Saturday, August 26, 2017

Frank Lloyd Wright & William Penhallow Henderson

Frank Lloyd Wright and Mason City (2016)
Until recently, we were unaware of the link between architect Frank Lloyd Wright and an admired but lesser-known painter named William Penhallow Henderson (1877-1943).

Most people think of the latter as an artist who was closely tied to artists who settled in Taos NM around the turn of the century. But he was also a capable architect, muralist and furniture designer, in a style that was in keeping with the American Arts and Crafts Movement.

Henderson was born in Massachusetts, but grew up in the Midwest. In the beginning years of the 20th century, he lived and taught in Chicago, at which time Wright was living there. In 1914, while Wright was completing the Midway Gardens on the city’s southside, he commissioned Henderson to design a mural for that project. But when Wright (apparently) objected to the end result, Henderson backed out and the mural was soon painted over. While remaining in Chicago, he designed the costumes and scenery in 1915 for a theatrical production of Alice in Wonderland by the Chicago Fine Arts Theatre.

For health reasons, Henderson and his wife relocated to Santa Fe in 1916. The following year, soon after the US entered World War I, a new system of disruptive ship camouflage was adopted by the British Admiralty and, soon after, the French and Americans did the same. In 1918, Henderson was appointed to serve as a camouflage artist in San Francisco.
USS Western Star (1918) in dazzle camouflage

There he was part of a team of civilian artists who painted dazzle camouflage schemes on merchant ships. As we have blogged previously, the artist in charge of that particular team was Edgar Walter (1877-1938). But Maynard Dixon was also involved, as were (Swedish-born) Bro Julius Olson Nordfeldt, A. Sheldon Pennoyer, and others.

When Henderson returned to Santa Fe with Nordfeldt, his friend and fellow camoufleur, a brief article appeared in the Albuquerque Morning Journal, on December 22, 1918, p. 2, with the headline CAMOUFLEURS IN SANTA FE

William Penhallow Henderson, the noted artist, who has served the shipbuilding board on the Pacific coast as camoufleur, has returned to Santa Fe, with O. Nordfeldt, and etcher and artist of fame, who with Mr. Henderson had charge of the camouflage department at San Francisco. They perfected this art to such a point that the camouflage inspectors in the east compared that of the eastern shipyards with that at San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego as standard. Mr. Nordfeldt will remain in Santa Fe over the winter. The two artists brought with them models of camouflaged ships which will be placed on exhibit in the new museum [New Mexico Museum of Art] and will illustrate a museum night talk.

An earlier article about the camouflage efforts of West Coast artists, titled SEEKS TO MAKE ARMY INVISIBLE, appeared in The Daily Ardmoreite (Ardmore OK) on July 11, 1917, p. 1—

San Francisco, July 11—The western division of the American Camouflage [Corps], an organization of artists which has for its object the recruiting of men who can assist in rendering the forces of the United States army and navy invisible to the enemy, was organized here [at the California School of Fine Arts] last night by artists and scene painters.

By the use of color combinations in small squares, map-like patches and other methods, United States battleships have been rendered more nearly invisible than those of any other nation, the members said today…

A month later later, yet another article on SAN FRANCISCO ARCHITECTS AND ARTISTS AS CAMOUFLEURS appeared in Western Architect and Engineer August 1917, p. 58, about which we posted an earlier blog.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Camouflage Artist | Genevieve Cowles

Poster © Roy R. Behrens (2017)
Anon, TO TELL OF CAMOUFLAGE OF AMERICAN VESSELS: Miss Genevieve Cowles Will Speak at YWCA Tomorrow Night at 8:15 in The Times Dispatch (Richmond VA), February 11, 1919, p. 3—

Miss Genevieve Cowles of the Women’s Reserve Camouflage Corps of the National League for Women’s Service will speak at the YWCA tomorrow night at 8:15 on “Marine Camouflage, the Art That Saved the Ship.” Miss Cowles was trained under William Andrew Mackay, head camoufleur of the United States Shipping Board, and has proved a capable worker. She was pledged to secrecy during the duration of the war.


Anon, NEW YORK ARTIST TO DESCRIBE CAMOUFLAGE in Hartford Courant (Hartford CT). March 7, 1919, p. 10—

The annual art lecture to be given at the Congregational Church Monday evening at 8 o’clock, by the Currents Events Club, will be free to the public. Miss Genevieve Cowles, a well-known artist of New York, will speak on “Army and Navy Camouflage.” Miss Cowles is a mumber of the Women’s Reserve Camouflage Corps under the National League for Women’s Service in New York, and has recently returned from France.


Cartoon caption [signed ERH], A FREE TIP FOR THE ARMY: WHY NOT TRY WOMEN CAMOUFLEURS? in The Ogden Standard (Ogden UT), December 3, 1917, p. 11—

Why don’t some of the armies hire women as camoufleurs, anyhow? They’ve been doing it all their lives. Think of the rouge, the switches and the powder puff. Then ponder over the pads and braces.

Why, as we gather it, half the art of being an up-to-date young woman is camouflage.

Of course there are men, too, like John D. [Rockefeller] who wear wigs; and other brothers who disguise themselves (absent method) as sick patients to help the fourth man in the game to get out for the evening.

Old stuff, this camouflaging.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Camouflage Artist | Carol Sax from Ottumwa IA

Above The top image is a colored lithographic print of a World War I dazzle camouflaged merchant ship. These plans were printed in multiples and distributed to various harbors around the country, They were used, as described below, as on-site reference diagrams as the ships were being painted. This particular copy (in the collection of the 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 [1915] 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 [1916] 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