Cedarhurst Center for the Arts, a 90-acre arts organization established in 1973 by the John R. and Eleanor R. Mitchell Foundation, is the spectacular legacy that the Mitchell family bestowed upon the residents of Southern Illinois and the surrounding region.
The mission of the Mitchell Foundation is to generate community support and increased understanding of the arts and this gem of Southern Illinois has remained an excellent resource for residents looking to observe important works by American artists from the early 1800s to the present and learn about the many techniques involved. Within one of its four separate galleries, Cedarhurst proudly displays its impressive permanent collection of late 19th and early 20th century American paintings, drawings, sculptures and artifacts. In three other galleries, visitors enjoy a wide array of traveling exhibitions and art contests throughout the year, as well as resources for art education through community outreach and onsite classes. A 70 piece, open-air sculpture collection is displayed throughout the property and offers a unique natural setting for the impressive, large-scale sculptures.
The legacy of the Mitchells
Looking back at the life of the Mitchells, one can see the clear vision John and Eleanor had for their collection and property, as well as the series of events that led to their success in collecting art. Historian, Sarah Lou Bicknell, who has been a staff member at Cedarhurst since 1984, shared with me the details of the Mitchell’s life in Mount Vernon. The pair met at a skeet shooting range in 1929 when Eleanor was still teaching art at the Mount Vernon high school and John was just starting his successful career as a businessman. The two were married a little over two years later and thus began an adventurous and prosperous life together. John and Eleanor owned a string of furniture stores and operated the first FM radio station in Southern Illinois. They also owned several lucrative oil wells in the area and John, along with his business partners, opened the bank that would eventually become Bank of America. The couple were world travelers as well, taking trips to India, enjoying safaris in Africa and climbing the Swiss Alps. During their many adventures and successes in life, the Mitchells amassed a collection of late 19th and early 20th century American works of art of the highest order. The couple frequented the New York art galleries, looking for pieces to add to their collection. John kept a file of photos and information on paintings that he was interested in.
“They would travel to New York to different galleries. They would call and say they have a painting you might like and the two would fly to New York to look at it. After several years of collecting art, they wanted to leave it to the community,” shared Bicknell.
Their auspicious decision making and luck in the business world directly led to their ability to purchase the cherished paintings, drawings, photos and sculptures that make up the permanent collection at Cedarhurst Center for the Arts.
The permanent collection
Rusty Freeman, Director of Visual Arts at Cedarhurst, recounted John Mitchell’s adoration of American art as evidenced by the permanent collection now housed in the Bonham Gallery at Cedarhurst’s Mitchell Museum.
“Mitchell clearly had his own vision of what he wanted to collect,” said Freeman. And collect he did. The most notable paintings in the collection are from important American artists of the late 1800s and early 1900s who trained in Europe but stayed true to the American experience.
“What I tell people on a gallery tour is that we can survey American art of the 20th century in this collection and teach what was happening in American art,” said Freeman.
Touching on some of the most important works in the museum, a tour of the Mitchells’ collection is a learning experience for longtime lovers of art and newcomers alike. Beginning with the typical Neoclassical sculpture, Veiled Rebecca, by Giovanni Maria Benzoni, we experience a prime example of what the National Academy of Design was teaching at that time — restraint and order, not whimsy and emotion.
The collection includes work by highly influential Realist painter, Thomas Eakins, with his 1889 painting, Portrait of Samuel Murray. Known for displaying the true character of an individual in his portraits, this painting is a treasured piece in the permanent collection. Impressionist painter, Mary Cassatt, is included in the timeline of early 20th century American painters with her 1908 painting, Young Woman Nursing Her Child, which is emblematic of her tender portrayals of mothers and children.
The collection also exhibits prime examples of several Ashcan School artists, such as William Glackens, Robert Henri, George Bellows and George Luks. These artists made up the first batch of the American painting revolution in which artists rebelled against the conservative criteria of the Academy and demanded the freedom to portray realistic, sometimes gritty, everyday life.
The collection includes Glackens’ 1913 oil on canvas painting, Summer Day, Bellport, Long Island, which points to the period of time in which he was portraying landscapes and bright, sunny days spent on the beach. Also in the exhibit is the 1916 painting Patience by Henri, an excellent example of his boldly colored, three-quarter length depictions of children. He was known to seek subjects that served his interest in creating representations of several different races and cultures. Bellows’ work is represented by his painting, Mrs. T in Wine Silk, from 1919. Famous for depicting everything from boxing matches to war scenes, the painting is a stunning example of Bellows’ portrait work. In Luks’ 1925 painting, Saturday Night, the artist depicts a woman shaving her husband, a common occurrence of everyday, urban life. These important pieces from the Ashcan School artists represent the rebellion of a group of maverick painters who sought authenticity in art. The subject matter is something the Academy would have frowned upon, with their focus on teaching more symbolic representations of life.
