A Co-ed, a Convict, and the Prom That Brought Them Together

This is a black and white newspaper clippings which includes the following text and includes a picture of a college woman with short curls. GARRETT GIRL IS ELECTED QUEEN OF INDIANA U. PROM: Barbara VanFleit Honored by Junior Class Miss Barbara VanFleit of East King street and a junior at Indiana University, Thursday night was elected junior prom queen in the closest contest ever held for the honor on the campus. Miss VanFleit, an independent coed, defeated Miss Virginia Austin of Zionsville, president of Delta Delta Delta sorority and the “coalition” candidate of the Greek letter social organizations by a vote of 256 to 245. Miss VanFleit represented the Independent Students’ Association. Only men of the junior class were eligible to ballot. The prom, which is the annual spring dance of the junior class, will be held Friday night in Alumni Hall in the Union building on campus with 400 couples in attendance. The decorative scheme in the hall will depict scenes from the motion picture “Gone with the Wind.” The interior of the room will resemble an old southern mansion. Ticket sales for this dance are restricted to juniors for the first week and then are offered for general sale. Miss VanFleit will wear a formal gown worn by Vivien Leigh in “Gone with the Wind” and will be escorted by Donald Painter, son of Mr. and Mrs. W.S. Painter of South Walsh street, a member of the Delta Chi fraternity. Mr. and Mrs. VanFleit have been invited to attend the ball as chaperones. Miss VanFleit is 5 feet 2 and a brunette. She is a member of the YWCA, secretary of the Home Economics club, a member of the Women’s Athletic Association and of the Association of Independents Students, which sponsored her candidacy.
Article on VanFleit in the Garrett Clipper,
Monday, March 4, 1940

In 1940, Barbara VanFleit’s face appeared in newspapers across the state of Indiana. Headlines read “Garrett Girl is Elected Queen of Indiana Prom,” celebrating her win as an “unorganized” co-ed over Delta Delta Delta sorority president Virginia Austin by just five votes. She was the second consecutive independent to be voted queen by the boys of the junior class in the twenty-two year history of the event at IU. A junior studying home economics at IU, Barbara was no stranger to the Garrett Clipper’s pages. The daughter of an apparently well-respected electrical engineer, Barbara’s activities along with those of her siblings and step siblings were often recorded in the publication’s social pages. Donald Painter, a member of Delta Chi and a chemistry student – the king to Barbara’s prom queen- also frequently appears in these social pages, often in connection with Barbara.

The prom that year was to be themed after the film “Gone With the Wind.” According to that year’s Arbutus:

“The theme was carried out in the decorations by a replica of a Southern mansion, which formed the background for the band. The walls were artistically draped in Spanish moss, and the entrance to the hall was decorated in keeping with the Southern theme.”

This is a black and white page spread from the Arbutus yearbook. Photographs show college couples dining over formal dinner, dancing, and 2 images show Barbara VanFleit and her date Donald Painter dancing.
Page from the 1940 Arbutus showing the year’s Junior Prom activities
Black and white photograph shows Barbara VanFleit wearing a lace, tiered ballgown and holding a bouquet of flowers.
Barbara VanFleit wears dress from Gone With The Wind, March 8, 1940. IU Archives image no. P0024613

A unique opportunity came with the theme of 1940s prom – Barbara VanFleit appears in both the Arbutus and the Collegiate Digest, a national publication which featured the lives of university students in pictures, wearing a tiered, ruffled dress claimed to be an original costume from Gone with the Wind worn by Vivien Leigh during production. Although records have proved difficult to find, the dress was apparently part of an exhibition of items from the film that was held in Chicago that same year and shipped to Bloomington for the occasion. A brief article in the Chicago Tribune entitled “Gone With the Wind Elegance” written in January of 1940 does feature sketches of dresses described as “copies of ‘Gone With the Wind’ gowns now in Chicago,” but no details on the exhibition are given. The dress which most closely resembles the one which Barbara VanFleit would wear to her prom in March of that year is identified as a dress worn by Suellen O’Hara, played by Evelyn Keyes, as opposed to an outfit worn by Vivian Leigh in her role as Scarlett O’Hara. The topic of Gone With the Wind fashion was indeed popular in the spring of 1940, with advertisements for “Gone With the Wind Dresses” selling for between $1.98 and $3.98 appearing in the Chicago papers.

