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October 7, 2012

Life as an Artist: Swope exhibit celebrates colorful life of John Rogers Cox as an artist, curator

TERRE HAUTE — In the years John Rogers Cox was a professor of figure drawing at the Art Institute of Chicago, he loved telling students; “Every one learning how to draw the figure should work in a butcher shop for a couple of weeks — not for the knowledge of anatomy but for the experience of handling and lifting flesh, meat and bone. It is the ability to sense and feel the weight of flesh and to transfer that feeling to paper that is the essence of good figure drawing.”

The life of John Rogers Cox — whose work as an artist and curator is featured in an exhibition that opened Friday at the Swope Art Museum — starts like a storybook.

After 1941, when Cox became the museum’s first director, he accumulated one of the best small city collections of American art. Cox went on to become a well-known painter and magnet for national awards. His private life was filled with color but did not have a happy, fairytale ending. Take away the paintbrush, take away the artist’s pencil, and there remains a box of mystery.

One of the people who became well acquainted with him was his third child, Henry, who due to family drama never met his father until he was 21 and about to graduate from Amherst College in Massachusetts. Henry grew up in Terre Haute and went to school here until he was an eighth-grader at Woodrow Wilson. During these years his father was living in Chicago.

“Having never met my father, I could not help being curious about him,” said Henry. “I leafed through magazines that showed his work, wondering, ‘Who is this guy?’ For me, finding out about the man so many people knew but lots of people were not willing to talk about became a puzzle like spreading the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle across the top of a card table … then sorting out the colors and assembling the picture printed on the front of the box.

“My curiosity about my dad rose toward the end of college. I was supposed to graduate in June 1969. At the time, the United States seemed to be falling apart. The War in Vietnam was going full tilt. Streets were full of protest. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy had been shot dead. All this got me thinking outside the box. I became increasingly aware that I did not know my father the way other people did.

“So I found out from Dad’s twin brother that my old man had moved from Chicago. I knew that he had spent the previous 20 years as a professor at the Art Institute of Chicago. My uncle told me my dad had moved to New Orleans. He gave me his street address.”    

Henry Cox typed him a letter: “Maybe we should meet?”

His father wrote back by return mail: “Come on down! We’ll chew the fat!!!” They made plans for a visit during Henry’s college spring break.

After a two-week visit, the men continued a lifelong relationship through regularly written correspondence with Henry writing to his father with a typewriter, and Cox invariably replying in letters written on blue paper with blue ink.

“My pop had terrible handwriting,” said Henry, “But he was a faithful correspondent. Best of all, his letters were deliberately, obscenely funny.

“To say it simply, Dad was different from other people. He seemed genuinely eccentric.

Who wouldn’t want to meet a dad like that?

“I flew down to New Orleans on a midnight flight in March 1969. When we found each other at the airport, I got several surprises. He was a little guy with blue eyes; with him was a large Rubens-size woman in net stockings. Their 2-year-old daughter, Sophie, was also there. The woman was Dad’s wife, Donise. My father liked big women. She was 25 years younger than he. Donise had formerly been his student at the Art Institute of Chicago.”

One thing that struck Cox about his father was his voice. “We didn’t look alike, but this stranger spoke with the same funny voice that I do. It was weird.”

Right away, the family piled into Cox’s car, a white Chevrolet Corvair convertible, which had red interior and was probably several years old.

“Dad lived on Dauphine Street in the French Quarter, one block from Bourbon Street. The house had a one-story-high white Victorian clapboard structure with tall French windows and tall shutters. … If the condition of the house was wanting, the detail was original. … In the back there was a long living room stuffed with ugly red velvet Victorian furniture, some grouped around a big French window that looked out onto a walled-in area with a lush garden bordering a small swimming pool. Beyond the swimming pool was the former slave house. Dad maintained his studio there, and I slept in the building while I was in New Orleans.

“That first night Dad and I sat talking in chairs by the French window until morning’s light broke through the shutters. He had no idea what to expect of me. At first, he was as afraid of me as I was of him. He wondered aloud jokingly if I was there for money. He joked that maybe I might be looking for a place to hide when my Selective Service system college deferment ended after I graduated from college in June. We sat there every night during my visit until the light came up. What we did best was to argue about art: who was a better painter than whom?”

