An exhibition at DePaul brings a forgotten
artist back into view.
Like so many figurative artists working in the 1930s and 1940s, Julia Thecla got pushed to the side by the art world’s fascination with abstraction. An exhibition of 35 paintings by this Chicago artist at DePaul Art Museum makes a strong case for why she should not be forgotten.
The museum was already in possession of 14 pieces from Thecla’s planetary series (donated by the late gallerist Helen Findlay), and its director, Louise Lincoln, knew it formed a great base for a show. She invited DePaul art professor Joanna Gardner-Huggett, who specializes in women artists, to be the guest curator. But it took six years to track down more of Thecla’s work and find archival material. It was time well spent: Included in this exhibition of 35 paintings is a rare, early self-portrait from 1926, and Gardner-Huggett also located footage of a ballet at the Newberry Library, for which Thecla designed the sets and costumes (the attribution, until now, was unknown). Also included here are works by her friends—a lithography by Ivan Albright and paintings by Gertrude Abercrombie—that alone are worth a visit.
Thecla was born Julia Connell in Delavan, a small southern Illinois town. In 1920, she made a radical change in her life when she moved to Chicago. She was about 24, and she cut herself off from her family and changed her last name in honor, she once said, of a nun aunt who was enamored with Saint Thecla. Clearly, Thecla had technical skill; she was able to support herself as an art restorer and pay for some classes at the School of the Art Institute. She created gouache and charcoal paintings of little girls reading, ballerinas and the heavens. She experimented with materials like soot and incorporated collage into her canvases. By the 1940s, her career was going strong and she was included in Peggy Guggenheim’s legendary exhibition of women surrealists.
But in time, Thecla came to be viewed as mentally unstable. Maybe this had something to do with the fact that she kept chickens in her studio on Ontario Street, dyed her pet pigeon pink or walked around the city wearing elaborate costumes. (One of her friends encouraged Thecla to rein it in, saying: “This is not Paris.”) In her research for this exhibition, Gardner-Huggett says she hopes to dispel the “eccentric” stereotype. “She was a performer,” she says. “She was assuming an identity.”
The ballet that Thecla worked on dealt with the tragic love of an interracial couple, which points to the fact that Thecla had a political view and a sense of social justice. “She was not a crazy woman living with birds,” Gardner-Huggett says. “She was engaged in the world. Friends have said that she read a lot and could talk about anything.” (Which probably explains why so many of the little girls in her paintings are holding books.) Thecla also wrote poetry, although none of it has been published.
So why did Thecla disappear from the art world? “Well, no family is a big issue,” Gardner-Huggett says. “You need someone to maintain your estate.” And she wasn’t attached to a male artist, a point that Gardner-Huggett says pushed her even further down the ladder. Thecla never had children or married, and her sexual orientation is unclear (she often referred to her intimates by initials). Those personal details are only worth noting because her status as a single, female artist has a lot to do with why she has been ignored. “There was really no one looking out for her work,” Gardner-Huggett says.
Thecla painted up into her seventies until she started losing her vision. Friends took turns looking in on her but eventually she was moved into a charity home where she died in 1973.
There are Theclas in the collections of the Hirshhorn Museum in D.C., MCA and Art Institute but they are never shown unless they are loaned out. “Hopefully a show like this changes the dialogue and it gets people thinking about her work again,” Gardner-Huggett says.
“Julia Thecla: Undiscovered Worlds” is at the DePaul Art Museum through November 22. See Museums & Institutions.