Later that March, Barbara’s name would again appear in the Garret Clipper, however this time next to that of Elmer Louis Houston, a convict at Indiana State Prison. Born the son of a laborer in Wisconsin, Houston is described on his World War I Draft registration card as having dark hair and dark eyes.  This card from 1918 lists Houston as being 18 years of age, although information found in the Federal Census suggests that Houston may have actually been as young as 16 at the time of his enlistment. Later census information suggests that Houston only received at most an 8th Grade education. Throughout what can be found of his life, his occupations were listed as farm laborer, roofer, and “motorman”.

This is a black and white newspaper clipping including the following text: Mercy Bandit Given Parole by Commission: Staged Holdup on Day Baby was Born Elmer Houston, who held up an Indianapolis bus driver in December to get money so he could by coal to keep his family warm, was granted a parole by the State Clemency Commission Tuesday. He was sentenced Dec. 19 in Criminal court to serve one to five years in the state prison. The record of his case shoed that a baby was born to his wife on the day of the holdup. There was no coal in the house. He attempted to sell a gun which he owned, but he could find no purchased, so he used the gun in the holdup. Persons in the store, where he tried to sell the weapon, knowing it was not loaded, ran after Houston, caught him and held him for the police.
Article in The Jeffersonville Evening News, August 28, 1935, detailing Houston’s parole

By March of 1940, Houston was serving his second sentence at the prison, the state’s Northern facility located in Michigan City. His first crime was one of desperation, carried out in December of 1934. According to an article in the Jeffersonville Evening News, records show that on that cold day in December, Houston’s wife, Velma had given birth to one of their five children. On that day, Houston had tried to sell a gun to buy coal to provide for his family in Indianapolis where they were living. Finding no buyer, Houston attempted to use the gun to hold up a local bus driver in a store. Unsuccessful with the unloaded gun, Houston was apprehended by onlookers until the police arrived. He was paroled in August of the following year by the State Clemency Commission, serving less than a year. Following his parole, however, Houston was again sentenced – this time for between 5 and 21 years in February of 1938, for an undetermined crime.

It was this second sentence that Elmer Houston was serving when he encountered IU Professor of Fine Arts, Harry Engel, who taught fine art to the inmates at Indiana State Prison in the late summer of 1939. Engel had initially been invited by Hans Riemer, the educational supervisor of the prison, to meet artistically inclined inmates, and, excited by the talent he saw, began conducting in person classes in the infirmary of the prison for two weeks. After he had returned to Bloomington for the fall semester, Engel continued to provide feedback and instruction via correspondence. John Grogan, then deputy instructor of the arts program at Indiana State Prison, enthusiastically hoped that the class would serve as a model for arts programs at other prisons throughout the United States as it provided immense therapeutic and rehabilitative value to the inmates, as well as practical training in anticipation of release.

The works of art created by these prisoners would come to be shown at the Mezzanine Gallery (another of Engels efforts) of the Indiana University Bookstore. The show, “Prisoner Art,” featured the work of several inmates, many of whom were considered “lifers” or experiencing psychiatric issues. “Prisoner Art” was heralded as the first of its kind, and the sale of the inmate’s work – for prices ranging between $5 and $25 – went on to fund supplies for the continuation of the educational program.

This is a brochure for the exhibit "Prisoner Art" which ran from March 1-30. The artwork shows 6 hands holding paintbrush and easel, yet bound by chains.
Cover of the 1940 exhibition pamphlet for “Prisoner Art”

Several of the pieces sold before the opening had even begun, but one piece, “Heart of a Rose,” was not for sale. Created by Elmer Houston, “Heart of a Rose” was instead to be given to its muse – the 1940 IU junior prom queen, Barbara VanFleit. While no record of the portrait exists, on March 25th of 1940, the Garret Clipper describes it as being made with “rug dyes and paints on a man’s handkerchief”. Houston had taken inspiration for the piece from an article he had seen describing VanFleit’s coronation. One wonders if “Heart of a Rose” featured its subject wearing the enigmatic “Gone With the Wind” dress we now associate that year’s prom.

