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Bernice Marie (Branson) Ferris

 (1882 - 1936)
Bernice Marie (Branson) Ferris was active/lived in Virginia, Nebraska.  Bernice Ferris is known for agriculture promotional illustration, painting and landscape design.

Bernice Marie (Branson) Ferris

Biography from the Archives of askART

Bernice Marie Branson Ferris
(1882 Astoria, Illinois-1936 Alexandria, Virginia)

Also known as Bernice Marie Branson

A commercial illustrator, painter and landscape designer, Bernice Ferris, working from a small studio in Lincoln, Nebraska pioneered the concept of creating small parks throughout her home town. Indicative of success is a feature in the local newspaper, The Lincoln Star, July 16, 1922: “The vision of Lincoln beautiful through a system of little parks originated with Miss Bernice Branson, a Lincoln artist who had a vision come true of making the “City Beautiful by a Chain of Small Parks Similar to Scheme Used in Washington D.C.   .  .  . So in a modest way she laid the foundation for a big movement.”

In Lincoln in September 1921, she had presented her plans through 'before and after' watercolor sketches, which indicated the projects aesthetic potential. She successfully lobbied AXIS, a local woman’s club, and members did the physical work reinforced by teams sent in by City Commissioners. Initiating Bernice's plan was the well-received conversion of an unsightly plot on the south side of N Street between Twelfth and Thirteenth Streets.

Among her other successful commercial designs was her 1913 illustrated heading for the Nebraska State Historical Society, which beginning 1918, was used for it’s monthly publication. She also created show posters for Dr. Hartley Burr Alexander, a University philosophy professor, who used them beginning 1915 to stage a number of his local pageants related to music and symbolism.

Bernice Branson Ferris had been a Nebraskan since 1883 when she, age one, moved with her family from Astoria, Illinois to a farm at Yankee Hill, just south of Lincoln. She grew up with a sister, two brothers, and parents, Charles Marion and Ida Currier Branson. Naming their place Fairview, the Bransons remained in this location throughout Bernice's lifetime.

In 1904 as an art student at the School of Fine Arts of the University of Nebraska, she had studied with Sara Shewell Hayden, a painter of portraits, figure and genre. Subsequently Bernice enrolled at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. Among her teachers were J.C. Leyendecker, Frederick Goudy, and Lawton Parker.

Although well schooled as a fine-art painter, for most of her professional life, she used these skills only for weekend diversions, as by the early 1920s, she was employed as a commercial artist in Washington DC for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Her focus was promotional illustration designs for posters and publications, encouraging people to consume dairy and grain products.

Warren Ferris, artist and illustrator and nine years younger than Bernice was one of her co-workers at the Ag Department. They married in 1923 in Falls Church, Virginia, and made their home on Russell Road, a place she described as being “between Washington and quaint historic Alexandria and we feel the thrill of both.” (The Lincoln Star, 12/30/1934)  

However, newspaper publicity indicates Lincoln, Nebraska remained proud of Bernice. On May 25, 1924, The Lincoln Star had a feature about the twentieth reunion of the class of 1904 at the University of Nebraska: “All the distinguished members of the class weren’t masculine as Bernice Branson Ferris was an ‘04. Mrs. Ferris, whose home is in Washington DC, was only here one full year, but it was in the university that she had some of her early art work. Mrs. Ferris is an illustrator and designer, at present illustrating for the government. She is in the Section of Illustrations and at the same time is doing outside sketching whenever she can find time. With her husband, she takes architectural and historical subjects for her sketches and they are going to take a sketching trip down the Potomac to do a series of old manor houses and gardens."

Although this newspaper message described a woman full of vitality, ten years later Bernice's self-description in her Christmas letter to the 'folks back home' of 1934, was ominous.The December 30, 1934 issue of The Lincoln Star had these words: “Aside from our regular work, our house and garden are our hobbies. Alas, for some time, we have been unable to attend as I have seemed to need an enforced vacation and have been resting the better part of the past two years.  However I am again planning to take up brushes and pencils and am looking forward to illustrating this winter.”

A year and a half later, on June 23, 1936, her obituary was in The Lincoln Star: “Former Lincoln Woman An Employee of U.S. Dept. Agriculture died at home in Alexandria, Virginia.  She had been an illustrator for 10 years for publications of the Department of Agriculture . . . .Funeral services were in Alexandria.”

Art-related memberships were the Lincoln Artists' Guild, Omaha Society of Fine Arts, and the Art Club of Washington DC. Exhibitions included the Omaha Society of Fine Arts, 1922, with a watercolor landscape, Autumn on the Creek; the Sesquicentennial Exposition in Philadelphia, 1926; Art Club of Washington DC; a 1930 exhibition in Leipzig, Germany; and Lincoln Artists' Guild Spring Exhibition, April 14-26, 1941 at Miller and Paine Department Store.

Sources:, Aug. 2014

Bernice Ferris 1927 poster, “Milk for Health Dairy Poster,” Vintage Poster Works, Web, Aug. 2014
Dawdy, Doris Ostrander, Artists of the American West, Volume Three, Print

Editor, American Federation of Arts, American Art Annual, 1933, Print

Falk, Peter Hastings, Editor, Who Was Who in American Art, Volume I, Print

"Hartley Burr Alexander," Nebraska State Historical Society, Web. Aug. 2014

Lincoln Evening Journal, newspaper, 4/1/1930)

McMahan, Virgil, Artists of Washington DC, Print

Museum of Nebraska Art files: copy of original catalogue of "Second Annual Nebraska Artists Exhibition, October 6 to October 29, 1922, Omaha Society of Fine Arts"

Opitz, Glenn, Editor, Mantle Fielding’s Dictionary of American Painters, Sculptors & Engravers

Petteys, Chris, Dictionary of Women Artists

The Lincoln Star, newspaper, 7/16/1922, 12/30/1934, 6/23/1936, 5/25/1924;

Researched, written, and copyrighted by Lonnie Pierson Dunbier, 2015
Museum of Nebraska Art Project:
Their Place, Their Time: Women Artists in Nebraska, 1825-1945

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About  Bernice Marie (Branson) Ferris

Born:  1882 - Astoria, Illinois
Died:   1936 - Alexandria, Virginia
Known for:  agriculture promotional illustration, painting and landscape design