"River's Source", Date Unknown | 30”x18” - tempera painting on board
Ethel Megafan juxtaposes blocks of both bright and muted colors to interpret a Colorado canyon's snowfields as the source of the blue river in the foreground of the painting. A vertical landscape in which the mountains fill the picture plane, Magafan creates a colorful and unusual composition. The color palette and singular arrangement of forms are characteristic of Megafan’s work.
The daughter of a Greek immigrant father and a Polish immigrant mother who met and married in Chicago, Ethel Magafan, her identical twin sister Jenne and their elder sister Sophie grew up in Colorado to which their father relocated the family in 1919. They initially lived in Colorado Springs where he worked as a waiter at the Antlers Hotel before moving to Denver in 1930 to be head waiter at the Albany Hotel. Two years later during the Great Depression Ethel and Jenne experienced at sixteen the tragic loss of their father who had encouraged their artistic aspirations
He was proud when Ethel, a student at Morey Junior High School, won top prizes in student poster contests sponsored by the Denver Chamber of Commerce and the Denver Post. At East High School in Denver she and Jenne contributed their art talents to the school’s and by their senior year were co-art editors of the Angelus, the 1993 yearbook. At East they studied art with Helen Perry, herself a student of André Lhote in Paris and the Art Institute of Chicago. Her decision to abandon an arts career to teach high school students served as an important example to Ethel and Jenne, who early on had decided to become artists. In a city-wide Denver competition for high school art students Ethel won an eighteen-week art course in 1932-33 to study at the Kirkland School of Art which artist Vance Kirkland had recently established in the Mile High City.
Perry encouraged the Magafan twins’ talent, exposing them to the work of Matisse, Picasso and Cézanne and introducing them to local artists and architects like Frank Mechau and Jacques Benedict whom she invited to speak in her high school art classes. She paid the modest tuition for Ethel and Jenne to study composition, color, mural designing and painting at Mechau’s School of Art in downtown Denver in 1933-34. In the summer of 1934 and for a time in 1936 they apprenticed with him at his studio in Redstone, Colorado.
When they returned to Denver in 1934 with no family breadwinner to support them, their mother insisted that they have real jobs so they worked as fashion artists in a Denver department store. When Jenne won the Carter Memorial Art Scholarship ($90.00) two years later, she shared it with Ethel so that both of them could enroll in the Broadmoor Art Academy (now the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center) where they studied with Mechau. When the scholarship money ran out after two months, he hired them as his assistants. Along with Edward (Eduardo) Chavez and Polly Duncan, they helped him with his federal government mural commissions. At the Fine Arts Center Ethel also studied with Boardman Robinson and Peppino Mangravite, who hired her and Jenne in 1939 to assist him in his New York studio with two murals commissioned for the post office in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Like their Denver high school art teacher, Robinson also stressed the need to draw from nature in order to “feel” the mountains, which later become the dominant subject matter of Ethel’s mature work after World War II.
Mechau trained her and her sister in the complex process of mural painting while they studied at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, teaching them the compositional techniques of the European Renaissance masters. This also involved library research for historical accuracy, small scale drawing, and the hand-making of paints and other supplies. Ethel recalled that their teacher “was a lovely man but he was a hard worker. He drove us. There was no fooling around.”
Her apprenticeship with Mechau prepared her to win four national government competitions, beginning at age twenty-two, for large murals in U.S. post offices: Threshing – Auburn, Nebraska (1938), Cotton Pickers – Wynne, Arkansas (1940), Prairie Fire – Madill, Oklahoma (1940), and The Horse Corral – South Denver, Colorado (1942). In preparation for their commissions Ethel and her sister made trips around the country to pending mural locations, driving their beat-up station wagon, dressed in jeans and cowboy boots with art supplies and dogs in tow. She and Jenne combined their talents in the mural, Mountains in Snow, for the Department of Health and Human Services Building in Washington, DC (1942). A year later Ethel executed her own mural, Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans, January 8, 1814, for the Recorder of Deeds Building, also in Washington, DC. Her first mural commission, Indian Dance, done in 1937 under the Treasury Department Art Project for the Senate Chamber in the United States Capitol, has since disappeared.