In the daytime, Cox drove Henry around New Orleans showing him the sights. Ironically, one place Cox hated was the French Quarter district’s Bourbon Street, which he called “a g.d. circus.”

“He loved that Corvair like a person. He never did sell it,” said Henry. (Corvairs were one of the first American-made rear-engine cars.) “When Dad pulled up at a stoplight, other drivers often called out comments about his car. He thoroughly enjoyed it.”

During odd hours of the morning when Cox was sleeping, Henry liked snooping around his studio. At the time, Cox was painting images of pearl on a piece of velvet.

The house also had several images of Donise. “At night, my father and Donise enjoyed lying in bed studying pictures he had drawn of her,” Henry said.

After his time with his father, Henry concluded that this man, the stranger, was an artist — “the real thing.”

From a young age

According to John Rogers Cox, in a 1982 interview given during the Swope’s 40th anniversary celebrations, his life as an artist began when he was 5 and recuperating from a broken leg he had gotten from a hit-and-run car. His subject was a picture of the “Rough Rider,” Teddy Roosevelt. “From then on, I wanted to be an artist. … Never once have I thought I was anything else,” Cox said.

“After the accident, I kept drawing … ignoring the subjects of the classes and the teachers. I was a lousy student and scared half to death by all the schoolwork, but mainly with math, physics, chemistry, etc.”

Cox, who went to the former State Lab School, said he had several sympathetic teachers who must have gotten him “passed” in a covert conspiracy because he had flunked nearly every subject he took except art, history and literature.

“Everything shapes an artist,” Cox said, “if you have any talent. … I went to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art in Philadelphia and worked hard drawing from casts, then models. I drew almost all of my art school years instead of painting. … I met “Tilly” Knudsen … a beautiful 17-year-old blonde living around the University of Philadelphia. I cut about every class both at the university and at the art school for three solid years — just barely getting the requirements to pass. I was out with Tilly day and night … to say I was in love is redundant.

“I was absent so much that the art school notified my dad, and he made a special trip to see what the hell I was doing.”

During this time of his life, one of Cox’s teachers, George Harding, inspired him by requiring him to make one drawing or painting a week for critical review.

“He said composition or design was everything and was everywhere,” Cox recalled. “He was absolutely correct.”

Cox, often accompanied by Tilly, began missing class to get compositions all over Philadelphia. They took eight-hour trips on a mail boat up and down the Delaware River, drinking beer, eating sandwiches and, of course, drawing.

“We roamed around the little ship in all kinds of weather, looking at the incoming and outgoing freighters, shipyards, factories, Navy yard, etc. … I crawled under a wire fence in the huge, abandoned Cramp Shipyards and made many compositions of small freighters that were tied up because of the Depression. … I walked and took street cars. Every city street, neighborhood tavern, two-bit nightclub and fleabag caught my eye. Mr. Harding liked my compositions and drawings and invited me to his home twice for dinner and to meet his daughter.”

Acquiring works for The Swope

Cox went to New York after college looking for work. When his father died in 1938, he returned to Terre Haute and took a job in what is now the First Financial Bank for $28 a week. A year later Cox he married Hermine Mayer, who came from a prominent local family.

One day, William Turman, the president of the board of directors of the newly organized Swope Art Gallery, came to the bank and offered him a job. Turman was aware of Cox’s talent and education. He felt the Swope needed a man like him to help it acquire paintings. According to the terms of Sheldon Swope’s will, the money he had bequeathed to establish the new gallery was just becoming available for usage.

“We did not even know at first what my title would be,” Cox recalled.

The following year, shortly after World War II began, now director, Cox and his wife were making their way to New York to buy art. Swope had given the museum $2 million in 1929. His will provided that the money should be left alone for 10 years to accrue interest, but the Great Depression came along, and members of Swope’s family made expensive legal challenges to the will, so not much more than half of the endowment remained 12 years later when Cox came to the Swope.  

