|This biography from the Archives of AskART:|
|The following is courtesy of Paul Petosky, researcher of Post Office
Murals in Michigan. His source is the Julian Samora Research
Institute, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI:|
"Carlos Lopez: A Forgotten Michigan Painter by George Vargas, Ph.D. Austin, Texas Occasional Paper No. 56, February 1999
historical records show the existence of a handful of Latino artists in
the United States at the turn of the century. During the 1920's,
30's, and 40's, times of national prosperity and growth as well as
economic depression, Latino artists increased across the country,
including Michigan and the Midwest in general. Limited records show
artists of Latino or Latin American origins producing visual
expressions diverse in style and theme, representing folk art to
mainstream influences. These artists reflected and portrayed their
immediate environment as well as the broader American society. Their
openness to multiple influences has continued to allow Latinos to
respond to trends in American art in a unique way, further enriching
the concept of artistic and cultural diversity in Latino art.
the modern period, some Latino artists participated in the federal
mural painting projects in the United States. These public art projects
were directly influenced by the Mexican mural movement of the 1920's
and 30's, both ideologically and aesthetically. In Michigan,
despite general interest in Diego Rivera's Detroit Industry fresco
cycle (1932-1933) at the Detroit Institute of Arts, Latino art
generally speaking, featured less social commentary and more individual
expression that encompassed a panorama of styles and aesthetics.
Many Latino artists did not refer to elements of their own culture in
their work, but instead leaned toward mainstream art in search of
Among mainstream artists working in Michigan,
Cuban-born Carlos Lopez (1908 - 1953) was one of the most recognized
modern painters in the United States. During his lifetime, he received
many prestigious awards and commissions. An academically trained
landscape and portrait painter, Lopez serves as a vital historical link
connecting American modern art in Michigan with a new Latino history of
As one of only several Michigan artists, Latino or
otherwise, who received federal mural commissions, Lopez also made
important contributions to the development of American mural art
through his historical murals in Michigan and Illinois. The work
of Lopez offers insight into the cultural history of the Latino
presence in Michigan, as well as giving us a unique view of popular
culture in the United States.
For 20 years Lopez played an
influential role in the artistic life of Ann Arbor and Detroit as a
hardworking art teacher, productive artist, and dedicated American, but
today he still remains for the general public a shadowy figure in
The following is additional data on Carlos Lopez from Paul Petosky.
of the most famous and prolific Latino artists of the 1940's, Carlos
Lopez was born in Havana, Cuba in 1908 to Spanish parents. He
spent his early years in Spain, emigrating to the United States with
his parents when he was 11, where he received an American art
education. A versatile of exceptional quality, Lopez painted his
beloved Michigan and adopted country in modern terms, representing the
new spirit of American art of the times through his artworks and
Lopez first studied with George Rich at the Detroit
Art Academy and later with Charles St. Pierre at the Chicago Art
Institute. He also studied under Leon Makielski, landscape and portrait
painter, and University of Michigan art teacher. Lopez exhibited for
the first time in Detroit in January 1932; soon after he served as
director of the Detroit Art Academy from 1933 to 1937 and later as a
teacher at the Meinzinger School of Art in Detroit from 1937 to 1942.
Following a brief tenure as an instructor at the Summer School of
Painting in Saugatuck, Mich., in 1944, Lopez finally became a professor
of art at the University of Michigan in 1945, living in Ann Arbor until
his death in 1953. (1)
A master of oils and watercolors, he
often competed in the Michigan Artists Exhibition and won a number of
major awards, including the Scarab Club Gold Medal in 1938 for his
painting, Boy with Bow, a study of a serious and pensive youth drawing back the string on his wooden bow. He entered Boy with Bow
in Springfield, Ill., at the Old Northwest Territory Art Exhibition and
was awarded a cash prize. In 1936, he was a prize winner in the
Michigan Artists Exhibition for his entry, Boy on a Horse,
which depicts a small farm boy riding on the back of a huge work horse.