Like any good tale, the story of Barbara VanFleit, Elmer Houston, and the prom that brought them together ends with a lot of questions.  What did “Heart of a Rose” look like?  While VanFleit was quoted saying she would take the piece after its exhibition, did she follow through on this? Was VanFleit’s prom dress actually worn by Vivian Leigh? Was it worn by her co-star Evelyn Keyes? Was it even an original movie prop or the subject of creative embellishment?

In the case of Houston, our story also ends with tragedy. Records indicate that Houston may have been drafted while still serving time in 1944, towards the end of World War II. His name would again appear in the paper in 1957, following his death. Several newspapers reported that Houston and his wife Velma had been found by police in their bed with a gallon jug labeled “cider” next to them. Inside the jug was a “green fluid.” This fluid was sent to the IU Medical School for analysis and was later determined to be antifreeze. Houston was dead on discovery, while Velma would later die at the General Hospital.

Barbara went on to marry Donald Scott Painter, her former prom king in 1942, and their son was born 6 years later. She passed away in 1968 in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Sincerely Yours: How Artists Research with Alma Eikerman

Alma Eikerman, IU Archives image no. P0059062

I recently had the opportunity to reprocess correspondence in the increasingly popular Alma Eikerman papers (C621) for better researcher access. The series contains slices of the Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Fine Arts’ life, including letters home from her extensive travels, thoughtful communications with former students, discussions with fellow IU faculty, and more. Eikerman’s correspondence shows her independent spirit, wit, and artistic and pedagogical philosophies.

Recently, I’ve been experiencing some summer blues—it is always difficult for me to not feel vegetative in the hot months between school years. In my dreary state, I came across a 1984 letter from Eikerman to Metalsmith editor Sara Bodine that mentioned the Metropolitan Museum of Art—something that piqued my interest. As I continued to read, I could almost hear Alma laughing at my intellectual lethargy. Her passion is evident:

“My life has been made most rewarding by following my interests. My research started when I was in college, it followed no plan, except that of my interests, and continues today. I have been a world traveler, and research of many different areas of metal objects has certainly added to the pleasure and my knowledge. I acquired a strong feeling that a professor of metal should also know as much as possible about the history of metal. Well, that means, knowing almost all of world history.”

Alma Eikerman to Sara Bodine, 2 April, 1984. Alma Eikerman papers, C621, Indiana University Archives, Bloomington
Alma Eikerman to Sara Bodine, 2 April 1984. Alma Eikerman papers, C621, Indiana University Archives, Bloomington

Her honest account of following her research interests struck a chord with me. As practicing artists may know, however, it can be overwhelming to know where to start research. Alma includes helpful—and non-intimidating—advice for Metalsmith readers:

“For a beginner it is fun to start with a historical object that fascinates you. Gather a number of library books about the area of your interest. Fortify yourself with good maps of the area and begin to make sketches of all the important pieces in a given field. Sketches help you see and seek out the details.”

This is why research in the visual arts interests me so much. Artists are able to use their technical skills of creation to understand research material in a unique way. Being able to actually draw one’s research subjects is a powerful way to connect with learning. She continues to emphasize the importance of looking as an active verb in research, writing:

“Learn where the pieces were made or found-and in which museum they are located…This kind of study research can start in the museum nearest to you—or it can simply start from book study. Libraries are full of wonderful books, with good reproductions.”

As someone whose most vivid childhood memories include parent-dictated art museum trips and the pages of the Time-Life Library of Art books, I second Alma’s affections. For artists, visual research (or looking) is just as important as text-based research.

