Monday, May 8, 2017

Ethel Magafan: American Muralist and Painter of Abstract Western Landscapes

Jenne (left) and Ethel (right) Magafan
ca. n.d.
Ethel Magafan and her sister Jenne were identical twins, born in Chicago, Illinois in 1915 to Petros Magafan, a Greek immigrant father and Julia (Bronick) their Polish mother. Due to their father's health concerns, the family moved to Colorado, where the landscape reminded Petros of his native village in Greece. The family lived in Colorado Springs and then in Denver from 1931-1934. The twins both wanted to become artists and were supported by both teachers and family members. Unfortunately, Petros died suddenly in 1932, a tragic loss for both of the girls. 
The twins attended East High School in Denver, where they found a mentor in their art teacher Helen Perry. She had studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and her background made her uniquely qualified to help the girls in their pursuit of an art career.
 In 1936, Jenne won the Carter Memorial Art Scholarship and shared it with her sister so that they both could attend the Broadmoor Art Academy in Colorado Springs. Once they ran out of money, Mechau, now teaching there, hired them as assistants. Through their involvement at the Academy, the twins entered into careers as muralists, working at first with Mechau and then with Peppino Mangravite.
From 1937 to 1943, Ethel was commissioned to paint her first of seven government sponsored murals. Located in the US Post Office in Auburn, Nebraska, this commission made Ethel (at age 26) the youngest artist in America to receive such an honor. Denver Art Museum director Donald J. Bear once commented that "[Ethel and Jenne's] study of local detail makes them appear as little Bruegels of ranch genre - natural and unforced."
Ethel Magafan
Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans, January 8, 1814
Recorder of Deeds Building, Washington, D.C.
Other New Deal Works Progress Adminstration (WPA) murals included the US Senate Chamber, the Recorder Deeds Building, and the Social Security Building in Washington, D.C. which Ethel painted with her sister. One of her earliest submissions to the Treasury Department Section of Fine Arts was a study of The Lawrence Massacre for the Post Office of Fort Scott, Kansas. The subject was a tragic event in the town but was not accepted as a design at the time. Magafan realized that she needed to work with government bureaucracy in order to have her ideas accepted and focused her subjects on local agriculture and industry. She included subtle references that pushed against the limitations of subject matter in her work such as including Black workers depicted in a noble light during a period of segregation in the South for a mural in the Wynne Post Office in Arkansas.
Ethel Magafan
The Cotton Pickers
ca. 1940
Oil on Canvas
Post Office, Wynne, Arkansas
During the World War II era, the sisters would frequently drive across the country together in their station wagon to research and complete art assignments. They were thrifty as they saved gas coupons and used re-treaded tires in order to secure their work.
Ethel Magafan at Palisades Reservoir, Minidoka Project, Idaho.
As mural painting commissions diminished, Ethel began to do more easel painting for which she used a palette knife and tempera paints to great effect. Ethel earned her first solo exhibition in 1940 at the Gallery of Contemporary Art in New York. She and her sister collaborated to create seven joint exhibits during the course of their careers. While working together, yet maintaining their own artistic styles, the sisters were able to avoid the competitive nature of business and respect each other's abilities.
Phil Fitzpatrick, Ethel Magafan, Bruce Currie, Cecile Forman.
Photograph by Adrian Siegel.
Courtesy of WAAM Archives.
After living in Los Angeles, California for five years and briefly in Wyoming, the twins relocated to the art colony at Woodstock, New York in 1945, where the sisters lived and worked apart for the first time. Ethel began working in a style that evolved from the literal to the semi abstract and from figurative studies to landscapes. She met fellow artist Bruce Currie at an artist's party, and the two were married in 1946.
Ethel Magafan
Corralled Horse
ca. 1947
Etching, pencil signed and titled, lower margin
10 x 14 inches
Both sisters were awarded Fullbright Scholarships and Tiffany Foundation Awards which allowed Ethel to go to Greece and Jenne to Italy.In 1952, almost immediately upon their return to the U.S., Jenne died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage, a loss that Ethel would mourn deeply. With her sister gone, her landscapes became much more abstract, as she sought out the feeling of the scene rather than an exact representation. She ignored the rules for color and explored simplicity and open space in her work.
Ethel Magafan
Canyon Cascade
Tempera on canvas
96.5 inches highx48.5 inches wide
In 1956, Ethel gave birth to a daughter, Jenne Magafan Currie, named after her sister. During the mid-fifties, Ethel began to make annual trips to Colorado to sketch and find inspiration. She was elected an Academician of the National Academy of Design in 1968 and taught art throughout the 1970s at both the University of Georgia and Syracuse University in New York. Her stature within the art world was solidified in 1971 when the United States Department of Interior requested that Ethel tour and draw sketches throughout the Western U.S. These sketches were later exhibited at the National Gallery in Washington and then sent on a national tour by the Smithsonian Institution.
Ethel's last mural "Grant in the Wilderness" was installed at the Chancellorsville Visitor's Center at the Fredericksburg National Military Park, Virginia, in 1979. From 1962 until her death in 1993, she had an impressive 19 solo gallery shows. Ethel Magafan died at her home in Woodstock from a series of strokes in 1993. In a later Woodstock Times interview, her husband stated "if there was one word for Ethel, it would be warmth, because there was never a person or an animal with a broken wing or broken heart she didn't try to help."
Ethel Magafan
Gibson Dam on the Sun River Project, Montana
ca. n.d.
27 x 53 inches
Ethel Magafan was a member of the American Watercolor Society, Audubon Artists Incorporated, the National Academy of Design, Woodstock Artists Association and the WPA/Federal Arts Project.The recipient of a number of awards including the Fullbright Grant, Tiffany Fellowship, Hallmark and Ranger Awards, Purchase and Altman Prize, the Audubon Artists Medal of Honor and the Childe Hassam Purchase Award. Her work is included, but not limited to collections in the Denver Art Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, Museum of Modern Art, NY, National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C., Oklahoma Museum of Art, and the United States Department of the Interior. 
An Encyclopedia of Women Artists of the American West, Phil Kovinick and Marian Yoshiki-Kovinick, University of Texas Press: Austin, 1998, p. 199-200. 
Sullivan Goss, An American Gallery, Ethel Magafan (1916-1993), Alish Patrick,, retrieved May 8, 2017.
David Cook Galleries, Ethel Magafan Ethel Magafan (1916- 1993), retrieved May 8, 2017.
Ask Art, Ethel (Currie) Magafan,, retrieved May 8, 2017.
New York Times Obituaries, Ethel Magafan, Dead, Published April 29, 1993,, retrieved May 8, 2017.

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