Lopez vested whimsy and compassion into this familiar rural subject.
entered many state and national shows, winning more awards and critical
recognition. Local awards include the Haan Prize in 1936, the Modern
Art Prize in 1937, the Scarab Gold Medal in 1938, and the Kahn Award in
1940. He was featured in Detroit area exhibitions at the Detroit
Institute of Arts, the Detroit Scarab Club, and the Detroit Artists'
Market during this early period in his career. He also exhibited in the
Golden State Exposition in 1936 and the World's Fair in New York in
Using a strong, formal sense of composition and both
rich and low tonality of color, Lopez began painting murals in the late
1930's. Between 1937 and 1942, he won important mural
competitions and was commissioned to create murals for post office
buildings under the Treasury Department Public Works of Art
Project. In 1937, assisted by his wife, Rhoda, he painted a
fresco mural titled The Stage of Dawn in the post office in
Dwight, Illinois, which documented the role of the stage coach in
frontier transportation and mail delivery (a popular theme for post
office murals tailored for the post office construction boom of the
1930's). Armed frontiersmen assist the stagecoach driver as he
harnesses the frisky horses to the coach in the early morning light. (3)
In 1938 Lopez painted Plymouth Trail
in the post office in Plymouth, Michigan, which was built by the Works
Progress Administration three years earlier. Upon entering the
building, the viewer is immediately greeted by a colorful historical
scene, again praising the crucial role of the stage coach in
transportation and mail delivery in Michigan's history, first as part
of the Northwest Territory and later as a new state. The top horizontal
panel presents a simple picturesque street scene in Plymouth of the
1860's, a small town that served as a major junction of transportation
and trade in western Wayne County. A stage coach is waiting for
its passengers, its team of sleek horses eager to start. Several
townsfolk in the lower left corner of the mural stand by reading the
local newspaper, while a young barefoot country boy stands in the
center wearing rolled-up pants and a straw hat with his dog intently
watching the excitement that the coach's arrival has generated.
Chickens and pigs roam freely in town. The background of plain
wood buildings against an uncluttered landscape communicates the
glorious yet hardy pioneer spirit of early America.
achieve an idyllic presence of early Michigan history the artist
adopted an almost folk or naive painting style using the simplest of
linear perspectives and almost flat human figures.
main panel three predella panels further illustrate stages in early
Plymouth history. In the lower left predella panel a bearded pioneer
dressed in buckskin and a coonskin cap stands in a field he has cleared
of trees in preparation for cultivation. Body posed in a three-fourth
view with his head in profile, the pioneer spies a deer leaping in an
opening in the thick woods. A group of small cabins set near the
horizon represent the settlement of Plymouth. A locomotive train
carrying freight, mail, and passengers travels past the farms and
fields of grain in the central predella. Several town residents view
the train's passing from a carriage standing in front of a large white
house. The image in the right predella depicts one of Lopez's rare
social commentaries, reflecting Rivera's impact on American mural art.
theme of progress continues in the third predella painting with the
emergence of the automobile and the industries it created in Plymouth.
In contrast to the early agricultural and industrial prosperity
rendered in the central panel, Lopez depicts the Depression in his
portrait of a nameless, homeless family seeking shelter in a cold, dark
railroad train yard. The bleak urban landscape of lonely factories and
warehouses reinforces the despair and sympathy that the artist felt for
America's poor and displaced people of all races. In comparison to
other post office murals, this particular panel represents an unusual
subject for government-sponsored art in the 1930's.
In 1940 Lopez painted another post office mural, Bounty,
in Paw Paw, Michigan. Now using a distinct illustrative style
reflective of American popular culture, the mural features the rich
agricultural bounty of the prosperous Michigan farming communities of
Van Buren County. In the center of the mural, apples, grapes,
corn, and other important crops are organized in cornucopia
fashion. To the left a seemingly content migrant farm worker
cares for an apple tree, while a handsome couple hold their freshly
harvested bounty in baskets and look at each other with goodwill and
love. On the right side of the mural a fiddler and a harmonica player
make music while others dance in a celebration of the harvest.
Michigan winter scene of ice skaters on a pond appears at the top of
the mural, above the musicians, as a reminder that tourism is also a
vital industry in Van Buren County, home of beautiful inland lakes,
rivers, and 20 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline. This mural speaks both
to the early pioneering efforts to settle and cultivate Michigan and to
the modern economic wealth brought on by advanced agricultural
technology. Lopez communicated a sense of plenty and well-being in a
self-conscious attempt to overcome post-Depression anxiety and slow
economic recovery in Michigan. (4)
Selected from 22 artists in a
mural competition, Lopez received a $1,400 government-sponsored
commission in 1942 to paint a tempera mural on the east wall above a
bulletin board and centrally-located door in the lobby of the recently
completed post office in Birmingham, Michigan. (5) After intensive
research, Lopez chose a typical pioneer scene, The Pioneer Society's Picnic.
