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Ethel (Currie) Magafan

 (1916 - 1993)
Ethel (Currie) Magafan was active/lived in Colorado, New York.  Ethel Magafan is known for abstract landscape and regionalist mural painting.

Ethel (Currie) Magafan

Biography from the Archives of askART

Magafan, Ethel
(1916, Chicago IL-1993, Woodstock NY)

Also known as Ethel Magafan Currie

A painter in both realist and abstract styles, Ethel Magafan gained special attention in Nebraska for the excellence of the mural, Threshing, which she created for the post-office building in Auburn in the 1930s. It was part of a federal art program during a time of harsh economic depression following the stock market crash of 1929. After Threshing, Ethel completed several additional murals for this program, and then in the mid 1940s, freed from mural guidelines, she painted many high color abstract landscape forms, which are her signature works in the 21st century secondary art market. "She never painted landscapes of the East Coast. Her paintings reflect her preference for the rugged mountains of the West over the softer, tree covered mountains of the Catskill region where she spent the last decades of her life." (Currie)

Ethel Magafan and her twin sister, Jenne, were born in Chicago to parents Julia Bronik and Petros Magafan. When the girls were very young, the family moved to Denver, Colorado for the father’s health. He died in 1932 when Ethel and Jenne were age sixteen, which caused much sadness as well as financial stress. However, he remained an ongoing positive influence on his daughters as he had expressed much pride in their artistic talents, and also stirred their love of the American West, saying that many of the landscape views reminded him of his homeland in Greece.

As students of East Denver High School, the twins received special attention for their art abilities from Miss Helen Perry, their art teacher, who had been a student at the Art Institute of Chicago. She arranged for them to have lessons with Frank Mechau, a landscape and genre painter, who was getting mural commissions. He had been raised in Colorado Springs, and then studied and painted in New York City and Paris, where he experimented with avant-garde styles. However, deciding he was more of a traditional than modernist artist, he returned to his homeland in 1932 “with an extreme desire to get back to nature and life in Colorado.” (Bach 17)

Subsequently his focus on local place with simplicity of form and color had much influence on his students, many whom “became inspired through camaraderie with their teacher.  . . .Mechau is credited with introducing a Western school of regionalism, inspired by the ‘American Scene,’ which was drawn from the ideal of creating art that represented a different character from region to region in a realistic manner.” (Puchendorf, Book Review) It was this tradition that had long-range influence on both Ethel and Jenne.

Their first lessons were at The Mechau School of Modern Art, which he operated in 1934 and 1935 in an enormous room in a downtown building in Denver. Miss Perry paid their tuition, which for each was fifty-four dollars for eighteen weeks. Of the School, Cile M. Bach, biographer of Frank Mechau wrote: “The student roster included three of Miss Perry’s most gifted students---twin sisters Jenne and Ethel Magafan and Edward Chavez, who were to study and work with Mechau for several years.” (Bach 20) Chavez, a high school classmate of the twins, would later become the husband of Jenne Magafan.

Lessons with Mechau for the threesome continued at the Colorado Springs Fine Art Center, where they also studied with Boardman Robinson and Pepino Mangravite. To begin study at the Center, Jenne paid for her and Ethel’s tuition with ninety dollars she had received as a Carter Memorial Art Scholarship. However, the money covered only two months of classes, so Mechau, insuring their enrollment, hired both as paid assistants.

In 1936 for the Denver Public Library, Mechau completed a mural, Horses at Night, which was widely praised and brought him enough commission opportunities that he hired Edith, Jenne and Edward Chavez to be his assistants. Much of the activity was in Mechau’s studio in Redstone, a Colorado ghost town, about 40 miles from Glenwood Springs. Of those days, Chavaz wrote: “I can never forget the days in the Redstone Schoolhouse Atelier working on one or another of Frank’s various Treasury Department murals in those wonderfully magical Redstone winters; and later in the evening, before a roaring fireplace, after we shared a meal with the Mechau fmily. . . .The effects of this relationship are still directly an important part of my work and an influence in my life.” (Bach 69).

