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 Hazel Johnson Hannell  (1895 - 2002)

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Lived/Active: Indiana/Oregon      Known for: pottery, watercolor painting and woodblock prints

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Ad Code: 4
Hazel Johnson Hannell
Edge of Swamp, 1959, watercolor on paper 21 1/4" x 26 3/4"
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
Biography from Brauer Museum Of Art:
Hazel Hannell (Dec 31, 1895-Feb 6, 2002)

Born in LaGrange, Illinois on Dec 31, 1895, Hazel Hannell stood out in her community due to her talent in pottery, watercolor, woodblock prints, and environmental activism. Hazel started painting as early as age five, using her mother’s leftover paints. Throughout childhood she studied painting and by the command of her father, secretarial studies, since to him artistic wages were not predictable ones (Dodge 1996). While in high school, Mrs. Hannell also studied at the Saturday morning classes of the Art Institute of Chicago. She graduated from the Emma Church School of Art in Chicago.

For income Hazel and her friends worked for Marshall Field co. designing chintzes. During that time she developed a love of Oriental Art and tuned into the “effect of Divine Intelligence through nature on her heart and mind” (Dankook University of America). In 1987 Hazel revealed her inspiration to the Chesterton Tribune: “Hamada, a Japanese master potter, says you really ought not have to sign things, your works should be recognizably yours”(Willis). As Hamada, many of Hazel’s works lack signature. Works from earlier years such as her watercolor Self Portrait (1934) bear a signature in the same medium. It is worth noting that upon many of her works a penciled signature has been placed after their departure from her possession.

Hannel’s spirit as an activist took root during her college years. In a letter from her nephew Wilbert Reuter to former director of the Brauer Museum of Art, Dick Brauer, “There was great concern…when she brought disgrace and dishonor upon the entire family, and its name, by appearing in a public demonstration supporting women’s suffrage.”

Mrs. Hannell’s moral compass would lead the way toward great regional changes as well. While renting a studio from the Church School of Art on Michigan Avenue in Chicago in the 1920’s, Hazel met Vaino Hannell, a Finnish-American artist to whom she would marry on December 31, 1923. Often times for money the two were commissioned for a variation of small projects. While living in Chicago in the 20’s, the first pottery of the Hannells’ was a group of fountain tiles done for a Chicagoan architect Arthur Hoyne. Hazel recalls that the two “had a reputation for either being able to do things or knowing someone who could” and that they “did all kinds of things; from murals to papering wastebaskets” (Willis 1987). They even worked with Jane Adams and her kilns at the Hull House for some time.

Hazel was inspired to join the Prairie Club, an organization that aimed to ease the ills of industrialization, by a friend because she “admired her and her taste so much” (Randall 1983). On the weekends the Hannells visited the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore with a group of artists including Charles Biesel, Frances Strain, Harriet Rex Smith, and Jens Jensen, among others. The Dunes’ beauty also drew artists like Frank Dudley, whose paintings aided the Dunes preservation projects. Together they walked along the beach and documented its beauty. Her subject matter consists mainly of the flora and fauna in its natural habitat in the Dunes. The Hannells and Biesels were closely acquainted, and together they led a movement against the conservative jury system in connection with Chicago art exhibits in the 20’s (Drury 1960).

Vaino was part of The Ten, a radical group that had been instructed by George Bellows at the Art Institute in their production of controversial realism (Pendley 2002). The return back to natural subject matter during a time of industrialization was in itself a form of artistic rebellion.
In 1928 along with known artists Frances Strain, Fred Biesel, and Vin went on a trip to Paris and Finland. While there, they visited with the Dalstroms and the parents of Janet Sullivan, founder of the Art Barn and school of rural Valparaiso (Hannell 1994). This trip inspired her to repeatedly paint lily-of-the-valley, native to Vin’s home in Finland but also to the National Lakeshore.

After their return to the States, as well as many weekend trips to the Indiana Dunes to visit Biesel and Strain, Vin and Hazel were drawn to Furnessville, Indiana. World War I came and their financial situation made it necessary for the Hannells move to their getaway home near the Dunes in 1930. Hannell tried to get a secretarial job, but that soon ended. “I got fired for being impertinent,” Hazel said in an interview with the Seattle Times, “One of the foremen told me to do something and I was annoyed with him and I said, “I won’t,” even though I’d already done it.”

Within Hazel was a fire that would not go out. In Indiana, Hazel and Vin used that fire to run a pottery business. They created a potting studio from a chicken coop, lived off Vin’s government pension, and used the regional clay to gain an income from which a living could be sustained (Dodge 1996). Regionally in places like Chicago’s Merchandise Mart, Hazel’s work was featured throughout the 30’s (Procter 2006). This is where Hazel gained her fame. A wholesaler saw some of their work and offered her a business deal. Former director of Chesterton Art Center Gloria Rector reported, “Hannell once said that her clay pottery was their bread and butter during hard times” (Northwest Indiana Business Quarterly Magazine, 2013). “To make a living as a painter, you either have to be a salesman or have a salesman,” Hannell explained to the Vidette Messenger in ‘83, “Pottery sells itself” (Randle). The 1940’s brought that salesman: a New York agency offered to market it nationally, putting the Hannell’s work into department stores and gift shops all over the United States while providing them with a substantial allowance, as well as publicity (Griffith-Byers 1994).