In the mid-1800's, residents in Birmingham and Oakland County gathered
annually for a gala picnic; Lopez picked the picnic of 1850 for his
theme, incorporating portraits of Oakland County pioneers he had copied
from early historical photographs and portraits of a few contemporary
Birmingham residents who modeled for him during the execution of the
mural. The details of the picnic were based on the childhood
recollections of Fannie Fish, a local woman. The picnic featured
roast pig and readings from Shakespeare recited by amateur
thespians. She recalled, "It was hard for the elders to decide
which they liked best that day, the poet or the pig!"
local picnickers in the mural, Fannie Fish appears as a little girl
holding a bouquet of flowers. Near her sit two women with a baby,
a finely rendered composition resembling in spirit Leonardo da Vinci's
The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and the Infant St. John
(1498). The realistic human figures are monumental and graceful,
radiating maternal love and human compassion. Elizabeth Dewey,
wife of a prominent leader, holds the baby, while Mrs. Campbell, wife
of the village doctor, sits by. I n the center of the mural, directly
above the door, Dr. Robert Le Baron points to the sky as he quotes
Shakespeare. An enthusiastic youth dashes in front of Le Baron
with unbridled excitement. On the right side of the mural, a tall
man whose face is a composite of James Jacobes and August Baldwin, two
local judges, points to the roasting pig. Two other men stand by
the judge: James Craig, another Birmingham pioneer, and James
Bloomberg, sheriff at the time the mural was painted. A small, but
sturdy, church stands in the distance where women prepare tables with
their special picnic dishes in the church yard.
The Birmingham mural proved to be controversial, becoming the focus of local criticism.
before he started painting, Lopez was accused of being an outsider or
stranger to Birmingham, unfamiliar with its local culture and
history. Lopez responded immediately in a friendly letter of
introduction published by the Birmingham Eccentric newspaper. He
explained that he was currently living in Royal Oak, a community
neighboring Birmingham's west border, and that he was aware of the
history of their town and was familiar with it personally since he had
courted his wife in her hometown of Birmingham. He also listed
his credentials, assuring the residents of his professional skills and
Even before completion of the mural, local
critics were offended by the representations of their forefathers in
the painting, saying their faces appeared "Negroid." In a newspaper
article Lopez calmly refuted the charges, revealing his historical
sources and directing the critics to study the photographs themselves.
He also received attacks from some who claimed that the moustache he
painted on Sheriff Bloomberg made him look "too much like a Chinese."
(7) The furor was intense, but short-lived. Though many demanded the
mural be removed or painted over, it ultimately survived.
1960, the mural, old and peeling, faced destruction during renovation
of the post office when plans called for new walls. Many community
members organized to protect the mural, although the mural's background
and the identity of the artist were uncertain. Zoltan Sepeshy, then
director of Cranbrook Academy of Art and an old friend of Lopez,
identified Lopez as the mural's artist and proposed its preservation.
(8) Joseph Sparks, one of many who responded to an advertisement for an
artist to repair the mural, miraculously turned out to have been both
apprentice to and friend of Lopez. (9) Thanks to Sparks and Sepeshy the
mural survives, though it suffers from obscene graffiti that has been
scratched on to the figure of a pioneer woman in one of two predella
Lopez had become an active and well-known artist.
While still working on the Birmingham mural in 1942, Lopez was selected
to execute his largest mural ever in the Register of Deeds Building,
Washington, D.C. This important mural commemorates the first Black
troops ever used in a United States military maneuver, recording
Colonel Shaw's attack on Fort Wagner in 1863.(10)
That same busy year Lopez won the Haass Award in a Detroit Institute of Arts exhibition for his painting, Snow Man,
which represents his conscious shift to a spontaneous and
expressionistic style in order to better explore and visually record
his feelings and ideas. Father and children cluster around a
nearly finished snowman in a typical Michigan winter scene in which the
viewer can both see and feel the cold and powerful spirit of
winter. In 1942 Lopez also painted Lake Huron Fishermen,
burly men who tug at their nets alive with small fish, as great lake
and sky merge in the horizon and as hovering sea gulls seek
leftovers. Also, he was one of eight American artists
commissioned by the U.S. Department of War (and later by Life Magazine
in 1943) to journey overseas with the American Army to create a
pictorial record of World War II. In 1944 - 45, the Navy
commissioned him to paint a series picturing amphibious training
Soon after, Standard Oil Company also commissioned
Lopez to create a series of paintings dealing with the African Theatre
In 1946 Lopez was chosen by the J.L.
