It is easy to overlook the tiny Morris Graves Gallery, hidden in the halls of the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art. Because many larger exhibits occupy the long halls in the museum, one could easily walk right through the Graves Gallery, unaware of its existence. But the gallery houses a new hidden gem on campus: an exhibition of the Midwest lithography tradition featuring former University of Oregon instructor and talented printmaker David McCosh.
Best known for his landscape paintings of the Northwest, McCosh was also an avid lithographer. Born in 1903 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, McCosh earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the Art Institute of Chicago, where he also began his teaching career. In the summers between classes, McCosh would travel back to his home state of Iowa to teach classes for the Stone City Art Colony, where he helped establish a Midwestern art tradition.
In 1934, McCosh relocated to Eugene to teach UO students art, including lithography. When McCosh passed away in 1981, his wife Anne Kutka McCosh arranged for a large portion of his art and archives to be donated to the UO, which has become the David John McCosh Memorial Collection and Archive.
In the exhibit, McCosh’s unique printmaking skill is put on display. With a very fluid, free-flowing style, his vivid depictions of the simple but elegant Midwestern landscapes blend well with the somber black and white tones of the lithography prints.
In the print titled “Early Fall in Illinois,” McCosh captures the peacefulness of the Midwest: gently rolling hillsides, grazing cattle, swaying trees. He also uses the negative (blank) space efficiently to create the sky and some of the trees.
Each print in the collection was made in either the 1930s or early 1940s, so the Great Depression is an overarching theme in the exhibit. McCosh prominently addresses the poverty caused by the economic upheaval in the ironically-titled print “Parade,” which depicts men waiting in line for bread.
The UO timed the exhibit’s premiere for two main reasons. Danielle Knapp, McCosh memorial collection associate curator and exhibit curator, said the exhibition paired well with the football-themed “Scrimmage” exhibit, which featured a McCosh print and several other contemporary printmakers.
Jordan Schnitzer also has a new publication coming out next month by independent curator Roger Saydack that addresses McCosh’s career and highlights two of the exhibit’s prints.
“It was really the perfect storm of research being printed and having other works being shown in the museum,” Knapp said. “It was really exciting for me as a curator to put up McCosh’s work in the context of other artists’ work — especially the contemporary works — because we don’t often have a chance to provide that component.”
Creating a traditional lithograph in the 1930s was a laborious undertaking, according to the information wall panel for the exhibit. To create the prints, the artists used water-resistant crayons to draw on flat limestone. The stone was then washed, applied with ink and pressed onto paper. Because the ink is water-resistant, the ink will naturally stick to the crayons and be repelled by non-drawn areas, creating the image seen in the print.
The press machine requires a large amount of force to crank, and the undertaking could really test the will of the artist. McCosh even caricatured the complicated, laborious process in a watercolor for Persis Weaver Robertson, one of his students at the Stone City art colony. He included jokes on the edges of the painting and even drew himself into the piece.
“It shows he had a great sense of humor,” Knapp said. “It was a hard and complicated process, and sometimes you would put in a lot of effort and the final print wouldn’t turn out the way you’d like.”
Both the watercolor and one of Robertson’s lithographs are on view in this exhibition.
The book mentioned previously is titled David McCosh: Learning to Paint is Learning to See (The McCosh Exhibitions, 2005-2014). A reception for the release of the book will be held at the JSMA on Wednesday, Nov. 16 at 5:30 p.m. A lecture by author Roger Saydack will follow at 6 p.m.