Sunday, April 8, 2012

Camouflage Artist | Ezra Winter

The Ezra Winter Project (online)

American artist Ezra Winter (1886-1949) was born near Traverse City MI. He attended Olivet College (in Michigan), then studied in Chicago at the School of the Art Institute, where he graduated in 1911. In the same year, he won the prestigious Prix de Rome, by which he was able to study for three years at the American Academy in Rome. Winter's prize was in the category of painting, for what was described in a news story at the time as "a large canvas called The Arts, a beautiful and graceful work." A young Denver architect, George Simpson Keyl , received the same prize in that category, while the Prix de Rome in sculpture that year was awarded to Harry Dickinson Thrasher.

Thrasher had grown up in Plainfield NH, where he had been a student of the most famous American sculptor at the turn of the century, Augustus Saint-Gaudens. As Thrasher was growing up, among his friends were Saint-Gaudens' son, named Homer (a theatre designer and, later, an arts administrator), and a young painter from Dublin NH named Barry Faulkner (he was a cousin and student of Abbott Handerson Thayer, the so-called "father of camouflage," and had studied with Augustus Saint-Gaudens as well). Later, Faulkner became a prominent muralist, and a friend of Ezra Winter, with whom he collaborated on several major projects.

When the US entered World War I, a unit for camouflage artists was formed by the US Army. One of the officers in charge of that unit was Homer Saint-Gaudens, while among the very first artists to join were Barry Faulkner and Harry Dickinson Thrasher. After a period of training on the grounds of the American University near Washington DC, their unit was deployed to France at the end of 1917. Of the camoufleurs, there were only two who didn't return—Everett A. Herter (the brother of US diplomat Christian Herter) and Harry Thrasher, both of whom were killed in France in 1918. Faulkner delivered the eulogy at Thrasher's funeral.

At the same time, Ezra Winter was in New York, where, as a civilian, he worked for the US Shipping Board, as a member of one of thirteen teams of camouflage artists (stationed at various ports around the country) who supervised the painting of dazzle camouflage schemes on thousands of commercial ships (called merchant ships). In charge of the unit that Winter was in was another prominent muralist, William Andrew Mackay. According to official policy, the artists assigned to ship painting were not responsible for the design of the camouflage plans, only for applying them.

Instead, the initial camouflage plans were designed by another team of artists at the Navy's Camouflage Section in Washington DC (there was another research group, largely made up of scientists, at the Eastman Kodak Laboratories in Rochester NY). The DC team of artists made wooden scale models of merchant ships, applied experimental patterns to them, and tested their effectiveness in an observation theatre. The patterns that worked the best were then drawn up, printed in multiples as color lithographs, and sent out to the various harbors, where they served as a "blueprint" while painting the ships.

One of the artists in the Navy's DC camouflage team (the group that actually designed the camouflage patterns) was a British-born American sculptor named John Gregory. There are photographs of him, seated in a room with other camouflage artists (Everett L. Warner, Frederick Waugh, Gordon Stevenson, and others), painting camouflage patterns on miniature ships.

Ezra Winter is not in these photos of course, because he was attached to Mackay's unit in New York. But he is in other photographs (taken shortly after the war) when, as he worked on commissions (one of which was the interior of the Cunard Building in New York), he was photographed with two of his collaborators—his fellow wartime camoufleurs Barry Faulkner and John Gregory.


For more on Ezra Winter, see The Ezra Winter Project by Jessica Helfand, who is co-founder of a Connecticut-based design studio called Winterhouse—located in Ezra Winter's former home and studio in Falls Village CT. As of this posting, three Winter-related installments have been issued, the most recent two at here and here.