Hudson Company to work on the "Michigan on Canvas" project along with
nine other professional artists who had lived, worked, or painted in
Michigan at one time and whose work was representational and would be
easily understood by the general public. Of the 10 painters, only
four were living in Michigan at the time of the commission: Carlos
Lopez, professor of art, University of Michigan; John De Martelly,
professor of art, Michigan State College, and protege of Thomas Hart
Benton; David Fredenthal, Guggenheim Fellowship recipient and World War
II war artist correspondent who studied at Cranbrook; and Zoltan
Sepeshy, director of Cranbrook, and active member of the Detroit
painting scene. The 95 paintings and drawings were selected by an
advisory board made up of Michigan museum directors who worked on the
selection of painters in cooperation with the Associated American
Artists. "Michigan on Canvas" toured Michigan in over 40 exhibitions
and was then on loan to the Henry Ford Museum until its disposition in
1956 when the works were donated and distributed to various libraries,
museums, and universities throughout the state. (11)
Of the 12
paintings Lopez exhibited in "Michigan on Canvas," four were related to
Michigan's automobile manufacturing industry. Four other paintings
represented the City of Detroit and its urban environment.
1946, Lopez turned inward to his own unconscious to explore the world
of fantasy and symbolism, perhaps as a way to escape the trappings of a
civilization that had recently suffered the ravages of World War
II. His favorite subject became the Michigan winter, and he won
Painting of the Year Award in a New York exhibition in 1947 for a
winter landscape. Critics described his work as having an "eerie
quality winter landscapes with trees against a brooding sky." (13) His
paintings had become more intense and poetic in feeling and form. When
pressed, Lopez, who disliked labeling his work, called it
"expressionistic, and possibly romantic."(14)
By the early
1950's, a distinct aura of sadness, nostalgia, and tragedy made his
paintings more complex and difficult to understand.
years of illness Carlos Lopez died Jan. 6, 1953 in Ann Arbor from
pulmonary embolism. At 44, he was a respected artist and art teacher
who made a valuable contribution to the development of art in
Michigan. His work is represented in the Michigan collections of
the Detroit Institute of Arts, the University of Michigan Alumnae Art
Museum, and the Henry Ford Museum, as well as in private collections of
Gerome Kamrowski, fellow artist and University of Michigan professor of
art, and Albert Taubman, a student of Lopez, Michigan developer, art
patron, and owner of Sotheby's Auction House.
He is remembered
for his expressive artistic abilities, his integrity as a man, and his
loving commitment to his family. His legacy lives on not only through
his work, but also through the continuing work of his wife, Rhoda Le
Blanc Lopez, and his son, Jon Lopez.(15) Rhoda, a ceramist and medical
illustrator, will always be associated with her husband.
Richardson, E.P. (1953). Carlos Lopez: A Memorial Exhibition. Detroit:
Detroit Institute of Arts, 1-2. See also: Carlos Lopez, U of M Art
Professor and Noted Painter, Dies at 44, Ann Arbor News, Jan. 7, 1953,
2. Kenny, M.K. (1965). A History of Painting in Michigan,
1850 to World War II. Dissertation, Wayne State University, 175. See
also: "Carlos Lopez, "Michigan Artists Files, Detroit Institute for
Arts Library, Detroit.
3. Marlene Park and Gerald Maikowitz,
Democratic Vistas: Post Offices and Public Art in the New Deal
(Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1984), p. 208.
4. Ibid., pp. 61-62.
5. "Post Office to Get $1,400 Worth of Art," Birmingham Eccentric, Birmingham, April 3, 1941, p. 1-A.
6. "Mural Artist Reveals All," Birmingham Eccentric, Birmingham, Nov. 19, 1941, pp. 1-A, 2-A.
Kathryn Umphrey, "Lopez, Artist of Post Office Mural, Says Figures are
Real People," Birmingham Eccentric, Birmingham, July 16, 1942, pp. 1-A,
8. "Mystery Mural Saved From Painter's Brush, "Birmingham Eccentric, Birmingham, Aug. 4, 1960, p. 1-A.
9. "Post Office Murals 'New Look' Comes from Painter's Ex-Protege," Birmingham Eccentric, Birmingham, Aug. 11, 1960, p. 2-A.
10. Richardson, p. 1.
11. Michigan on Canvas (Detroit, J.L. Hudson Company, 1947), p. 64.
12. Lopez' paintings listed and reproduced in Michigan on Canvas.
13. "Carlos Lopez," Michigan Artists Files.
14. "Carlos Lopez, U of M Art Professor and Noted Painter " p. 1.
15. Richardson, p. 7.
At the time of completion of this article, it was found that Carlos and
Rhoda Lopez had a second child, Carol Lopez, who today also is an
artist and will be included in later studies. See "Rhoda LeBlanc
Lopez," and "Jon Lopez," Michigan Artists File, Detroit Institute of
17. Ms. Jessie W. Forsythe, letter to Mr. Jean
Paul Slusser, Director of University of Michigan Art Museum, April 20,
1953, Michigan Artists Files, U of M Art Museum.
Introduction | Carlos Lopez | Endnotes
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