Alma Eikerman to Sara Bodine, 2 April, 1984. Alma Eikerman papers, C621, Indiana University Archives, Bloomington

Alma Eikerman to Sara Bodine, 2 April, 1984. Alma Eikerman papers, C621, Indiana University Archives, Bloomington
Alma Eikerman to Sara Bodine, 2 April 1984. Alma Eikerman papers, C621, Indiana University Archives, Bloomington

Even so, Alma’s powers of textual description make this letter so fun. Following her advice, which she wrote to serve as an introduction to a piece in Metalsmith, Alma describes three pieces at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that she wants to include with her magazine piece. There are no accompanying slides for these, so in order to identify them a reader has to do a bit of searching. Amazingly, just entering her description of each piece + “Metropolitan Museum of Art” into a search engine immediately retrieved the three pieces. Now that is some powerful descriptive skill!
The three pieces are: a pair of gold armbands with two tritons from Hellenistic Greece, a 4th century silver head of a Sasanian king, and a gold and stone necklace from Egypt’s Middle Kingdom. Looking at these pieces, it is easy to understand Alma’s perspective on art history. Although she was a mid-twentieth century artist, she was able to pull from eons of history to inform her research and work. For anyone feeling stuck on an artistic or research project this summer, take Alma’s advice and trust your instincts—follow your interests. The way forward may not always be clear, but there is a path.

Feeling inspired? Get more motivation by contacting an archivist to check out this collection.

Missed it by that much – The Folklore Institute Ventriloquism Project

The archive of an unfunded project is a strange thing to behold. It recounts a set of best-laid plans that never quite came to fruition. Proposals and correspondence describe the viability of an enterprise, and organizers explain themselves with eloquently written prose and carefully curated documentation. In the present, we review these files knowing the inevitable outcome. Although many people worked hard trying to bring their idea to life, it did not succeed in the way it was envisioned.

A case in point here is the Ventriloquism Project, a proposed collaboration of the Indiana University Folklore Institute and Radio and Television Services. For much of 1988, a small but committed core of researchers sought funding for a documentary that would have explored the contemporary practice of ventriloquism in the United States.

In the end, the project was not of interest to the many sources who received an appeal for funding. The Folk Arts Media sector of the National Endowment for the Arts said no. The Walt Disney Company’s educational films division said no. Jim Henson said no through a personal assistant, who explained that ventriloquism is not the same thing as puppetry (or in this case, Muppetry), which forms the basis of “Jim’s interest and experience.”

Ventriloquism ad
A page in the 1984-85 catalog from One Way Street, a Colorado-based puppetry and ventriloquism resource center

Notwithstanding, those who supported the Ventriloquism Project—folklorists Gail Matthews, Inta Carpenter, and Sandra Dolby, as well as filmmakers John Bishop and John Winninger—produced a significant body of work in their attempts to acquire funding. University Archives and Records Management makes this material available now. The archive of the Ventriloquism Project comprises a rich review of ventriloquial art in the United States in the twentieth century. The files included here could serve as a springboard for anyone researching ventriloquism, whether for a documentary, journalistic article, or academic publication.

At issue in many of these papers is the nature of ventriloquism as a folk art. Researchers argued that its decline in popularity in the early twentieth century marked a transition from popular culture to folklore. Their interpretation of this process is nicely summarized in a proposal to the NEA. They write: “The lay person may think that ventriloquism died out with the arrival of television, when in fact, it merely faded from popular media visibility. Over the years, ventriloquists have constituted a small but solid and growing community of interest.”

The archive’s ephemera provide extensive evidence of this community as it existed in the late 1980s. Gathered materials include advertising literature from Vent Haven, a ventriloquism museum in Kentucky; and correspondence with One Way Street, a puppetry and ventriloquism resource center in Colorado. Additional pamphlets, letters, and business cards from a variety of sources suggest the breadth of the proposed project. Had it gone forward, film crews would have captured footage in Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, South Carolina, and elsewhere.

The documentary was not meant to be, however, and the Ventriloquism Project was shelved until further notice. That notice is now, as it were. The preparatory work that researchers did has been made public after a dark age of about 25 years. Interested parties are invited to view this archive, which, even though it was not funded, provides a valuable resource for aficionados of ventriloquism.

