Cooper-Hewitt Museum) is oddly signed by Baltimore artist Griffith Bailey Coale, suggesting that he designed it. He may or may not have, probably not. As a camouflage artist, he was not attached to the US Navy's Camouflage Design Subsection in Washington DC, where the plans were originated. Instead, he and Carol Sax were part of the Emergency Fleet Corporation, whose artists were responsible for applying designs that had been developed by the artists at the subsection. Several incomplete sets have survived, most notably at the Fleet Library at the Rhode Island School of Design. In each complete set, there are more than 450 dfferent designs.
Below that is a wooden model of the same ship, covered with more or less the same design. These ship models (about one foot in length) were prepared first, then tested for effectiveness in a special periscope-equipped viewing theatre. Based on those test results, the scheme was either abandoned, or modified and then passed on to the drafting room, where the colored diagram was prepared.
Carol Mayer Sax (1885-1961) was an American artist, theatrical designer and teacher who served as a ship camouflage designer during World War I. Born and raised in Ottumwa IA, he spent much of his professional life as a teacher and theatre designer in Baltimore MD, Lexington KY, and New York. His father, Jacob B. Sax (1853-1922) had immigrated to the US from Germany, where he became the proprietor of a major clothing store in Iowa, the J.B. Sax Company in Ottumwa.
Sax's mother Estella (or Stella) Mayer Sax (1864-1928) (born Rosenfield) grew up in Rock Island IL. Described in retrospect as a “wealthy socialite,” she was a prominent member of the Ottumwa Women’s Club, and in 1903 was the city's delegate to a meeting of the Iowa Federation of Women’s Clubs in Des Moines. She “was involved in other civic and charitable activities and was known for her collection of art, and [her] love of travel.” In a article in the Ottumwa Courier (December 15, 1945, p. 11), it was announced that the family mansion had been given to the Trinity Episcopal Church, which is in the same Fifth Street Bluff Historic District. Following the death of the parents, the huge home was maintained for several years by Carol Sax and his sister “as a virtual museum and memorial to their parents who had filled the home with art treasures, collections of antiques and rare furnishings. The garden, too, had been maintained as one of the city’s showplaces."
After completing high school, Carol Sax studied art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Art Students League in New York, the National Academy of Design, and Columbia University. In the fall of 1912, he returned to Iowa to deliver a talk at the Southern Iowa Normal School (a school for teacher training in nearby Bloomfield) on the value of drawing, and to urge that subject to be taught in public schools “more fully or dropped entirely.” The text of his talk was reprinted in the Ottumwa Courier (August 27, 1912, p. 4).
|Denis Broughton (1900) Photograph of Ruth St. Denis|
In 1916, while working independently as a designer in Baltimore, Sax was one of three founders of the Vagabond Players, one of the country’s oldest, continuous acting arenas, associated with the Little Theatre Movement. It was Sax who designed the Vagabond Theatre interior, on West Center Street near Monument Square in Baltimore. Meanwhile, while working professionally, he was praised for the sets and costumes he designed for Ruth St. Denis, an early proponent of Modern Dance, co-founder of the American Denishawn School of Dance, and a teacher of Martha Graham.
In the fall of 1915, while still living in Baltimore, Sax started an informal workshop in applied (or commercial) art, in which his students (functioning as informal interns) designed and constructed theatre components for actual stage productions. The success of that workshop apparently led to an offer to teach at the Maryland Institute of Art. In the words of a Baltimore news article (quoted in an issue of the Ottumwa Daily Review, April 10, 1916, p. 3)—
There was a feeling among the pupils [in Baltimore] that in graduating they suffered a disadvantage in trying to take commercial positions without having any distinctly commercial training. Understanding this difficulty on the part of the pupils and feeling that there existed a [rationale] for it, Mr. Sax started his commercial art class, at first quite separate from the Maryland Institute. A studio was rented [in] November a year ago  and Mr. Sax, to give the class a start, turned over to it his personal commissions, which, he declared, was no sacrifice, as he didn’t have time to do them himself anyway.
From November to April of the first season the pupils handled commissions amounting in all to $2,000, a pretty good starter.
This year  the class, having got a start, [was taken over by] the Maryland Institute. The former studio was [abandoned and the class is now taught] in a big room on the first floor of the Institute Building.
Later that year, the Ottumwa Courier noted (September 12, 1916, p. 7) that "The Maryland Institute is the largest art school in the country, having an enrollment of 1,400 pupils, and Mr. Sax has 300 in his classes.”
Baltimore’s Vagabond Theatre opened in November 1916 with an inaugural program that included three one-act plays, one of which (an esoteric experiment called The Artist) was written by celebrated Baltimore journalist H.L. Mencken. In the months before the opening, as Carol Sax was painting the interior of the Vagabond Theatre, a local artist who worked with him was a muralist named Griffith Bailey Coale (1890-1950), who had studied at the Maryland Institute of Art, and at European museums and art schools. Coale’s participation is curious because (like Sax) he too would later work as a camouflage artist in the closing years of WWI. Both men were contracted by the Emergency Fleet Corporation, which oversaw the application of dazzle camouflage schemes to American merchant ships. Among other camouflage artists who worked as camoufleurs in the Baltimore shipyards were James H. Daugherty, W.S. Gephart, Ralph Boyer, Henry G. Pierce and Jesse Mason.
