How does an individual turn her life into being an artist? What are the steps? How was it different for a young woman in the 1920s and 30s? Was the process different still for a middle class, Midwest, first generation woman in the middle of the Great Depression?
In looking at Dorothy Browdy Kushner’s earliest extant works, these salient questions arise. She lived and worked in Kansas City, MO, from her birth in 1909 until she moved to New York City in 1941. This time period was prolific for her. She worked in a variety of media, with a particular expertise in watercolor, most frequently in a regionalist realist style. During this time she exhibited frequently as an active member and officer of the Kansas City Society of Artists and participated regularly in regional juried shows.
She discovered her talent somewhat by surprise at an early age. A pivotal statewide competition for high school students transpired in 1926 when Dorothy was 17. In her own words:
“I was an editor of one page of the high school newspaper, and the high school had a marvelous music department and so they always sent a whole group down to the University [of Missouri] for the week to participate in all the competitions: the bands, the orchestras, the choruses, and because several of us on the news staff had other abilities, they asked us if we wanted to go, and Esther and I went. In addition, it was an art and music festival, and in addition to taking art and music — I mean doing the competition, they had other things like geography — different subjects in which we were able to take the special tests, and so we took tests in each subject we were taking which we felt qualified to take. And, of course, we took all the art tests. And one of the teachers who went with us was an art teacher, she wasn’t my art teacher but she knew me, and there we got very well acquainted.
And so each day after, as I finished my day’s work there on that competition, she would talk to me about it and ask me what I had done and I had told her, so it was very beneficial, but I was not happy with what was being produced because we worked very fast and it was difficult to know that you were on a time span and so forth.
Anyway, we finally went down in a train, they took a private — two cars and attached them to a train– and brought them down, put them on the siding, and we lived in the trains, so the last night of the competition was the awards night, and we were all there, all the music and other people who were on the staff of the paper, there were three or four of us who went down, and I was sitting next to two fellows, and I had thought that my drawing that I did was not very successful. But I sat there, and all at once they announced that the winner was Dorothy Browdy. I was so shocked that I couldn’t even get myself out of my chair, the seat I was in in the auditorium there in the University of Missouri. And so, there were these two young men who were in the music competition, they also had an athletic competition, so whoever they were, anyway, they were sitting there and we had been talking, and so one took one elbow and the other took the other elbow and pulled me up out of the seat and gave me a push toward the platform so that I could go up and receive my gold medal and my drawing was sent around, so I didn’t get to see it, and it looked good to me when I saw it again, but at the time I was very unhappy; I didn’t think I’d finished it and I didn’t think I had done this and that, so it was the first time I realized that I had the ability to be a winner.”
After graduation from High School in 1926, she attended Normal School [Teacher’s College], from which she received a teaching credential after two years, and began teaching fifth grade in public school at age nineteen. Dorothy was the oldest of five siblings. Her sister Esther was eleven months younger, but they went through school together. Esther also became a teacher and a painter. Dorothy taught at the Scarett School and later Paseo High School. For several years, they both studied watercolor with an older Missouri artist, Ida Kibbe, who taught them privately from her studio in Kansas City. For both sisters, additional college credits were required to fulfill requirements for a bachelor’s degree. Consequently, being free of teaching responsibilities every summer, they frequently traveled together to take additional courses in art and academic subjects.
“Everyone in Kansas City hoped that someday they’d get to New York, and so one summer, I’d read about the Art Students’ League, and found out that you could go there for a summer course.” In 1935 Dorothy and Esther drove to New York to stay at the University Women’s Clubhouse and take classes at the Art Student’s League. Dorothy studied life drawing and painting with Reginald Marsh. “He took an interest in me, and he would choose the work from the students and he would hang it in the gallery, and he chose my work a couple of times.” By then Dorothy was experiencing allergic responses to oil paint and solvent. She asked Marsh to teach her egg tempera which he did, and subsequently corresponded with her about technical problems she was encountering. Dorothy asked Marsh for a drawing as a souvenir. She visited his Fourteenth Street studio and was given a nude study which always had a prominent place in her subsequent studios.
In 1936 both sisters took classes from Thomas Hart Benton at the Kansas City Art Institute. “[At the Institute] There were several excellent teachers….they were much better teachers than he [Benton] was….he wouldn’t criticize the work unless it was in his style.” Benton was known for his “whiplash” forms and compositions based on complex curves that animate the surface. Esther continued to work with this compositional device for the rest of her painting career. But Dorothy seemed drawn to a more Cezanne-esque style of composition which balanced vertical and horizontal elements.Interestingly, another Benton student was Jackson Pollack, who eliminated Benton’s overt regionalist subject matter completely but maintained the Benton whiplash in his abstractions. One work of Dorothy’s from this period might be the Farmer with Scythe showing a farmer sowing seeds in a fluid, curving composition with clear strong color harmonies, all of which would be reminiscent of Benton’s stylizations.
Other summers, they both studied life drawing at the University of Kansas at Lawrence, attended classes at the University of Vermont, the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and at the Art Institute of Chicago where they studied with Irving K Manoir, a regional landscapist. They drove to Florida in 1938, and also drove across country to visit the San Francisco World’s Fair and Los Angeles. In 1939 they motored through Mexico visiting Mexico City, Taxco and Toluca, looking at Pre-Columbian monuments as well as the work of the Mexican muralists who were still very active and very well known at that time. Both women painted in watercolor and took photos throughout this trip. Dorothy talked about the strong impressions that she experienced in Mexico both artistic, and sociological. In 1941, they drove to New Mexico where they went to the pueblos and saw Indian dances, visiting sites that Georgia O’Keefe made famous in her Southwest paintings, without ever having known about her.
During this period of her work, Dorothy was strongly drawn to depicting the world around her: the places she was working, her relatives and friends at their summer lake house, still life. Social Realism played a strong role in her work: the dignity and strength of depicting regular American life inspired her. She favored watercolor over oil because of her allergic concerns, and with the famously temperamental watercolor medium she expressed a remarkable freshness, spontaneity and individuality.
Note: After her marriage to Joseph Kushner in 1946, Dorothy added “Kushner” to her signature on many of these early works. Although potentially confusing, a close examination usually reveals a slightly different hand or brush in the added surname.
All italicized quotes taken from a 1991 interview of Dorothy Browdy Kushner by Robert Kushner.