Community Connections: The Influence of Place on Charles Demuth's Work

By Bensur, Barbara J.; Woodcock, Corinne | Art Education, March 2001 | Go to article overview
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Community Connections: The Influence of Place on Charles Demuth's Work

Bensur, Barbara J., Woodcock, Corinne, Art Education

Over the past decade there has been ongoing interest in community-based art education (Adejumo, 2000; London, 1994). London (1994) reminds us that community is the arena for the creative expression of personal encounters with one's environment. As a way of developing an appreciation of what community means, our students need to explore the idea of place. Through an exploration of the environment/ place that they encounter every day comes an understanding of the broader definition of community, a community vibrant with a history, culture and tradition often overlooked because of its familiarity to our senses.

Charles Demuth's personal encounters with his community in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, provide a wealth of inspiration for a lifetime of artwork.

In this instructional resource, which is designed for upper elementary and middle school students, we will discuss the life and artwork of Charles Demuth and the impact of community on his artwork. The activities and questions will help students discover their connections between art and community.

Parrot Lady (Aviariste), 1912 Watercolor 11" x 8 1/2" Collection of the Demuth Foundation, Lancaster, PA


Charles Demuth was born on November 8,1883, into a patrician family in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Although the family never achieved conspicuous wealth, the family was successful enough that Charles never had to work for a living. Demuth's health was always poor. He suffered from a hip illness that left him lame from the age of 4. Due to frail health brought on by diabetes, Demuth rarely left Lancaster for prolonged periods of time even in his adult years, and he completed the majority of his work in the little house on East King Street.

Demuth drew on his sense of place for many of his subjects in his artwork. He found vaudeville performances, seen at the Colonial Theater on North Queen Street, much more interesting than the new medium of motion pictures. He probably found the colors, the costumes, the music, and the interaction of the performer with the audience to be visually inspiring. This place, these performances, provided the subject matter for some of Demuth's lesser known watercolors.

The Parrot Lady is one such painting. Parrots were a rarity in 1912. Most people would have been drawn to performances such as these to see the birds, much less experience a live exhibit of the birds with an actress. In this image, Demuth allows the viewer to share in his experience as he depicts the unique stage lighting, the robustness of the actress, and the excitement of these rare birds as they are integrated into her performance. Demuth used a watercolor method that allowed the colors to pool on the paper. The resulting effect added to the excitement of the moment captured on paper.

The Parrot Lady. is one of 12 watercolors Demuth attempted to sell at the Charles Daniel Gallery in New York City. When Daniel declined to accept the price wanted for the art, Demuth, in a temper, tore them all into four pieces and tossed them into the wastebasket. They were retrieved by Alanson Hartpence who had them mended and later marketed the art. The torn edges have been skillfully repaired, but the tears can still be seen.

Project Idea

1. Just as Demuth found the vaudeville theater to be a special place, one that bad personal significance to him, have students start with a place that is important to them. The special place may be a spot where people gather, such as a classroom, bus stop, playground, a neighborhood store, or where something remarkable has happened to them.

2. Have the students think of the place that they would not want destroyed or that they will want to remember when they are very old.

3. Have students list three things that they especially like about this place. It may help to think about why they go there and what they do when they are there.

4. Have the students describe their place for someone who has never seen it.

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