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 Lela Powers Briggs  (1896 - 1953)

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Lived/Active: Iowa/Georgia      Known for: watercolor painting, commercial art, ceramics, doll making

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Ad Code: 4
Lela M. (Mrs. Wilbur A.) Briggs
from Auction House Records.
Spring Thaw
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Lela Powers Briggs (1896-1953) -- student

Born in the small Iowa town (Powersville) founded by her grandfather, Lela Powers was the daughter of Leonard J. Powers, a local businessman who founded Powers Manufacturing Company in 1902, headquartered in Waterloo, Iowa, where Lela spent her childhood. Gifted in sketching and drawing, the young artist frequently signed her early creations, and while enrolled at East High School (1911-1915), served as an art editor for both the yearbook and school's literary magazine.

Following graduation, Powers attended the Art Institute of Chicago* (1915-1916, 1917-1918) and had her studies briefly interrupted by a serious illness that forced her to return to Iowa. While recovering, Powers continued her studies at Iowa State Teacher's College (the University of Northern Iowa), enrolled for the spring semester in 1917. 

Lela married Wilbur Briggs in July 1918, and the couple made their home in Waterloo while both were employed with Powers Manufacturing. Lela's particular talents and responsibility created both the covers and illustrations for the company's catalogs during the next thirty years. Determined to continue her art training while raising two young sons, Briggs completed a commercial design correspondence course offered by the Federal School in Minneapolis (1926); she was also a founding member of the Waterloo Art Association (1932). The latter organization afforded her the opportunity to build a lifelong friendship with Nellie Gebers, a Lincoln, Iowa artist, well-known for paintings of rural landscapes.

In 1933, Lela Briggs and Nellie Gebers attended the second session of the Stone City Art Colony*, rooming together in the refurbished, Green Mansion. Both women later attended a special summer session offered by Grant Wood (1934); Briggs' talents in watercolors were evident to the master painter and her colleagues. She received honors at the Iowa Art Salon, Iowa State Fair (1935, 1938, 1939) and was one of the first artists exhibited at the new, Iowa Art Gallery (1940) in Cedar Falls.

The summer of 1935 found Lela's family relocating to a dairy farm outside La Porte City, Iowa, where her husband was raised; Lela remained there, managing the farm and continuing her life as an artist. She participated in the All Iowa Honorary exhibit (Mount Vernon, Iowa, 1940), where she received the gold medal award; first place honors came at the All Iowa Honorary exhibit in Cedar Falls (1941). Briggs' activities also included a series of solo exhibits in north, central Iowa (1940-1947) and numerous two person shows with Nellie Gebers (1939, 1944, 1946).

Showings of her watercolors also occurred at the Waterloo Art Association's gallery (1945, 1951, 1953), Wartburg College (Waverly, Iowa, 1949), Iowa State Teacher's College (1942, 1946), the Blanden Memorial Art Museum (Fort Dodge, Iowa, 1945-1947), the Iowa State Fair's Iowa Art Salon (1941, 1947-1948), and in various galleries in Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Iowa.

While visiting the University of Georgia (Athens campus) in 1953, Lela Briggs audited a lithography* course taught by a former Stone City art colony instructor, Francis Chapin, and frequently used southern imagery in her later paintings. Briggs frequently used her upstairs bedroom as a studio and created molds using blue clay native to her family's farm. Her considerable talents included ceramics and doll making; the doll collection featured hand-stitched clothing and heads created by the artist.

Her well-known watercolors achieved a strong reputation for quality and were especially popular among military officers training in Cedar Falls, Iowa during World War II.

Briggs died in October 1953, and the Lela Briggs Memorial Fund was immediately established by the Waterloo Art Association, honoring her legacy.  Retrospectives of her work occurred at the Cedar Falls Art Association Gallery (1953), the Des Moines Art Center (1954), the Memorial Union at Iowa State University (1955), the Grout Museum (Waterloo, Iowa, 1957, 1960), and the Waterloo Art Association Gallery (1966, 1975, 1994).

"When Tillage Begins:The Stone City Art Colony and School", Published online October 2003 by the Busse Library, Mount Mercy University, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

* For more in-depth information about these terms and others, see Glossary

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