When Lawrence Group moved from Lafayette Square to downtown St. Louis in 1992, my mother, Martha Ohlemeyer, presented me with a painting of the Old Courthouse that still hangs on the wall in my office. She painted it over the course of a few days (which still blows my mind), thinking it important that our new office have some artwork representative of downtown. She did it as an homage to one of her favorites, Fred Conway, who she studied under at Washington University in the 1940’s. Look him up and you’ll see the inspiration. She credits him in the upper right corner. It was he who steered her to fine art rather than commercial art. Always practical, her idea had been to be a magazine illustrator. He convinced her otherwise. She enjoyed a prolific career of painting and sculpting in multiple media, teaching, showing and occasionally selling. Selling her work was never a goal, though it was certainly nice when it happened. Her art was just what she did. She never bragged about her talent, but was very comfortable knowing she had it. She worked hard at it and enjoyed it and, in the process, inadvertently made my childhood mid-century modern.
A lot of my school breaks as a kid were spent hanging out with mom and her art friends either at the Artist’s Guild when it was next door to Soldan High School, at one of her friend’s homes or maybe even accompanying them on a plein air outing. I had no idea of the culture rich environment I was immersed in, I was just enjoying it for what it was and soaking it in unawares. If I didn’t have my own coloring books or modeling clay, they’d give me scraps of ‘the real stuff’ to play with. Among her friends was Ruth Schweiss, an art school classmate who had gone on to study at Cranbrook under Carl Milles (sculptor for the fountains in front of Union Station and the Climatron). She created the ballerina sculptures in front of the Ritz-Carlton in Clayton. The Schweiss family lived in a house designed by Bernoudy-Mutrux. As a kid, I remember always liking the house because it had lots of cubbies, nooks and crannies and windows that were somehow different than anything I had seen anywhere else. I had no idea I was moving about a mid-century modern classic work of art. It was just a fun place to play.
Looking back, I can see how the other members of my mom’s art groups were very much like my mother herself; each talented, each comfortable enough in their talent that they openly critiqued each other and learned from each other as they tried different things. They were about growth and support and provided an accidental, unintended life shaping lesson for me in human relationships.
They could be catty, too, of course. Certain art shows were considered low brow, certain artists were derided for appealing to the masses, certain artists produced abstracts not because they had something to say but rather they just didn’t know how to draw. Years later, as some of these artists have been elevated to classics of our local art heritage, I have asked my mom if she knew them back in the day. The responses I get are things like, “oh, that old crab” or “I remember he used to sell his pornographic sketches in Gaslight Square.” We see their work now, we can Google their history, but these recollections from my mother are priceless to me in humanizing the artists behind mid-century art in St. Louis.
St. Louis has a rich fine art heritage. Check out Fred Conway and, while you’re at it, Fred Carpenter (he did the murals of the 1904 World’s Fair on display at the Missouri History Museum), Fred’s wife Mildred Carpenter, a very talented artist in her own right, and Gustav Goetsch. There are many others, too, who either contributed directly or laid the foundation for what we think of as Mid-Century Modern art in St. Louis. And, while you’re looking, remember that these were real people, so much more than work hanging on a wall. I was fortunate to know some of them or, at least, about some of them, as people first then as artists.