during Joan’s childhood.
She was mentored by and a friend of artists Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Beginning in the 1940s and 1950s, Joan created complex, non-representational patterns of color that were characteristic of this intense postwar movement’s second phase, according to art historian and Lake Forest College professor Franz Schulze; her major recognition, too, has been more recent, in the last decade.
As a child in kindergarten, she already was experiencing, but not ever understanding, a rare emotion-color synesthesia, a cross-wiring in the brain where stimulus in one sense leads to perception in another (Albers, pp. 35–36). For her, the alphabet’s letters were colors: “A” was green, etc., regardless of what color it might actually be written as. Her life is a complex story of the way in which this unusual characteristic went from causing her to feel odd and sidetracked from others to becoming the basis for a new way of seeing. This turning handicap into creation is well-known in the manner in which the hyper-nearsighted vision of Monet led to inventing Impressionism in painting, and that of London-suburban garden designer Gertrude Jekyll led to creating the Impressionistic English flower (herbaceous) border a few years later. Albers’ rapidly paced book details this fascinating transformation of the young Joan’s isolating uniqueness into a mature artist’s contribution to one of the 20th century’s major artistic achievements. She was unique, nearly, as a woman among the well-known men in New York and Paris of the postwar intellectual and artistic cauldron that produced Abstract Expressionism. This first biography of Joan Mitchell tells the story of this remarkable life and contribution.
Lake Forest was the outdoor setting for many new experiences by the future artist who created a new art from abstracted pure emotion in colors. Dr. Mitchell’s family of his poet and editor spouse, Marion, and his two young daughters, Joan being the second, stayed a few summers in the President’s House of Lake Forest College, on the northeast corner of today’s Middle Campus entered from College Road. In 2011, this location is a restored oak savanna and ravine edge: Shooting Star Savanna. In the early 1930s, it was the quite private location of the substantial Bross House (demolished 1965), the early 1890s brick two-and-a-half-story Queen Anne, Henry Ives Cobb-designed residence built for the institution’s professor of religion. The house’s distinctive front gable end also exhibits some of the Aesthetic Movement character that also appeared in the work of architects Pond & Pond and Louis Sullivan in the period. The interior included, as described by the late Rosemary Cowler, fireplaces with richly colored Arts & Crafts tiles like those also found formerly in Cobb’s 1892 Durand Institute on campus and in Chicago’s Richard H. Driehaus Museum, the former Nickerson mansion. This picturesque natural setting and elite-designed house by the architect of Chicago’s 1880s Potter Palmer mansion both would have contributed to the atypical sensory development of the future artist. Summers spent at Onwentsia, Exmoor, and Chicago Saddle & Cycle swimming pools would have also offered unique experiences. Here, Joan was chums with Mary Cornelia Aldis, known as M.C., who was the daughter of poet and novelist Dorothy Aldis. M.C. later became Mrs. Roy Porter and, by the 1960s and 1970s, would be a professor of political science at Barat College.
A curious estate-era side story revolves around the way the Mitchells came to rent the President’s House at Lake Forest College during the summers. The occupant then was the Rev. Herbert McComb Moore, President from 1920–1942, a period in which there were as yet no summer classes. Moore and his family, like other faculty families, rented their school-year homes out to city-residing Onwentsia members so that the families could spend the season away from the heat and smells of the not-yet-air-conditioned city, where open windows brought in the soot of steam engines and, worse, the indescribable stench of the stockyards as far north as Lincoln Park. Husbands and fathers commuted weekdays by train to their urban pursuits. The College faculty in the 1920s and 1930s and residually into the early 1970s would move north to inexpensive cottages on Wisconsin lakes while their hired-out homes earned enough in a couple of months to defray much of the next year’s rent to the College. The late June horse shows drew crowds of 15,000 at their height between 1900–1970, and the July golf tournaments were major draws as well. If many Lake Foresters retreated further north or away east and west in August, many tied to city commitments remained close to the lake breezes in Lake Forest. Other seasonal rental families put up in apartments on the club grounds, in dedicated rentals like those of the Alling-Brown family on nearby Washington Road, and here and in various homes in town where the owners were abroad or in need of funds, etc., arranged through Griffith, Grant and Lackie Realtors.
President Moore, a politically and socially conservative Presbyterian clergyman, followed the faculty in its habitual retreat from town, in his case, with his spouse and son north to Lake George, near Rhinelander, Wisconsin. So the Mitchells indirectly helped underwrite the small educational institution here in that period, with less than 500 students enrolled during the academic year, through the summer months’ rent they paid to its president. The Mitchells arrived there just after the annual summer graduate programs on campus of the Foundation for Architecture and Landscape Architecture, a Lake Forest Garden Club project, had been suspended after 1931 due to a lack of patron support in the depths of the post 1929 crash economic depression. This highly unusual income for a college, a kind of endowment from its location in a posh suburban summer resort, helped it survive indirectly by supporting its very modestly paid staff in the era.
—Arthur H. Miller