Another of the founders of the Vagabond Players was Constance d’Arcy Mackay (1887-1966), whose family was from St Paul MN, and who popularized the Little Theatre Movement by her influential book in 1917. It is entirely speculation that she may have been related to a prominent New York interior designer named William Andrew Mackay (1876-1939), who had created murals in 1904 for the Minnesota House of Representatives Statehouse in St Paul. Later, during WWI, Mackay established a camouflage school in his New York studio, and was hired by the Emergency Fleet Corporation to oversee merchant ship camouflage at the New York-area shipyard. A substantial number of the artists who contributed to WWI ship camouflage (including Coale and some of those listed above) were apparently trained by Mackay, of whom Sax was probably one. As for another possible link between theatre innovator Constance d’Arcy Mackay and camoufleur William Andrew Mackay, it may be significant that the latter’s father, Frank Findley Mackay (1832-1923), was a well-known stage actor, acting teacher, theatre enthusiast, and owner of the Chestnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia. Another possible link may be through Charles Donald Mackay (1867-1935), brother of William Andrew Mackay, who was a stage and silent film actor.
While not directly relevant to camouflage, it is fascinating nevertheless that, as Carol Sax was preparing the Vagabond Theatre for its opening, another person who worked with him was a physics professor named Robert Williams Wood (1868-1955). Wood was an accomplished American physicist, and a pioneering contributor to the study of ultra-violet light and infra-red, He was living in Baltimore because he had been teaching at Johns Hopkins University since 1903. Wood served in the US Army during WWI, and even if not directly involved in camouflage, he was greatly interested in theatrical lighting, stage magic, and the widest range of illusions. In addition, Wood was notoriously inclined toward practical jokes (not always harmless) and amusing but simple humorous rhymes. Among non-scientists today, he is most often remembered as the author and illustrator of a children’s book about spurious resemblances, titled How To Tell the Birds from the Flowers and Other Wood-Cuts: A Manual of Flornithology for Beginners, in which he used mock-mimicry (in drawings and verse) to confuse a Pansy with a Chimpansy, an Antelope with a Cantaloupe, and a Parrot with a Carrot.
When WWI ended in November 1918, Carol Sax had been working as a camouflage artist for only a few months. Soon after, when he returned to Iowa to visit, an article was published in the Des Moines Register about his experience as a camoufleur. The following is the complete text from that—
IOWAN AIDED US AS CAMOUFLEUR in Des Moines Register. February 2, 1919, p. 30—
OTTUMWA, IA, Feb. 1—C.M. Sax, an Ottumwa boy who was one of the 246 artists of the country salaried by the Emergency Fleet Corporation as an official camoufleur has laid down his brush for a time with the coming of peace and has been visiting at his home here. Mr. Sax is art instructor in the Maryland Institute at Baltimore and chair of the art division, Baltimore Admen’s Club.
His particular duty was camouflaging Uncle Sam’s transports and cargo carriers so that these ocean liners could evade the German sub. Recent figures given out show that camouflage of ships played one of the biggest parts in the defeat of submarines. So effective was the “dazzle” system of camouflage used by the Americans that of the 1,240 ships painted in this manner only nine were sunk by subs. The percentage of sinkings among uncamouflaged vessels is said to have been nearly four times as great.
“At the outset,” says Mr. Sax, “painters were secured and foremen employed to mark off lines from the designs furnished in a purely mechanical way. This was effective only when the designs had been drawn to the scale of a given ship. However, when designs had to be adapted to other ships of differing types and sizes, as was invariably the case, it was necessary to have the supervision of a camoufleur throughly conversant with the principles of camouflage.
"In some instances the vessels were not camouflaged, but merely repainted in weird color schemes. Without the scientifically artistic eye, the very angle that should have been covered might have been left undone, and shadow effects placed where there should have been light.
"It was found that no design could be used without some adaptation on two different types of ships, even though they be of about the same size. Hence it was necessary to have camoufleurs on the job at all times to determine these adaptations. Sailors often would assist the artists with a zeal not displayed by less interested employees.
"Camoufleurs also had their troubles, especially when the work was first taken up. When the scheme finally was accepted, however, orders came in rushes. Consequently it was up to the camoufleurs to get them out in a hurry. Often times a ship would come into port, and while it was being loaded or unloaded as the case might be, artists had to veil it with a coat of disguising designs. Ordinarily it took from one to six days to ‘do’ a ship.