Ethel and her sister lived and worked in Colorado Springs until 1941 when their residence became determined by the wartime military postings of Jenne’s husband, Edward Chavez. They moved briefly to Los Angeles (1941-42) and then to Cheyenne, Wyoming, while he was stationed at Fort Warren, and then back to Los Angeles for two years in 1943. While in California, Ethel and Jenne executed a floral mural for the Sun Room of the Beverly Hills Hotel and also painted scenes of the ocean which they exhibited at the Raymond and Raymond Galleries in Beverly Hills. While in Los Angeles they met novelist Irving Stone, author of Lust for Life, who told them about Woodstock, as did artists Arnold Blanch and Doris Lee (both of whom previously taught at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center school. In summer of 1945 Ethel, her sister and brother-in-law drove their station wagon across the country to Woodstock which became their permanent home.
A year later Ethel married artist and musician, Bruce Currie, whom she met in Woodstock. In 1948 with the help of the GI Bill they purchased an old barn there that also housed their individual studios located at opposite ends of the house. The spatial arrangement mirrors the advice she gave her daughter, Jenne, also an artist: “Make sure you end up with a man who respects your work…The worst thing for an artist is to be in competition with her husband.”
In 1951 Ethel won a Fulbright Scholarship to Greece where she and her husband spent 1951-52. In addition to extensively traveling, sketching and painting the local landscape, she reconnected with her late father’s family in the area of Messinia on the Peloponnese peninsula in southern Greece. At the same time, her sister Jenne accompanied Chavez on his Fulbright Scholarship to Italy where they spent a productive year painting and visiting museums. Shortly after returning home, Jenne’s career was cut tragically short when she died of a cerebral hemorrhage at age thirty-six. It deeply affected Ethel whose own work took on a somber quality for several years conveyed by a darkish palette, as seen in her tempera painting, Aftermath (circa 1952).
In the 1940s Ethel and her sister successfully made the important transition from government patronage to careers as independent artists. Ethel became distinguished for her modernist landscapes. Even though Ethel became a permanent Woodstock resident after World War II, from her childhood in Colorado she retained her love of the Rocky Mountains, her “earliest source of my lifelong passion for mountain landscape.” She and her husband began returning to Colorado for annual summer camping trips on which they later were joined by their daughter, Jenne.
Ethel did many sketches and drawings of places she found which had special meaning for her. They enabled her to recall their vital qualities which she later painted in her Woodstock studio, conveying her feeling about places remembered. She also produced a number of watercolors and prints of the Colorado landscape that constituted a departure from the American Scene style of her earlier paintings. Her postwar creative output collectively belongs to the category of landscape abstractionists as described by author Sheldon Cheney, although to a greater or lesser degree her work references Colorado’s mountainous terrain. She introduced a palette of stronger pastels in her paintings such as two temperas, Evening Mountains from the 1950s and Springtime in the Mountains from the early 1960s.
In 1968 she was elected an Academician by the National Academy of Design in New York. Two years later, based on results of her many summer trips to Colorado, the U.S. Department of the Interior invited her to make on-the-spot sketches of the western United States, helping to document the water resources development and conservation efforts by the Department of the Interior. Her sketches were exhibited at the National Gallery in Washington, DC, and then sent on a national tour by the Smithsonian Institution. Similarly, her previous work as a muralist earned her a final commission at age sixty-three for a 12 by 20 foot Civil War image, Grant in the Wilderness, installed in 1979 in the Chancellorsville Visitors Center at the Fredericksburg National Military Park in Virginia. In the 1970s, too, she taught as Artist-in-Residence at Syracuse University and at the University of Georgia in Athens.
Her many awards include, among others, the Stacey Scholarship (1947); Tiffany Fellowship (1949); Fulbright Grant (1951-52, in Greece with her husband); Tiffany Fellowship (1949); Benjamin Altman Landscape Prize, National Academy of Design (1955); Medal of Honor, Audubon, Artists (1962); Henry Ward Granger Fund Purchase Award, National Academy of Design (1964); Childe Hassam Fund Purchase Award, American Academy of Arts and Letters (1970); Silver Medal, Audubon Artists (1983); Champion International Corporation Award, Silvermine Guild, New Canaan, Connecticut (1984); John Taylor Award, Woodstock Artists Association, Woodstock, New York (1985); Harrison Cady Award, American Watercolor Society (1987); Grumbacher Gold Medal, Audubon Artists (1990).