To view this material, and to access the finding aid that indexes it, visit http://libraries.iub.edu/archives, or call (812) 855-1127.

 

David Roland Smith

David Smith working on Sitting Printer, 1954. Photograph by the artist, taken at his workshop in Bolton Landing, New York.

I recently had the opportunity to delve a little deeper and learn about a famous sculptor who taught at Indiana University for the academic year of 1954-1955.  David Roland Smith came to I.U. to temporarily replace full-time Professor of Sculpture Robert Laurent who was on sabbatical serving as an artist-in-residence at the American Academy in Room and at the same time conceptualizing the early designs for IU’s Showalter Fountain.  In May 1954, Henry Hope, Director of the School of Fine Arts, confirmed the arrival of Smith and welcomed him to I.U.  During spring 1954 and fall of 1955 Smith taught multiple classes including First Year Sculpture I & II, Second Year Sculpture I & II, and a Graduate Sculpture course. Shortly after arriving in Bloomington, Smith rushed off to Venice, Italy as the United States delegate to the International Conference on Plastic Arts.  His sculptures were also included in the International Biennial Exhibition of Art which preceded the conference in Venice. 

Indiana Daily Student, September 28, 1954 - Smith travels to Italy for International Art conference

Now you may be wondering who is this Smith guy and how did he achieve this level of success?  Smith began his training at the Cleveland Art School while still in high school.  After graduation he studied at Ohio University for a year and quickly moved to Notre Dame University, where he would only stay for a short time. During summer breaks he spent his time working at the Studebaker automobile factory in South Bend, Indiana where he began honing his skills as a riveter as well as soldering and spot-welding.

David Smith, Construction in Rectangles, 1955, steel painted, 78 x 10 7/8 x 10 1/2 inches. Private collection. Created while Smith was at I.U.

By 1927 Smith ventured off to Washington, D.C. and then New York City where he met Dorothy Dehner, a young painter studying at the Art Students League (ASL). By December of that year they were married. From 1927-1932 Smith studied at the ASL under many artists including the American realist painter John Sloan, drawing instructor Kimon Nicolaides and Czech modernist painter Jan Matulka.

After more traveling and a variety of jobs, Smith and Dehner finally bought a fixer-upper in upstate NY where they would spend the next decade.  Along the way Smith continued to travel, meet more artists, and became very interested in combining constructed forms and paintings.  Smith continued to blossom as an artist by expanding and using a wide array of mediums including: wood, wire, stone, aluminum rods, soldered materials and – my favorite – “found” materials, all the while slowly building his art studio which became known as Terminal Iron Works.  By the time Smith arrived at I.U. in 1954 he had already produced a multitude of pieces and participated in a wide array of exhibits.

Indiana Daily Student, September 28, 1954 - Midwestern Art Conference held at I.U., October 28-30, 1954

Although Smith was only at I.U. for a brief time he continued to create art work and even participated in the Midwestern College Art Conference held at I.U. in October 1954.  Smith exhibited 13 sculptures and his 15 “medals for dishonor” at the conference.  His medals were cast before World War II and depict the horrors of war.  He said he got the idea for the “medals” from German war medallions that were used for propaganda during the war.  Check the medals out for yourself here.

After his time was up at I.U. he continued to travel the world and create, up until his tragic death in 1965.  To learn more about David Smith and his art work check out the David Smith Estate.

"David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy," installation view of exhibition, at Whitney Museum of American Art until January 8, 2011. Left to right: Tanktotem VII, 1960, Construction in Rectangles, and Circle IV, 1962 (all: painted steel). Photograph by Jerry L. Thompson

To see more of David Smith’s work in person you can visit the exhibition David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy, currently on view at the Whitney Musuem of American Art through January 8, 2012.

"David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy," installation view of exhibition, at Whitney Museum of American Art until January 8, 2012. Left to right: Cubi XXI, 1964, anc Cubi I, 1963 (both stainless steel). Photograph by Jerry L. Thompson.