For these ‘assistants,’ this not only was camaraderie with an artist they admired but an education in mural painting. Confident of their abilities, Mechau encouraged Ethel, Jenne and Edward to enter competitions that were opening up with the federal art program of creating murals for newly constructed post offices. In 1938, Ethel won the competition for the mural in Auburn, Nebraska, the “youngest artist in America to receive such an honor.” (David Cook)

Like Mechau she had gone through a rigorous competitive program administered by the U.S. government Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP), which had overseen the building of 300 post-office building in communities across the United States. TRAP administrators then held artist design competitions for murals with specification that they should be realist in style and have themes relating to the history and culture of each community. Artists signed contracts only after they had completed a series of rigorous steps beginning with submitting drawings to a local jury and ending with decisions of a TRAP jury. The artist received one third of his or her fee when the contract was signed; the second third with Section approval of the cartoon; and the final payment when the section approved a photograph of the finished mural. . . .The average commission across the United States seems to have been about $725. The fee was expected to cover all expenses for travel, research, materials and the final labor of mounting the mural on the post office wall.” (Anderson 26) In total Ethel received $620.00

To get started Ethel visited the town to learn about the people, their history, their suggestions for the mural theme and to tour the post office with the postmaster. For consideration, she submitted two pencil sketch scenes, one of threshing wheat and the other of local landscape. The wheat scene was chosen, and by 1938 with the title of Threshing, it was on the post office wall. Of the finished work, it was written: “The influence of the American Scene is evident in this mural. The subject was familiar to the community, since threshing was the time when farm families came together with their neighbors after the wheat harvest.” (Puchendorf 40) The mural also received special attention in 2012 when it appeared as the cover illustration of the Nebraska State Historical Society’s publication Nebraska’s Post Office Murals by Robert Puschendorf.

With much positive response to Threshing, Ethel received additional commissions for a total of seven including: Prairie Fire, Madill, Oklahoma Post Office, 1941; Horse Corral for Denver Post Office, 1942; Mountains in Snow with Jenne for Social Security building in Washington DC, 1949; and Grant at the Battle of Wilderness for Fredericksburg National Military Park in Chancellorsville, Virginia, 1978. “She focused her subjects mainly on local agriculture and industry but continued to subtly push against the limitations of neutral subject matter. During the segregated period of the history of the South, she completed a mural for the Wynne Post Office in Arkansas that depicted Black workers in a noble light.” (Ethel Magafan, Sullivan Goss) Ethel also did much easel painting for which she used tempera and a palette knife. She had varied subjects including realist, abstract and surreal landscapes and showed particular fondness for horses. "In 1942, she completed the mural Andrew Jackson and the Battle of New Orleans, which is still on view in Washington DC in the former Recorder of Deeds building." (Currie)

During World War II to research and complete mural assignments in locations near each other, the sisters would frequently drive across the country together in their station wagon. "Because of the mandatory rationing of provisions and such treasured commodities as rubber tires during the war years, Ethel and Jenne had to save as many gas coupons as possible and rely on re-treaded tires in order to secure their work” (Ethel Magafan, Sullivan Goss).

The sisters generally lived together, except for brief periods apart doing murals.
With sister Jenne, Ethel lived in Colorado Springs until 1941, in Los Angeles 1941-1942 and 1943-1945, and Wyoming 1942 and 1943. During this time, Ethel’s paintings were somewhat abstract with western titles such as Indian Dance, Crossing the Panhandle and Brahma Bulls. (Kovinick 200) "After World War II, many people in the US were on the move and on the advice of older artist friends in Los Angeles, Arnold Blanche, Fletcher Martin, Ethel and Jenne were advised that if they were serious about being professional artists, the needed to live near New York City. The charming artists' colony of Woodstock NY, they were told, was perfectly located only 100 miles from the vital art scene of NYC.  So they permanently relocated to Woodstock New York in 1945." (Currie)

