by Mary Emery Lacoursiere, Adult Education Program Director, Artists Association of Nantucket
As long as I can remember, being an artist was considered to be a natural way of living in my family. Today, I make my living as an artist, designer, and teacher on Nantucket, as I have for many years, but this essay is to tell you about my great-aunt, the artist Flora Crockett. She was not only a huge influence in my own life as a female artist, but I daresay Aunt Flora will also inspire many other women artists today and in the future. It’s funny how easily we forget how hard it was for great-grandmothers, aunts, and cousins at the turn of the twentieth century. There were those who had the opportunity to educate themselves; dared to speak their minds; and walked their own paths. These women paved the way for those of us today who benefit from the right to vote, marry whomever we want, and go as far as we wish to push ourselves.
I have fond childhood memories of family get-togethers. As a child, I would look up to Aunt Flora and marvel as I listened to her stories of adventures overseas. She came to our house for holidays, and we would often visit her in her Manhattan apartment on West 14th Street. Her “flat” as she called it, was full of an artist’s life’s treasures. The living room was her studio and was set up much like a salon, where she entertained and painted. It had large windows that captured the north light, which was why she had chosen it. The art-covered walls and simple yet functional furnishings told the story of her travels, interests, and experiences of her lifetime. Along one side of the living room were stacks of paintings, several feet deep, all facing the wall. The only paintings viewable were the older pieces hanging, as well as the work in progress on the easel. Whenever we visited, I would wonder if this is what life had in store for me as I matured and followed my own creative career after being accepted to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York.
Like Aunt Flora, I lived in New York for years, living the designer’s life in the 1980s, but, being true to form, I had to follow my own path. I decided to move to Nantucket year-round, after spending multiple summers with family on Esther’s Island—gift of a hurricane—off the far end of Madaket.
In 2014, my siblings and I inherited my parents’ estate, which included Aunt Flora’s life works, as well as treasure troves that she left to my dad. I took it upon myself to become the custodian of her artwork. After years of education and training myself, along with multiple family discussions about my aunt’s work, I believed it was time to give Flora Crockett the credit she deserved. The torch had been passed down to me from my father: he had set forth fifty years earlier to establish Flora as an artist of her time in her rightful place among her contemporaries.
Her history is as remarkable as is her painting! I began to realize this as I rediscovered the caliber of Aunt Flora’s work. I viewed hundreds of her works on stretched canvas. “Where do I start?” I thought to myself. I decided to have everything shipped home to my studio on Nantucket. This was the beginning of a journey that has taught me the true meaning of “serendipity”.
“The Flora Team” as I lovingly call them, came together with little effort. In a short period of time, and with the help of talented professionals, my aunt’s work was featured in what would become her first solo exhibit at Meredith Ward Fine Art on the Upper East Side in Manhattan. Opening in September of 2015, it was reviewed by Roberta Smith in The New York Times. By the end of that year, Flora Crockett was listed in the Top 10 Best Artists for 2015 in The New York Times.
Flora Crockett is represented in New York City by Meredith Ward Fine Art. “It’s incredibly exciting to find such original and innovative paintings that have been out of sight for fifty years,” said Meredith Ward, president of the gallery. “Crockett’s work speaks volumes to the happenings of contemporary painting today. It’s a privilege to rediscover Flora Crockett’s work, and to introduce a new name to the storyline in the twentieth century art world,” she continued.
In 1966, at the age of 74, Aunt Flora embarked on what would become the most productive years of her artistic career. The paintings she produced between 1966 and 1973 display a vitality, joy, and confidence that resulted from a lifetime of exploration, experience, and struggle. Aunt Flora’s colorful abstractions, exhibited at Meredith Ward Fine Art for the first time ever, introduced a new name to the story of art in the twentieth century.
By the time Aunt Flora started work on this series of paintings, she had been active as an artist, teacher, and art administrator for more than forty years. Her paintings had been shown in exhibitions in Paris and New York throughout the 1930s and 1940s, and her position as Director of Fernand Léger’s Académie Moderne in Paris had placed her at the center of one of the most influential art communities of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, her life and career over those decades had not been easy. Her personal papers tell a story of courage, tenacity, and repeated frustrations, as she sought to do her work and earn a living. It is an all-too-familiar tale of an independent woman fighting for her place in the world.
The following excerpt includes background history of Flora Crockett, courtesy of Meredith Ward Fine Art:
Flora Crockett was born in 1892 in Grelton, Ohio and attended Oberlin College, where she majored in art and mathematics. After graduating from Oberlin in 1911, she attended Thomas Training School in Detroit, Michigan, where she studied to become an instructor in art. In 1915, she took at position as Supervisor of Art in the public school district in Roslyn, New York. In Roslyn, she met Edmondo Quattrochi, an Italian-born sculptor, who was then living on Long Island and undertaking sculptural commissions in marble and bronze. The two were married in 1918 and lived for the next few years in Roslyn.
In 1924, Flora and Edmondo moved to France when Edmondo was hired to work with Frederick MacMonnies in executing his La Liberté éplorée (Tearful Liberty), a monumental memorial sculpture honoring Americans who died at the First Battle of the Marne. For the first few years in France, Flora took a position as director of L’Ecole de Champfleury, a school for war orphans at Poissy. Then, probably around 1926, she joined the Académie Moderne, an art school established by Fernand Léger at 86 rue Notre-Dame des Champs in Paris, and was eventually named Director of that school.