Solo Exhibitions: Denver Art Museum (1938); Contemporary Arts Gallery, New York (1940, with Jenne Magafan); Utah State Art Center, Salt Lake (1940); Santa Barbara Museum of Art, California (1944); Raymond and Raymond Gallery, Beverly Hills, California (1944, with Jenne Magafan); Ganso Gallery, New York (1950, 1953); USIS Library and Film Center, Athens, Greece (1952, with her husband, Bruce Currie); Schenectady Museum, New York (1953, 1959, 1970); Albany Institute of Art, New York (1955); Jacques Seligman Gallery, New York (1956, 1958, 1959, 1963, 1966); University of Maine Museum of Art, Orono (1958); Philadelphia Art Alliance, Pennsylvania (1959); Obelisk Gallery, Washington, DC (1959); Realities Gallery, Taos, New Mexico (1962); East End Gallery, Provincetown, Massachusetts (1962-63); Ulster County Community College, Kingston, New York (1963); Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, Colorado (1968); University of Hartford, Connecticut (1968); Midtown Galleries, New York (1969-71, 1973, 1976, 1979, 1981, 1984, 1987); Lehigh University Art Galleries, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (1971); State University of New York, Albany (1981); “Retrospective Memorial Exhibition,” Woodstock Artists Association and Museum, Woodstock, New York (1993).
Group Exhibitions: “Annual Exhibition,” Denver Art Museum (1933-1948); Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts,” Philadelphia (1939-1962); “Artists West of the Mississippi,” Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center (1940, ‘41, 1945); “Directions in American Painting,” Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh (1941-1952); “Annual Exhibition of Drawings & Prints,” San Francisco Art Association (1941); “Midwestern Artists’ Exhibition,” Kansas City Art Institute (1942); “Twentieth International Exhibition of Water Colors,” Art Institute of Chicago (1941); “Fifth National Exhibition of Prints Made During the Current Year,” Library of Congress, Washington, DC (1947); “Corcoran Biennials,” Washington, DC (1949-1957); “American Painting Today,” Metropolitan Museum of Art (1950); “National Exhibition of the Contemporary Arts of the U.S.,” Pomona College Museum of Art, Claremont, California (1955, Purchase Award); National Academy of Design, New York (1965-1987); “20 American Fulbright Artists: An Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture,” Union Carbide Gallery, New York, (1975); “47th Annual Art Exhibition, Cooperstown, New York (1982, Wright Memorial Prize); “American Watercolor Society Annual,” Salmagundi Club, New York (1983; won Fourth High Winds Medal); “Woodstock: Fifty Years of Printmaking,” Associated American Artists, New York (1987); “Pikes Peak Vision: The Broadmoor Art Academy, 1919-1945,” Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center (1989-1990); “The Magafan and Currie Clan: A Family of Artists,” Woodstock Artists Association and Museum, Woodstock, New York (2006).
Museums: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, Museum of Modern Art, National Academy of Design, Brooklyn Museum of Art; Woodstock Artists Association and Museum, Woodstock, New York; Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, Utica, New York; Schenectady Museum, New York; State University of New York, Albany; Ulster County Community College, New York; The Newark Museum, New Jersey; Portland Museum, Maine; Farnsworth Art Museum, Rockland, Maine; Provincetown Art Association and Museum, Massachusetts; Smithsonian American Art Museum, United States Department of the Interior, and Howard University, all in Washington, DC; Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington; Norfolk Museum, Virginia; Boca Raton Museum of Art, Florida; Columbia Museum of Art, South Carolina; Weatherspoon Art Museum, University of North Carolina, Greensboro; Knoxville Museum of Art, Tennessee; Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio; Canton Museum of Art, Ohio; Ball State University Art Gallery, Muncie, Indiana; Snite Museum of Art, Notre Dame University, Indiana; Southern Illinois University Museum, Carbondale; Des Moines Art Center, Iowa; Springville Museum of Art, Missouri; Oklahoma Museum of Art, Oklahoma City; Fred J. Jones Jr. Museum of Art, Norman, Oklahoma; Wichita Art Museum, Kansas; Museum of Texas Tech University, Lubbock; Autry Museum of the American West, Los Angeles; Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art, Malibu, California; Sangre de Cristo Arts Center, Pueblo, Colorado; Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center; Denver Art Museum; Denver Public Library Western Art Collection; Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art, Denver; and Rotron Europa N.V., Breda, Holland.