Cox persuaded the Swope’s board of directors that they could get the best value for their money purchasing quality paintings by contemporary American artists instead of trying to acquire the works of French Impressionists or Italian Renaissance painters, which would have been relatively more expensive, and if available, would not have been the masters’ best works.

Henry Cox’s mother told him details of the New York trip. According to Hermine Cox, she and his father boarded the Pennsylvania Railroad in Terre Haute at the Seventh Street station and got off at the Pennsylvania Station in New York City.

“They stayed in midtown at the New Westin Hotel,” Henry said. “JRC had a good idea which American painters he wanted to buy but was not sure where to find their works. Some painters whose works my parents managed to buy were already famous.”

In the Coxes’ small room, there were twin beds. Between the beds on a night table were two large city phone books. Hermine Cox opened the Yellow Pages and began looking under Art Galleries. Most were located on 57th Street off Fifth Avenue.

The Coxes went to the gallery district with individual opinions about which paintings and sculpture were the best buys. Henry believes they had disagreements, but the final decision was always his father’s. They paid for artworks with checks and shipped them to Terre Haute.

“It wasn’t as easy as it sounds,” said Henry, who has lived in Brooklyn for 30 years and has exhibited his photography at major New York galleries. “Not everybody got to buy, or even to see, the ‘good stuff’—the very best ‘stuff.’ Gallery owners held it back from all but their most important potential buyers: prominent individuals, the best galleries and museums — it just was not offered or shown to two kids from some flat Midwestern city with a funny-sounding French name, not even two kids with a fat checkbook.

“Yet my parents managed to buy paintings by Edward Hopper, Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton. All were recognized as the cream of the cream of American artists. Hopper’s ‘Route 6 Eastham’ is considered one of his finest. Woods’ ‘Spring in Town’ was his last painting and among his finest. Benton’s ‘Threshing Wheat’ is a major work.

“I think my parents charmed the socks off gallery owners — they were both smart and could be extremely charming when they set their minds to it. They had confidence in a New York setting because of going to Eastern schools. My mother was a graduate of one the finest girls’ colleges, Bryn Mawr. Most of all, they had ‘presence.’ They might have persuaded gallery owners that they would be doing something patriotic by letting their best art find a home in the American heartland — it couldn’t have hurt that World War II was beginning and art sales were slow. Mom was always proud of what she helped to accomplish.”

National recognition

On March 21, 1942, the grand opening of the Swope Art Gallery (the name was changed to Museum in 1988) was well attended locally and heralded throughout the art world.

One of America’s foremost art publications, The Art Digest, covered the event. Its correspondent wrote: “Created amid the most decisive war the United States has yet fought, the opening of a new art gallery indicates that America has the potential vitality to prepare for peace in the time of war. … At the Swope Art Gallery, the man in overalls and the man in tails enter on an equal basis. … Terre Haute’s program might well be studied by the trustees of the Metropolitan Museum [of New York]. Today it is possible for a young museum in a small mid-western city to usurp, through alert leadership, the royal robes of its august elders. … Director Cox has a discriminating eye when it comes to judging the market value of today’s art.”

Not long after assuming his duties at the Swope, Cox began seriously painting oils. His first painting was “Bomber Bar,” the image of a tavern once located across the street from the Swope. Cox could study the bar from his office in the Swope Building.

On Labor Day 1942 he began painting “Grey and Gold,” the work that catapulted him to national prominence as an artist.  

The painting, which depicts fields of wheat under storm clouds, was entered into the Artists for Victory national competition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It won a second-place medal. Two years later, the painting won the Popular Prize at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh. It is now held in the permanent collection at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

“‘Grey and Gold’ portrays the dramatic contrast between the positive and negative forces of nature,” said Robert Kinsman, former director of the Swope. “Yet gradually Cox’s work evolved into pictures that … vividly document the despoiling of nature by man.”   

