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 Agnes Howell Ferguson  (1895 - 1985)

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Lived/Active: Illinois      Known for: portrait, still life and landscape painting

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Agnes (Howell) Ferguson  (1895-1985)

Agnes at the age of eight knew her goal was to be an artist.  She graduated from Dixon High School in 1912 and went to The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston where she studied for two years under Philip Hall.  She also took dance lessons, guitar lessons, played tennis and was an avid photographer.  During summer vacation she was in an car accident and during her convalescent year she studied with John Nolf and the Grand Detour art group; then went on to study for two more years at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts.

She attended St. Luke’s Church where she was baptized, confirmed and married in 1925 to Ralph Ferguson.   Ralph and Agnes built a home in Grand Detour which they called “Dune On The Rock” where she painted whimsical flowers, vines and leaves on the walls.   On the patio, which overlooked the river, she painted a large-scale map of the area including “le grande detour” – the three-mile oxbow in the river for which the town is named – as well as local streets and roads.
One of her mentors was Oscar Soelner a Chicago artist who spent summers in Grand Detour and encouraged her to enter the art shows at the Chicago Art Institute where her art was accepted.  This acceptance in the Chicago art scene was a turning point in her career.  At that show she saw the art of  George Elmer Brown and went to Provincetown, Mass. to study with him for eight weeks, where she did some of her most provocative paintings.   In a letter to Fred Garner another Grand Detour artist Oscar wrote, “ If there ever was a true fellow-artist, and a natural born one, of trait and spirit, it’s Fergy…”  Oscar found an article in an art journal written by Florence Guggenheim for the New York Times about the ‘Art Out West’ it was a long and technical critique of one Agnes’ portrait studies of a young boy the last line in the article was “Another closer look – you observe that delicate mysticism, that delicate suggestiveness-.”  Oscars comment was “Sure is breath-taking and Fergy is deserving.  She is more than a one-dimensional painter – and has a technique of her own.”

The little village of Grand Detour was a great factor in the evolution of her artist dreams where she had a number of one-woman shows and she participated in the Grand Detour annual art show up until 1984.  Plain Air Painting with the other Grand Detour artists was a wonderful beginning to her artist career.

In 1955 Agnes and her sister Beatrice and friend Ester Rogers drove to Ogunquit, Mass. to show Agnes’s painting in the 35th Annual Exhibition of Painting.  In 1958 Agnes entered the Chicago Artist’s Show at Navy Pier and was awarded an Honorable Mention her painting being one of 2500 paintings.  She was active for thirty years with the Rockford Art Association.  She had two one-woman shows at the Burpee Gallery in Rockford.  In 1936 the association gave a dinner to honor Agnes and the three other members whose painting were accepted by the Chicago Art Institute show that year.  That year she was in the publication Who’s Who In American Art.

She painted portraits of Judge Harry Edwards and Judge Bethea, Katherine Shaw, Mabel Shaw, Helen Brinton and Bess Eels.  These paintings were donated to KSB by the artist.  In cooperation with the Service Club Auxiliary, she did a panel of murals for KSB Nursery also as a donation.

She joined the Phidian in 1927 and was on the first committee of the Phidian 1947 Annual Art Show and served on the committee for many years.  She gave programs on art one titled “Technique-Tempera and Oil” another “An Artistic Viewpoint.”  In 1976 she design the portrait of a pioneer woman for the Bronze Plaque presented as a Bicentennial gift to the Loveland collection.  In 1977 she became an Honorary Member of the Phidian having served for 50 years.  She remained active up until her death in 1985.

The writer and art critic, John A. Lindhorst, in Agnes Ferguson: Portrait of an Artist, had this to say: “The paintings of Agnes Ferguson show great talent and tremendous insight into life.  Her portraits reflect a feeling that very few artists can capture.  She has reached a level that so many artists fail to reach.  She paints landscape and still life with the same expression as her portraits.  Therefore, all her work seems to come to life.  Her talents show through no matter which style she is employing.  Her realistic paintings show the skill of a seasoned artist.  Her abstract works reflect the eternal youth within her.  Her love of beauty is evident in everything she does….”  “Agnes is rather shy and extremely modest.  She constantly states that she is just an ordinary person.  My impression of her in these initial introductions was that she was quiet and withdrawn.  However, in her own home she is quite the opposite.  She laughs much, talks fluidly, jokes and is very active.”  This was written when Agnes was 85 years old and still exhibiting in the Grand Detour Art Festival.

Agnes had come of age in the ‘20s and been exposed to all the art movements of the post-world war I era.  She experimented with Expressionism and Impressionism, borrowed from each….added an occasional touch of mysticism… and created her own style.  Her mentors were Oscar Soelner, John Nolf, Mattie Leitz, Fredrick Garner, Holger Jensen and her painting friends were Hazel Howell, Eunice Schuler and Charles Kested.

Duane Paulsen

Information provided by Tom Shaw.

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