Thunderbird Foundation for the Arts



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Ensalada 15x20 Inches

Gouache 1946

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"Dear Mr. Stenvall," the letter read. "For the opening exhibition of the season a carefully selected group of young artists will be launched at the Downtown Gallery." This letter, dated September 10, 1936, began a new chapter in the young artist's life (he was then 29). The Downtown Gallery was an important player in New York's cultural life, and its owner, Edith G. Halpert, was an American art expert well known for her perspicacity and taste. At the time of the propitious letter, Stenvall had been steadily engaged in artistic pursuits for roughly nine years. In that relatively short span of time, he had made a strong showing, acquiring a good education, an impressive exhibition record and awards. Now his career had been officially launched by a prominent New York gallery. His future was full of promise! Born in Wyoming in 1907, Stenvall studied piano in his youth in Washington state and Nebraska, and he intended to make music his life's work. In college at the University of Nebraska, however, he took up design and painting, mainly he said, "because all of my friends were studying engineering." During his art studies he frequently took issue with the instructors, one of whom decided "he was too young and innocent" to draw from a plaster cast of a nude woman and many of whom he considered rather dogmatic in their views. All this notwithstanding, he received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1931. Winning a scholarship for advanced study in industrial design and painting, Stenvall spent a year at the Art Institute of Chicago. Then, having had enough of school, he went out into the world to travel, work at commercial art jobs, and paint. Eventually, he settled down in Chicago and worked on and off with the W.P.A. art project as a painter and designer. For all of this youthful assertiveness, Stenvall's work gained immediate acceptance. In 1933, his work was exhibited at the Chicago Art Institute and in 1934, two of his watercolors were included in an International Water Color Exhibition that visited ten venues. Early in 1936, his oil Home Sweet Home was shown in the Chicago Artists 40th Annual Exhibition at the Art Institue, where it won the Robert Rice Jenkins award. He also exhibited work at the Museum of Modern Art, Rockefeller Center, and various other museums and galleries. It was in a W.P.A. exhibition that Edith Halpert discovered his work. The November 1936 exhibition, which marked the Downtown Gallery's 10th anniversary, was divided into two sections. The first displayed work by six established luminaries of American art, among, among them John Martin, Georgia O'Keefe and Charles Sheeler. The second featured thirteen emerging artists from around the country; included were Jack Levine of Boston, Edmund Lewandowski from Milwaukee and Andree Rexroth from San Francisco, as well as Stenvall from Chicago. Regarding these thirteen, the letter to Stenvall had noted, "In choosing the small list of artists, Mrs. Halpert had in mind not only the fact that they were new to the New York public but primarily because - in her mind - they offer the greatest propsects of developing into major American artists to carry out the standard established." Halpert had urged Stenvall to send his "best pictures" for the exhibition, because "we want to start off with a bang." Evidently he did and they did, for the show and his work were enthusiastically received. One critic praised Stenvall for his "freshness of color as well as a painter-like conviction in handling oil." (Art Front, March, 1937). Stenvall's association with the Downtown Gallery, which lasted until 1940, brought him prominently into the New York art scene. In 1937, he was given a one-man show at the gallery, prompting a New York Sun critic to remark on his "direct and fearless touch" (November 6, 1937). A critic from the New York Tribune called him, "one of the most interesting of the Downtown Gallery's younger group of exhibitors." (November 14, 1937). Back home in Chicago, critic Eleanor Jewett wrote in 1938: "...John Stenvall is one of our younger artists on whom it will be wise to keep an eye. He seem to have greater ability, better taste, and a more wholesome viewpoint than the majority of the young moderns" (Chicago Sunday Tribune, March 6, 1938). John Stenvall's early work proves that he had mastered the techniques and essential qualities of American scene painting and made them his own. Stenvall's design sense is strong and his hand confident. In military service from 1942 to 1945, Stenvall attended Stanford University in California under the G.I. bill, receiving an advanced degree in art education in 1952. He then returned to Chicago to resume a teaching career. As American art evolved and matured, so did Stenvall's. By the 1940s, he was creating exuberant canvases in the manner of Stuart Davis with simplified forms and cubist-like figures. His charming silkscreen, Farm at Night (1941), received an Honorable Mention from the Museum of Modern Art where it was part of an exhibition that circulated. In it, the artist's whimsical sense of humor shines through. In the early 1960s, Stenvall moved to Santa Cruz, California. Completing his progression through the evolution of modern art, his final works are primarily what he called "semi-abstract" in nature. These often include globes, orbs and a feeling of outer space. Up until his death in December of 1998, his art continued to grow and evolve, enlivening American art for more than 60 years.

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