"In the beginning camoufleurs experienced some difficulty in convincing proud ship captains that at times neatly kept brass fittings must be marred by great streaks of paint. To leave any parts undone meant the annulling of the whole camouflage scheme. It was the purpose to break up straight lines or any distinguishing angles about the ship’s structure so that from the periscope it would be unable to determine the course of the ship. Many of the designs caused the ship to have two bows or sterns.
"When naval officers were skeptical about the effect of camouflage they would be taken to the camouflage theater [in William Andrew Mackay’s studio] in New York City, where from improvised periscopes they would attempt to observe the course of models which had been camouflaged. Their inability to determine the course quickly convinced them.”
At the end of WWI, Carol Sax returned to his position at the Maryland Institute of Art. A few years later he moved to the University of Kentucky at Lexington, where he served as the Head of the Art Department from 1921 to 1929. Around 1924, he once again founded a “little theatre,” called the Romany Theatre (the name alludes to vagabonds and gypsies) in Lexington. This became possible when an African-American Baptist church relocated, and its small ramshackle building (on the edge of the university campus) became vacant. The purpose of the Romany Theatre was “the presentation of plays on the basis of art with the element of commercial profit left out, and its players are both local and imported” (as reported in The Key, Vol XLII No 1, February 1925, pp. 25-26). In 1928, a new director was appointed, and it was renamed the Guignol Theatre.
Initially, the outside of the newly founded Romany Theatre was “a dreary sight…sickly, greenish gray in hue, a drab, ugly shack.” As a promotional gimmick, Sax and his students came up with a plan of “inviting the student body and townspeople to a painting party, the purpose of which was to be the brightening of the Romany’s exterior.” Earlier, in WWI news reports, dazzle-camouflaged ships (such as those that Sax and Coale had worked on) had been lampooned as cubist nightmares, sea-going easter eggs, a Russian toyshop gone made—and even the delirium tremens. At the end of the Romany Theatre’s painting party, the building’s exterior was “adorned wth gaily colored splotches of paint, campus caricatures, and football scores…” It reminded some people of a dazzle-camouflaged ship, and indeed it was described in a magazine as “a nightmare, a riot of color, resembling nothing so much as the palette of an artist with delirium tremens."
In contrast to the outside, the building’s interior (of which a photograph survives) was anything but chaotic. Presumably designed by Sax, it was “a soothing symphony of exquisite blended color harmonies. The wall of the toy foyer are decorated with beautifully patterned Russian designs, and the entire interior carries out the gypsy motif in tambourine lights, mural decorations and curtains."
|Romany Theatre painting party|
|Romany Theatre interior and stage|
In 1922, while Carol Sax was still at the University of Kentucky, his father died. His father Jacob B. Sax, a wealthy Ottumwa clothing store merchant, was praised in the press at the time of his death as a “bank trustee and official, promoter of civic enterprises and one of the leaders in charitable and philanthropic efforts…[a person who] was active in every form of civic interest.” Six years later, when Carol Sax’s mother died, she too was remembered as having been remarkably generous in her contributions to the community. It was recalled that she was active in the group that organized the public library, years in advance of the opening of the city’s Carnegie Library in 1902. The civic activities of Carol Sax’s parents appear to have encouraged his own. Throughout his professional life, he was frequently featured in Ottumwa newspaper articles, describing the occasional visits he made, during which he encouraged local artists, sponsored art exhibitions, and gave talks on the virtues of studying art.
One of his last visits took place in 1941, when he was slated to discuss “Art and the Theatre” to a public audience at the city’s community art center. As reported in an article in the Ottumwa Courier (October 16, 1941, p. 7), the walls of the gallery in which Sax’s talk was held were lined with works of abstract art. Sax began by talking about his career in the theatre, but at some point an audience member asked, “What is that conglomeration behind you?” His talk then became a discussion of how to understand abstract art, portions of which were reprinted in the news story: “Abstract art has value,” said Sax, “if it contributes something in the way of aesthetic appreciation. Too many people look at abstract art and try to find representation there. It isn’t present. It isn’t supposed to be. Abstract art is a treatment of form, color, line, space."
In 1929, Sax left the University of Kentucky, and relocated to New York. He then joined another experimental theatre, in this case an American stock company, located in Paris on the Champs Élysées. But the governmental red tape was frustrating and the productions were not of sufficient appeal to French audiences, in part because they only used American actors, performing in mostly American plays. He remained for only a season, then returned to New York, where he once again worked as a theatre designer.
Another opportunity to live outside of the US came in the fall of 1934, when he was named the managing producer of the Manchester Repertory Theatre in Manchester, England. But that too was short-lived, and he soon returned to New York, where he resumed his professional work in theatre design and production.
Carol Sax died in New York on September 28, 1961, at age 76.
I am grateful to the staff at the Ottumwa Public Library, where I was able to find information about Carol M. Sax in their genealogy research files.—RB
I am grateful to the staff at the Ottumwa Public Library, where I was able to find information about Carol M. Sax in their genealogy research files.—RB