A History of Art and Art History
by Tom Stamp
One would be hard pressed to find more than a few academic departments at Kenyon that remain in their original homes. Most of those that haven't moved were founded after 1970, and some of them may still not have found a place where they really want to settle in. Some of the older departments have had multiple headquarters over the years, with chemistry, for example, occupying spaces in Ascension, Samuel Mather, Philip Mather, and now Tomsich halls. Some, like music, started up in temporary structures and eventually laid claim to their own building. Others, like English and history, simply outgrew their allotted areas, usually in Ascension Hall, as their enrollments and faculties grew and decamped to houses on the periphery of the College grounds.
But no other department has led as peripatetic an existence as the art department. First listed in a Kenyon catalog in 1937, the department was founded by Norris Rahming, a talented painter and photographer who had spent his early career in advertising. His most familiar work to Gambier residents is the mural he painted in the local post office, depicting Philander Chase and Henry Curtis surveying the plateau where the College and village now stand.
For many years, Rahming and a series of instructors, among them Kathryn "Kitty" Rice and David Strout, offered two year-long art courses, one in drawing and painting and one in history and theory. Rahming and his colleagues, particularly Strout, were also actively engaged in bringing traveling exhibitions to campus for the edification of the entire student body. Although there is mention of a show as early as 1924, the pace picked up in the 1930s and especially the 1940s. In a variety of makeshift gallery spaces — including Philomathesian Hall, and the Kenyon and Bexley libraries — the College hosted shows from such August corporations and institutions as IBM, the Rhode Island School of Design, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Ryerson Foundation, which sent reproductions of works by artists from Giorgione to Rockwell Kent. One of Strout's proudest accomplishments was a 1950 exhibition of photographs by modern master Harry Callahan.
Some of the first studio classes were held in a small, square room in Peirce Hall's Chase Tower. Easels were arrayed about the perimeter of the room, but students' attention was most often directed not outward at the stunning views of campus but inward at the instructor, who stood at the center of the room, next to a table with a still life of bowls, jugs, and plates. Among the problems with the room, in addition to its small size, were the narrow spiral stairs leading to it and the lack of running water. With a large campus at their disposal, though, some early instructors concentrated on plein air work. Photographs in the Kenyon archives show groups of students gathered in a knot behind instructors standing at easels as they demonstrate technique while painting a landscape or a portrait of a willing, usually female, model.
The development of art as a major dates to January 1962, when the College welcomed its first full-time instructor to concentrate solely in studio art, painter Joseph Slate. In the early days of his twenty-six-year tenure at Kenyon, from which he retired as a full professor in 1988, he was assigned to an office-cum-studio space in the basement of Rosse Hall. With the help of other new instructors, ensconced in equally incommodious digs, Slate soon expanded the offerings from two to six courses and opened a new world of art appreciation and practice to the College's students.
That he and his colleagues did so while being compelled to set up new office, studio, classroom spaces on a regular basis is a testament to their commitment and creativity. At one point, they were housed in five separate locations, stretching the bonds of collegiality nearly to the breaking point. In the 1960s and 1970s, the art departments students and faculty members occupied a long list of buildings, including a barn behind 102 North Acland Street (now Peg and Jon Tazewell's home) that was used as a sculpture studio; the current home of the Office of Development (which has also served as Kenyon's commons, post office, bookstore, and dance studio) at 105 Chase Avenue and the current homes of the Student Affairs Center at 100 Gaskin Avenue and the Office of Public Affairs at 101 Chase; the old Harvey Matthews Garage at 101 West Scott Lane (now the Office of Security and Safety); and the old frame structure on the southwest corner of Brooklyn and Ward streets that we now know as Davis House.
In 1972, four years after Bexley Hall the seminary moved to Rochester, New York, and left Bexley Hall the building to the College, the art department moved into the historic structure after a bit of remodeling. For the first time, art faculty members and students had a home that was exclusively their own. Colburn Hall, the building that had housed the Bexley Hall library, became a gallery and then additional studio space. In 1986, the basement shop was renovated for use by the recently arrived Claudia Esslinger and her printmaking students. In 1993, the increasingly cramped printmaking operation, along with photography and sculpture, took up residence in the Mayer Art Center, known familiarly as the Art Barn, across Gaskin Avenue. Art history also decamped from Bexley for facilities in Bailey House and Olin Library.
Now, faculty members and students in both studio art and art history are dreaming of coming together again in a new facility, closer to the center of academic action at Kenyon.