Verna Friedman was a student at Clarke College in the late 1950s and received art instruction with Sister Mary James Ann. Please take a look at the Verna Friedman website. I love Verna’s work and I am thrilled and very proud that my aunt had something to do with her beautiful, imaginative work!
I peppered her with a series of questions, some of which are excerpted here. The hyperlinks are my addition!
Where to begin?
I’ll begin by directly answering the questions you ask in your email and in the same order.
Who were her influences?
She mentioned Diego Rivera at times and I thought she might have done a workshop with him at Colorado but I may be mistaken. Her “Pioneer Angelus” does reflect some of his influence. There is also some of Georges Rouault in her religious work.
Did I watch her paint?
She did demonstrations in class. I think she did most of her painting outside of the Open Studio. I still have one of her demonstrations on shape and line. She was throwing it away and I salvaged it. The drawing is in the “Ecce Homo” style. She taught the freshmen studio classes and gave us a solid foundation in the Elements of Design (breaking up space) which applies to abstract as well as representational art. She told me that she preferred getting students who had not had formal art training before coming to Clarke (as I had not) so she didn’t have to break their bad habits.
How did she encourage me?
I think her encouragement came primarily outside of class. It was not unusual that she would grab you in the hallway and talk with you at great length (half hour to an hour) about how you’re doing, your goals, etc. It made you feel very special! You left those talks determined to do better as you did not want to disappoint her but you also thought you could do whatever she said you could do. She also encouraged us to enter competitions (as she did). I remember once (I believe I was a junior) and she took one of my paintings and said we should enter it into the Midwest Biennial (Title?) at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha. What?? Yes, so she found a frame (several I believe and combined them) and put the painting in them and into a crate (which was available in the studio) and off it went. And it got in! It made me feel so special.
Do I know the whereabouts of any of her paintings?
I am sure that many are in the Dubuque area and if you advertised in the Dubuque papers you would get results – that is if the paintings were signed as many of the original owners are probably no longer with us – and their inheritors might not know. Also, an ad in Clarke magazine might work. I do know that “Pioneer Angelus” was taken down from the Eliza Kelly stairwell in 1958. I do not know what happened to it. In its place my senior thesis was hung. This pleased me no end – to think that she replaced her painting with my mosaic!!! I do not know where my mosaic is either. I had not seen the abstracts you posted on the website. My feeling is that they might have been done in the mid-60s, perhaps in conjunction with her MFA from Colorado. Ed Demers should know this as he was at Clarke until 1967.
She definitely was highly respected as an artist.
As far as my observations about “back then” when many people didn’t “get it” about art.
Clarke was very “with it” as were other Iowa educational institutions (something I have always had to defend). And James Ann did have associations with the University of Iowa. I would guess that she received her MA from SUI sometime in the late 30s or early 40s. It is interesting to note that during 1946-1962 the University of Iowa had more graduate arts degrees than any other university in the country – and SUI had incredible teachers! Philip Guston (who Boston University likes to claim) taught there during 1941-1945. Lasansky joined the faculty in 1945 and remained there for many years. Peggy Guggenheim was so impressed with SUI that she donated a Jackson Pollack mural to the university in 1951. And at Clarke we had that same creative spirit with James Ann and Ed Demers (received his degree from Yale). It definitely did not feel like a religious institution. We had a great deal of freedom. The Honor Code was much respected. The BVMs deserve a lot of credit for recognizing James Ann’s talent and allowing her to develop that talent at good schools. The BVMs also deserve a lot of credit for putting such emphasis on the Arts and allowing us to develop as individuals. The Drama and Music Departments were also very good. Although the intent of Clarke (when I was a student) was as Sister Mary Benedict explained in Time magazine: “[Clarke] accepts the commonplace theory that fledging a family of children can leave a woman with too much time and a painful lack of purpose. Consequently, Clarke trains its girls to become ‘the heart, the educated heart, not only of the home but of communities outside the home.’” I would have to say that that no longer applies and “the girls” have become much more in their life after Clarke.
I stayed in touch for a short time after I left Clarke. SMJA actually sent me stamps (5 cents at the time) so that I would write. She also sent a beautiful hand lettered wedding gift in 1960. Then after marriage, unfortunately, my life changed and I did not communicate very often with my past. In 2008 I returned to Clarke for my class’s 50th Reunion. I reconnected with college friends and with Ed Demers.
Good luck in your ambitious endeavor. I look forward to seeing the results.
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