For the first time, they lived apart because they had artist husbands: Edward Chavez for Jenne, and Bruce Currie for Ethel. Of the residency of the Magafan sisters and their husbands in Woodstock, Anita Smith, historian of the colony wrote that they were “among those painters who, after the war, came here to inject fresh impetus into our valley.” (280)

However, during 1951 to 1952, the twins and their husbands were away from Woodstock on a year-long trip. Edward had a Fulbright Scholarship to Italy, and Ethel had a Fulbright Scholarship to Greece. "The two couples lived separately  and visited one another only once or twice during that year." (Currie) Upon their return in 1952, Jenne died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage, a loss that Ethel mourned deeply. She said that the death of her sister, Jenne, "was a tragedy from which I never fully recovered. (Ethel Magafan, Sullivan Goss) She later named her daughter and only child Jenne. Shortly after the death of her twin sister, Jenne, Ethel began making yearly return trips to Colorado. These landscape paintings following her sister's death became quite abstract, seeking “out the feelings of a scene rather than an exact representation.” (Ethel Magafan, Sullivan-Goss)

Ethel and her husband and daughter "lived out the remainder of their lives in Woodstock. They lived on a paved road only one and a half miles from the village of Woodstock up a gentle hill. The couple kept very strict working hours, each having their own separate studio on the premises." (Currie). When their daughter Jenne was born, Ethel continued to paint around the schedule of a growing child.

Ethel Magafan Currie died April 24, 1993 at age 76 in Woodstock, New York. Unlike her sister, Jenne, Ethel lived long enough to enjoy national recognition including election to the National Academy of Design where she received the Academy’s first Hallgarten Prize and its Altman Prize. She was also elected second Vice President of the Academy. In 1971, with depictions of the western United States, she received national recognition when the United States Department of Interior requested that she tour and draw sketches throughout the Western U.S. These sketches were later exhibited at the National Gallery in Washington and then sent on a national tour by the Smithsonian Institution. Also the nation’s most prestigious museums acquired her work including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American Art and Museum of Modern Art. "Ethel was a continuous member of two prestigious 57th Street galleries in Manhattan from the 1960s through the 1990s: First the Jacques Seligmann Galleries and then Midtown Gallery, of which she was a member until her death in 1993." (Currie)

Sources:, Sep. 2016

Anderson, Elizabeth, “Depression Legacy: Nebraska’s Post Office Art,” Nebraska History, Quarterly, Spring 1990, Nebraska State Historical Society, Web, Sep. 2016

Bach, Cile M., Frank Mechau-Artist of Colorado, pp. 20, 68, 119-120, Print

Currie, Jenne Magafan, daughter of Ethel Magafan and Bruce Currie. In an email of December 16, 2016 to Lonnie Dunbier, she provided both additional and clarifying information for Dunbier's Ethel Magafan biography.

“Edward Chavez,” Biography from David Cook Galleries, Denver, CO; Published on, Sep. 2016

“Ethel Magafan,” Sullivan Goss, An American Gallery, Web, Sep. 2016

“Ethel Magafin Dead: Landscape Painter 76,"  The New York Times, obituary, April 29, 1993, Web, Sep. 2016

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

Kovinick, Phil and Marian Yoshiki-Kovinick, Encyclopedia of Women Artists of the American West, 199-200, Print

“Mural Listing by Artist,” Nebraska History, Spring 1990, Nebraska State Historical Society, Web. Sep. 2016

Puschendorf, L. Robert, Nebraska Post Office Murals, pp. 40-43, Print

Puschendorf, L. Robert, Book Review copy sent to Lonnie Dunbier. Planned publication of the review is Spring, 2017 in the Nebraska History Quarterly

Smith, Anita M., Woodstock History and Hearsay, p. 280, Print

Steiner, Raymond J., “The Magafan & Currie Clan at the Woodstock Artists and Association Museum,” Art Times, Summer, 2006, Web, Sep. 2016, Print

Trenton, Patricia, Independent Spirits, pp. 230-233, Print

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

Biography from the Archives of askART
Ethel Currie Magafan was born August 10, 1916 in Chicago and died April 24, 1993 per obit in the New York Times, April 29, 1993, per Wikipedia; “The husband and wife team of Bruce Currie and Ethel Magafan are currently exhibiting at the Joseloff Gallery at the Hartford Art School, through November 27…Ethel Magafan studied at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.

