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Gallery Tripping: out of the closet, on the block

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About a year ago, Don Vogel, the head librarian at Oak Park and River Forest High School, was admiring a painting that had hung above his desk for 20 years. It was a landscape, oil on canvas, showing the rolling hills of southern Indiana in a golden veil of light, three blue-roofed white buildings, and a coppery tree in the foreground. On a whim, Vogel took a closer look at the artist's signature and tapped the name--Bessire--into an Internet art-history database. Bingo: Dale Bessire, 1892-1974, had been a member of a colony of American impressionists living and working in Brown County, Indiana, in the 1920s and 30s. The painting, November Haze, from 1931, might be valuable.

Vogel mentioned what he'd found to Bill Boulware, the head of the school's fine and performing arts division, and the two began to speculate about whether similar works might be squirreled away in the school's sizable but scattered art collection. They launched a search that took them into the most remote corners of the old Prairie-school structure. "We discovered paintings all over the building," Boulware says, "in closets, storage areas, offices." In the end, they turned up 20 impressionist paintings from the same period, most of them from Brown County. They included Ada Walter Shulz's sun-soaked portrait of a young girl, The Yellow Hen, and Will Vawter's leafy and exquisite Sunlit Path. All were in their original frames, and many bore plaques announcing they'd been donated to the school by the Daughters of Indiana. No one at the school knew what that meant.

"We contacted an art dealer in Nashville, Indiana, who specializes in Brown County work and asked her to come in and take a look," recalls Boulware. "When she saw what we'd found, she was amazed. 'You don't know what you're sitting on here,' she said." Brown County was a magnet for midwestern impressionists in the first three or four decades of the 20th century. Many lived there year-round; others came to paint in the summer. Their fans included a group of 160 former Indiana women living in Chicago. In 1913 these Hoosier expats formed the Daughters of Indiana specifically to promote Brown County art. With the sponsorship of Marshall Field's, they put on exhibits that came to be known as Hoosier Salons. For a number of years, Oak Park and River Forest High School got an annual donation of a prizewinning piece of Hoosier Salon art. Why? The assumption is that many of the Daughters were then Oak Park or River Forest residents. The current market value of one of these paintings ranges from about $1,000 to $50,000.

School officials were stunned. When other appraisers confirmed the numbers, they became concerned. "We had no idea" of their value, Boulware says. "Once we found out, we were worried about liability and conservation. Our conclusion was that we should auction them off and put the money in a trust fund. The income from the fund could be used for college scholarships for art students and to acquire a more diverse collection for the school. Most of these paintings were donated or acquired years ago when the population of the school was different." They decided to consign the paintings to the nearby John Toomey Gallery, which specializes in 20th-century art and design.

The 20 impressionist paintings and 60 WPA prints (discovered during the hunt for the paintings) will be on the block at the Toomey Gallery May 7, along with many other 20th-century items, including furniture by Gustav Stickley and Charles and Ray Eames and a rug designed by Frank Lloyd Wright when he was working in Oak Park. The paintings (and everything else) can be previewed at the gallery, 818 North Boulevard in Oak Park, from 10 to 5 today and Saturday. The auction begins at 10 Sunday with art glass up first, followed by Arts and Crafts furniture. The paintings are expected to come up for bid around 3:30. The catalog can be seen on-line at www.treadwaygallery.com; telephone and on-line bidding can be arranged. Call 708-383-5234 for more information. --Deanna Isaacs

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.

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