Cox was still the director of the Swope when he began working on his acclaimed “White Cloud,” a painting of a dry and desolate landscape with an abandoned plow in the foreground and a farm house in the distance. Overhead, a white cloud potentially full of rain offers some promise of a better future. “White Cloud” won third place in the prestigious Carnegie juried competition in Pittsburgh while being voted by visitors the show’s most popular painting. It is now in the Swope Art Museum’s permanent collection.

“Good painting offers a mysterious pleasure that one cannot quite put his finger on because the painter, through honesty and hard work, has actually painted his own personality in a familiar subject,” said Cox, “and any person’s personality or character or soul or whatever your word is for it, is something of an enigma. … All good painting is enigmatic anyway. No good painting is transparent, ever.”

Chicago and beyond

While working on “White Cloud,” Cox resigned from the Swope. The following year he enlisted in the U.S. Army and served a year before receiving an honorable discharge. In the meanwhile, he continued painting when possible.

In May 1946, Hermine and John Rogers closed a real estate deal on a large red brick farm house at 25th and Poplar. A year later they were separated and then divorced.

Cox moved into a simple house in the 1600 block of Wilson Avenue and continued painting. He was living here when LIFE (perhaps America’s most popular magazine in the 1940s) came to do a story featuring “Wheat,” which he painted in 1946. The work was then purchased by Citibank in New York. LIFE’s reporter lauded Cox for having made seven important sales out of his first nine paintings and winning two important national competitions.

The magazine said, “He loves to wander around the big wheat fields of Indiana, but does his actual painting of them from memory in an unkempt little room of his white frame house in Terre Haute.”

“A wheat field,” Cox said in the article, “has a whispering sound and an awe-inspiring quality, like deft music, like an ocean. It gives you a lonely feeling.”

The year the LIFE article was published Cox moved to Chicago and taught figure drawing at the Art Institute of Chicago.

In a 1982 interview, Cox said he followed the same lifestyle in Chicago as he had in Philadelphia, constantly looking for images he was interested in drawing.

“I spent the better part of 16 years prowling around with my second wife [Donise]. She was a beautiful nude model at the school of the Art Institute. We went into every sleazy neighborhood and bar and four-story walkup in the city. … My personal experiences while roaming various cities was almost 75 percent of my training as it applies to paintings and drawings.”

Cox moved to New Orleans in 1969. Two years later he moved to eastern Washington State, near Wenatchee, which was his wife’s home.

“His drawing was brilliant all his life,” said Henry Cox. “His technique was impeccable, and he was a hard worker. However, his oil paintings tended to be repetitions of his earlier wheat field and cloud themes. He did not have much money and needed to sell art to survive. He knew works like that could raise cash.”

Cox said part of his father’s decline as an oil painter was caused by mental problems: “Perhaps it is most polite to say that often Dad completely lost control of his emotions. This started when he was in his mid-twenties and worsened as he aged. He was fortunate that Donise came into his life. She adored him and did all she could to make him happy. For a while in the mid-1980s, as his emotional problems worsened, the court appointed her as his legal guardian.”

The final time Cox met his son was in Terre Haute when both came to town for the Swope’s 40th anniversary, which included a retrospective of Cox’s paintings. Still driving the Corvair, Cox arrived with Donise, his daughter, and Duncan, a white dachshund.

Soon after Donise’s guardianship over Cox ended in 1986, he drove his Corvair to Louisville, Ky., where he lived for two years. Then he moved across the river to Clarksville because it was more affordable.

He died alone in a hospital in Louisville in 1990. Henry Cox managed the funeral, which was conducted in Terre Haute.  

“All of my father’s things were put in a large box,” Cox said. “When I went through the box, I found a great number of his drawings. He never lost his touch. Nearly all the images were brilliant and should be worth a lot of money, if sold. Some drawings were of rooms and architectural features of the Swope as he thought it should have been. Others were on subjects that had interested him over the years. The box and its contents were passed on to Donise.”

Since Cox passed away, six or seven of his major oil paintings from the 1940s continue to hold a place of very high esteem and value in the art world.

In large part, because of Cox’s sense of direction and his acquisitions when he was the Swope’s director, the museum is currently rated as one of the 10 best small city art museums in the United States.

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    March 12, 2010

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