Léger began teaching at the Académie Moderne in 1924, and the following year Amédée Ozenfant joined the faculty. According to Gladys Fabre, who has written the most comprehensive history of the school to date, “a sense of freedom pervaded Léger’s classes while Ozenfant’s teaching was characterized by close attention to pictorial technique, to precision of detail, to the finish and to the durability of the materials used.” The years spent working with Léger and Ozenfant were critical to Crockett’s artistic formation.
A full history of the Académie Moderne has yet to be written, but there is no doubt that it had a lasting and far-reaching effect on artists worldwide and for decades to come. The student body was international, including artists from Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, Russia, South America, and Japan, as well as a few students from the United States (including Blanche Lazzell and George L.K. Morris). Crockett’s five-year tenure there put her in regular contact with Léger, Ozenfant, and others, who were among the most important and influential artists of the era.
Photographs of Crockett’s work during these years – compositions of disparate objects pared down to their essentials – suggest that Léger’s teachings were key to her pictorial conception. She was given a one-person show at Galerie La Fenêtre Ouverte on the rue Lincoln in 1937. She also participated in the Salon Surindépendant for three years running, and in the 1937 International Exposition in Paris, where her painting was awarded a bronze medal by the French government.
Meanwhile, Flora’s relationship with Edmondo was becoming increasingly strained. She complained of his drinking and womanizing, and, by 1933, the situation had deteriorated enough for her to initiate divorce proceedings in the French court. Their dispute dragged on for several years before her divorce was finally granted in 1937. By this time, too, the political situation in Europe was becoming increasingly perilous, and so after thirteen years abroad, Flora left Paris and returned to the United States in December 1937.
Arriving in New York City, she took an apartment at 233 West 14th Street, where she would reside for the rest of her life. Within months, she had established a relationship with the dealer Blanche Bonestell, who ran the Bonestell Gallery on 57th Street, and consigned a group of paintings to her for sale. She also got work through the WPA to teach and direct an art program in Potsdam, New York, and showed her work in the public library there in 1939. A photograph of her taken with a group of mural artists in Brooklyn in 1940, along with a group of mural studies retained by her family, suggest that she also participated in the WPA mural program.
With the outbreak of World War II, Crockett took a job as an inspector of artillery parts. Government work continued at the New York Naval shipyard after the war. These and a variety of engineering and design jobs supplemented her income throughout the 1940s and 1950s, while she continued to exhibit her work at the Provincetown Art Association and in an exhibition of the Bombshell Artists Group at the Riverside Museum in New York City. A one-person exhibition at the Bonestell Gallery followed in 1946, but subsequent efforts to show her work met with little success.
The next decade or so appears to have been a fallow period for Crockett artistically, and she continued to take odd jobs to make ends meet. Still, her interest and engagement in art continued with the brief establishment of her own gallery in 1953. She also attempted to enlist James Johnson Sweeney, Director of the Guggenheim Museum, in planning an exhibition of lesser-known contemporary artists, which would have presumably included her own work.
It is hard to know what prompted her return to painting in the mid-1960s. During her years in Paris, Flora Crockett would have had to confront the problem of whether to embrace a cubist-inspired abstraction that retained recognizable subject matter, or to abandon referential pictorial content to create a purely non-objective composition. She had worked through these ideas in her early compositions, eventually eliminating any figural remnants and paring down her imagery to a limited visual vocabulary of geometric and biomorphic forms. Perhaps because she had confronted these questions years earlier, she was able to quickly and clearly define the parameters of her work when she decided to undertake these paintings in the 1960s.
A series of sketches found in her studio show a system of working that drove her production for the next seven years. The drawings, done in sketchbooks or on any available scrap of paper, are each numbered and dated, and serve as frameworks for the paintings (fig. 1). It is a method that provided infinite variation. Although the drawings at first appear random and improvisational, closer inspection reveals an innate sense of balance and structure. Calligraphic lines, occasionally looping back on themselves, meander along the page, There are virtually no changes, erasures, or second thoughts. (In only one instance does she scratch out several lines to eliminate them from the final composition.) The resulting biomorphic shapes, sometimes shaded with cross-hatched lines to suggest color and hue, are then transposed in paint to a canvas board with a brightly colored palette of red, blue, pink, orange, green, and yellow, and only a trace of gesture. It is possible to see echoes of Léger and Ozenfant here, but Crockett eschews their static orderliness and restrained palette in favor of dynamic fluidity and exuberant color. The floating, overlapping forms simultaneously suggest flatness and depth, movement and stability. The juxtaposition of colors activates the eye. Hard edges are occasionally softened or modulated, and create visual vibrations as one area of color bumps up against another. The paintings are crisp and controlled, but also light and playful. There is in this body of work a sense of freedom that comes from a lifetime of experience, a sense of painting for the pure joy of it, and of allowing the forms to find themselves.
I am so very proud to call Flora Crockett my aunt. She is an inspiration to me, and I am grateful that she has been recognized as one the top female artists rediscovered in the twenty-first century. Stay tuned – there is more to follow, I assure you!