She utilizes large bold shapes to create a feeling that expresses the vitality of nature. The predominance of violet lends a cool serenity to the themes.” UH News, Liberated Press, November 20, 1968, p. 9; there is an oral history interview with her at the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, died C.; there are several references to her on historic LAT (ProQuest).

Source: Nancy Dustin Moure, "Santa Cruz Art League Statewide Art Exhibition Index, First through Twenty-seventh, 1928-1957 (Publications in California Art, No. 12)"

Biography from David Cook Galleries
Jenne and Ethel Magafan were identical twins, born in Chicago to a Greek immigrant father and a Polish mother. Due to health concerns about their father, the family moved to Colorado, living first in Colorado Springs and then in Denver. He was a proud supporter of their artistic ambitions but died suddenly 1932, a heavy blow to both of them. They attended East High School in Denver, where they found a mentor in their art teacher Helen Perry. She had studied at the Art Institute of Chicago but had later abandoned a career as an artist, making her all the more determined to help the Magafan twins succeed artistically.

While still in high school, the twins impressed artist Frank Mechau, and Helen Perry paid for their lessons with him. He subsequently invited them to apprentice with him at his Redstone studio. In 1936, Jenne won the Carter Memorial Art Scholarship and shared it with her sister so that they both could attend the Broadmoor Art Academy in Colorado Springs. Once they ran out of money, Mechau, now teaching there, hired them as assistants. Through their involvement at the Academy, the twins entered into careers as muralists, working at first with Mechau and then with Peppino Mangravite.

From 1937 to 1943, Ethel was commissioned to paint her first of seven government sponsored murals. Located in the US Post Office in Auburn, Nebraska, this commission made Ethel (at age 26) the youngest artist in America to receive such an honor. Denver Art Museum director Donald J. Bear once commented that "[Ethel and Jenne's] study of local detail makes them appear as little Bruegels of ranch genre - natural and unforced."

As mural painting commissions diminished, Ethel began to do more easel painting for which she used a palette knife and tempera paints to great effect. After settling in California for five years, the twins permanently relocated to Woodstock, New York in 1945, where the sisters lived apart for the first time. Ethel developed an increasing focus within her work, particularly for horses and abstract landscapes. She met fellow artist Bruce Currie at an artist's party, and the two were married in 1946.

The twins and their husbands went to Greece and Italy for a year when Jenne's husband and Ethel were granted Fulbright Scholarships. Upon their return, Jenne died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage — a loss that Ethel would mourn deeply. With her sister gone, her landscapes became much more abstract, as she sought out the feeling of the scene rather than an exact representation. During the mid-fifties, she began to make annual trips to Colorado. Her stature within the art world was solidified in 1971 when the United States Department of Interior requested that Ethel tour and draw sketches throughout the Western U.S. These sketches were later exhibited at the National Gallery in Washington and then sent on a national tour by the Smithsonian Institution.

Taught: Artist-in-residence, University of Georgia, Athens, 1973; Syracuse University, 1976.

Awards: Fulbright Grant, 1951.

Murals: Washington DC - Senate Chamber, Department of Health Education and Welfare, 1941; Post offices in Auburn, NE, (1938), Wynne, AR (1940), Madill, OK (1941), South Denver Branch, CO (1942).

Exhibitions: Denver Art Museum, 1938-40, 42, 43; "Artists of the West of the Mississippi", 1940, 41 & 45; Metropolitan Museum of Art; National Academy of Design, 1965-78.

Works Held: Denver Art Museum; Metropolitan Museum of Art; Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, Utica, NY; Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, OH; National Museum of American Art; Wichita Art Museum, Wichita, KS.

©David Cook Galleries, LLC

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About  Ethel (Currie) Magafan

Born:  1916 - Chicago, Illinois
Died:   1993 - Woodstock, New York
Known for:  abstract landscape and regionalist mural painting