The museum’s permanent collection closes out 20th century art with the photography of Paul Strand who practiced “straight photography” after the medium was finally recognized as bona fide art in the mid-20th century. His photo, Blind Woman, is a striking example of the photographer’s ability to capture the true spirit of his subjects. The Mitchell Museum also includes work from important local artists such as famed blacksmith, L. Brent Kington, and his Icarus #4 sculpture.
“It’s an amazing small collection but it’s really got some important American artists in it and important paintings by those artists. It’s a treat,” Freeman remarked.
In addition to the indoor galleries, Cedarhurst’s outdoor sculpture park holds 70 sculptures of various media, including wood, concrete, steel and stone. The collection is proud to boast pieces from both national and local artists, including Chakaia Booker, Fletcher Benton, and Dennis Oppenheim, just to name a few.
John Mitchell’s endeavors over two decades, purchasing such a significant collection of art, led to his and Eleanor’s decision to open a museum in Southern Illinois. The collection they left behind to enrich the lives of residents of this community was the basis for the expansive art retreat that is now Cedarhurst Center for the Arts.
Roots of the estate
The Mitchell’s 90-acre Cedarhurst estate was named after the original, ancestral Mitchell home in Williamson County, Illinois which was at one time used as a safe haven for slaves traveling the Underground Railroad. Although Cedarhurst did not originally have any cedar trees on the property, John Mitchell had them brought in and planted so the name would fit. The Mitchell home was erected on the property in 1936, with a major renovation and expansion occurring in 1949. Designed by Eleanor’s father, Henry Fuhr, the stylish residence was featured in a 1954 issue of Town and Country magazine entitled “Contemporary with Antiques” and showcased the home’s picturesque entryway, fireplace, dining room, and grand architecture with its tall, white columns and handsome red brick exterior. Sadly, the Mitchells did not live to see the completion of Cedarhurst Center for the Arts, but their legacy lives on. The beautiful landscape of their estate and their love of art continues on as a vibrant cultural oasis.
The property now contains four buildings besides the Mitchell home. The Mitchell Museum holds the Mitchell’s permanent collection in the Bonham Gallery. The Museum also houses the Beal Grand Corridor Gallery, which hosts smaller exhibitions throughout the year and runs through the middle of the museum. Also within the Mitchell Museum is the Beck Family Center, a kid-friendly, hands-on environment for families, using different textures, colors and mediums to learn about art through play.
Just a two minute walk from the Mitchell Museum is the Shrode Art Center, home to the Regenhardt Gallery, which has five exhibitions throughout the year featuring local artists. The Art Center is also home to the classrooms and studios used for the wide array of courses offered at Cedarhurst.
Building an appreciation of art
Carrie Gibbs, Director of the Shrode Art Center, stays busy organizing shows in the gallery, scheduling group meetings for various coteries of artists and coordinating both youth and adult art classes.
“The Mitchells collected the artwork that is the foundation to our permanent collection and the work that I do at the Art Center helps build appreciation in our community of their artwork,” said Gibbs.
Gibbs is a big proponent of advancing art appreciation within the region and encouraging art education for all ages. By featuring only local artists in the exhibits and competitions within the gallery, she upholds the concept of a community art center. Five different groups meet at various times throughout the month and range in affinities including quilting, basketry, fibers, clay and woodcarving. She works hard to make the space at Shrode Art Center feel approachable for club members and students alike. Gibbs also enjoys planning the classes that take place in the three classrooms at the Center — clay and ceramics, mixed media and glass and weaving and basketry. After-school programs, pre-K classes and a wide menu of fall and spring semester course offerings make up the curriculum at Shrode. The outstanding educational programs on the Cedarhurst campus provide hands-on learning for children and adults of all ages and abilities and is an important component of Cedarhurst.
“By teaching children and adults the basics of how to make art, when they look at professional masterpieces they have an appreciation for why the piece was such a big deal,” shared Gibbs.
The endowment of John and Eleanor Mitchell’s art collection and Cedarhurst estate helped establish the art center that Southern Illinois has enjoyed for more than 40 years. What began as a love story between the pair became a mutual love for collecting American art and later gave way to the galleries and educational centers of the treasured Cedarhurst Center for the Arts.