Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 286 – Grace Wishaar and Lee Lash

Part 286: Grace Wishaar and Lee Lash

Image of Grace N. Wishaar published with an article in 1903 that appeared in numerous papers throughout the country.

The rise of Grace Wishaar as a scenic artist has many fascinating twists and turns that brings her from coast to coast and back again. However, her career as an artist began at the San José Art School. Interestingly, her first drawing instructor there would later rise to fame as a scenic artist in New York – Lee Lash (1864-1935). The Lee Lash Studio was founded in 1891 and continued operations until approximately the mid-1940s.

Lee Lash Studio Advertisement in Julius Cahn’s Official Theatrical Guid in 1902-1903.
Thomas G. Moses working at the Lee Lash Studio (holding lining stick). Clipping from his scrapbook at the Harry Ransom Center, UT Austin.

When the Wishaar family left California for Washington, she continued with her artistic studies. In 1894 she completed her first scene painting project. The Washington Standard heralded her success, reporting, “Seattle has a young lady scenic painter, in Miss Grace Wishaar. A new drop curtain, at Cordray’s which is universally admired, is from her brush” (30 Nov. 1894, page 2). Wishaar was eighteen years old when she painted the Cordray drop curtain.

Five years later, she ventured east to continue her artistic training at the William M. Chase School of Art and continue her scenic art career in New York. One of the first individuals that she sought out was her first instructor – Lee Lash. However, Lash he was not supportive of his former pupil entering the field of scenic art. A 1903 interview with Wishaar reported that he “coolly turned her down” and said that “scene painting was no work for a woman; that her sex would make her unwelcome among the workmen, and that women were too ‘finicky’ for work that demands broad effects” (San Francisco Call, October 13, 1904, page 6).

Painting with signature by Lee Lash, nd.

It was after the rejection of Lash and many other scenic artists that Frank D. Dodge gave her a chance.

I cannot imagine what Wishaar was subjected to as she went from shop to shop, looking for work. I read her story and start to feel slightly nauseous as I wonder when the glass ceiling will break and at what point women will achieve equality. Here we are 118 years later and many of us are still encountering horrific prejudice because of our gender. A 1903 newspaper article written by Marilla Weaver provides a small glimpse into the extreme hardships encountered by Wishaar while searching for work in New York. Weaver reported, “There was success for her, but not till after a struggle so hard and bitter that it ought to make American men bow their heads and a dull red flush of shame dye their cheeks when they remember the mothers that gave them life. It was the old struggle against sex prejudice. Here was this slender, gifted, graceful girl, a skillful scenic artist, a stranger, away from her parents, seeking honorable employment at work she could do as well as the best. Men who should have welcomed her turned from her with ominous muttering and black scowls. Sex jealousy!”

Scenic artists active in New York at the turn of the century included Ernest Albert (1857-1946), Charles Basing (1865-1933), Wilfred Buckland (1866-1946), Joseph Clare, Homer F. Emens (1862-1930), Frank E. Gates, George Gros (1859-1930), J.M. and T.M. Hewlett, Lee Lash, H. Robert Law (1880-1925), St. John Lewis, W.H. Lippincott, John Mazzonovich, P. J. MacDonold. L. A. Morange (1865-1955), Thomas G. Moses (1856-1934), Joseph Physioc (1866-1951), Hugh Logan Reid, Edward G. Unitt, Charles G. Witham, Joseph Wickes, and John H. Young (1858-1944). Fortunately, Wishaar’s drive and talent caused her to excel in a world primarily dominated by men. Wishaar became so successful that she soon went into business for herself. I do wonder if she left the studio because of her male co-workers. It could have been that it was far easier to work alone than suffer the animosity and daily heckles of your male colleagues.

What I find the most fascinating is Wishaar’s versatility, painting both miniatures and scenery. She spanned the entire artistic spectrum!

An article in 1904 reported “Miss Wishaar’s talent sweeps over a wide range. Not only is she adept with a broad brush and tricky “distemper” of the scene painter, but she is even more skillful with the tiny “camel’s hair” and oil of the miniature artist.” In the article, Wishaar was quoted saying, “I love my work. It is progressive, there is room for originality, and results are quick. I do wish you would say something about the medium I use. People generally think that scenery is painted with a whitewash brush and that some kind of wash is used. But the distemper with which I work is an opaque watercolor. It is delightfully effective, but plays some tricks sometimes on those unfamiliar with its vagaries. The first trick it played on me was with a garden drop. I fairly reveled in the delicious greens that paled and deepened under my brush, but when it dried! I wish you could have seen it.” Wishaar was noted as laughing heartily when she remembered the “dull picture” into which her work had faded.

In an earlier article, she commented, “Distemper is a really beautiful medium. You can produce such fine effects with it! But it’s very tricky unless you know just how to handle it.” This article appeared throughout the country: the Topeka State Journal (May 25, 1903, page 8), the Racine Journal-Times (Wisconsin, 27 July 1903, page 7), the Wilkes-Barre Record (Pennsylvania, 7 May 1903, page 2), the Wichita Daily Eagle (Kansas, 3 May 1903, page 22), the Richmond Item (Indiana, 2 May 1903, page 10), the Marion Star (Ohio, 2 May 1903, page 10), the Decatur Herald (Illinois, 14 June 1903, page 19), the Lincoln Star (Nebraska, 5 May 1903, page 9), and many others publications that are not digitally available to date.

Wishaar was able to overcome many gender barriers and still rise to the top of her profession in a relatively short period of time during the early twentieth century. But wait, there’s more!

Image of Grace N. Wishaar painting scenery in 1904.

To be continued…

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