It is true that many of Hannell’s works of pottery were for dinnertime, but the shape and design are identifiably hers. An article in Craft Ceramist Utopia from the 1950’s tells of her “stunning centerpieces of piled up artichokes, onions, peppers, etc., all done in a solid finish of gold of pewter with matching treatment in the dinner wear, enough to transport the buyer to the world of Cellini.” Oftentimes Hazel designed the pieces and Vin would fire them. Hannell’s method of applying the designs to her pottery involved an oriental brush with cobalt (blue), copper oxide (green), iron oxide (brown), and pewter glaze. The beauty of her cobalt pieces is known well among collectors of her work. Clem and Nixon Hall of New York, a designer-distributor organization, brought “their years of design and merchandising experience to the end that Hannell pieces fit market demands.”

A feature of the couple in The Gary Post-Tribune spoke of the Hannells’ open to the public studio in which, “Vin would probably be watching over the two electric kilns, where the articles are fired,” or would be checking “the infra-red, electric lamps, which provide a quick-drying method for the newly made cups and saucers”(Drury 1960). Her pieces are not perfect in form and often include bulges or indentations allowing for easy handling. This was done purposefully as a counter to the industrialization against which she often protested. “Some people seem to like the factory-made look,” she told the Chesterton Tribune, “I’m a little inclined not to bother with it; the pieces are more interesting if they’re not all exactly the same”(Willis 1987). Designs of dune grasses can be found, bending in the wind, flora such as the lily-of-the-valley, or privately done calligraphy. Hannell also designed a series of clay angels and women figures such as the Madonna from Indian red clay.

The environment of the Indiana Dunes held a beauty that could not be ignored by its population. In 1952 area residents began to hear that the area was being bought up by major steel making facilities. Hazel and Vin became charter members of the Save the Dunes Foundation, and in 1958 the first bill to preserve the Dunes was introduced after bus trips from Save the Dunes Council to testify before Congress. Hazel went on one of these trips to Washington D.C. along with founder Dorothy Buel. A video on the foundation of Save the Dunes talks about the women bringing a Dudley painting to Congress to show to the lawmakers the beauty of their homes. The Hannells even donated some of their land to the National Lakeshore, claiming they, “wanted Congress to know that the people who didn’t want it were not the majority here” (Urbanik, 2002).

Meanwhile she was capturing the beauty of the Indiana National Lakeshore in watercolor paintings in hopes that they would aid her audience’s value of the environment. Also in 1952, Chesterton held its centennial celebration as “Gateway Town of the Dunes” in connection with the Hannells, who promoted a tent show art exhibition (Drury 1960). The Modern Artist’s Guild, including members such as David Sander and Harriet Rex Smith had works in this tent as well. Gaining sponsorship by the Chesterton Retail Merchants’ Association, their tent show developed into the Chesterton Arts Fair, which is now one of the best juried shows in the United States (Procter 2006). By 1960 a group of the merchants and artists from the arts and crafts fairs developed into the Association of Artists and Craftsmen of Porter County. First chairman of this association was Ernst Schwidder, former head of the art department at Valparaiso University, which now holds over 35 works by Vaino and Hazel. Meetings for the Association of artists and Craftsmen of Porter County commonly took place in the home of the Hannells.

Hazel’s husband died in 1964 but she kept the business alive for 25 years in Furnessville until moving to Ashland, Oregon to live with Rex Smith. Hannell taught watercolor at the Clearing Folk School in Ellison Bay, Wisconsin. This position came from her connection with Jens Jenson, Prarie Club member, Chicagoan Architect and Artist. She also taught pottery in her studio in Furnessville and the Chesterton Art Gallery, until she moved. In the 1980’s Hannell rented a place in Ajijic, Mexico during the winter months where she went with many artists including Rex Smith, Elizabeth Murray, and Jan Sullivan. Sullivan commented on her ability to capture different greens in nature as unparalleled. Property previously owned by the Hannells was donated to the Indiana Dunes once Hazel moved away. Russ Nelson from Art & Frame in Valparaiso was the recipient and dealer for the works left behind by Hannell after her move to Oregon in 1988. Sullivan of the Art Barn in Valparaiso hosted a public farewell for Hannell when she left Northwest Indiana, although the friends still visited each other annually (Art Barn 1988). Once she arrived in Oregon, Hannell began documenting the wild flowers around the area using woodblock prints. Hazel agreed that the most interesting thing to do was roam the country side with her painting equipment, just as a retired Sung Dynasty Chinese high official or emperor himself were known to do (Dankook University). She was a part of the Chicago Society of Artists, which featured her prints in their 1971 calendar.

Since her departure brought many of the Hannells’ work into public hands, many museums such as the Brauer Museum of Art exhibited her works on several occasions. In 1986 they exhibited the watercolors Spring Rock Garden and Hapatica. The “Porter County’s Artists-Past and Present” exhibition was held in the Chapel of the Resurrection at Valparaiso University in the fall of 1988 which displayed “Edge of Swamp.” Some of Hannell’s floral studies were displayed in August 1989 at Moellering Library. The Ginny and Friends exhibit featured her work not long after in September of 1992. Also in 1992 Hazel was awarded a FRIENDS honorary membership, and donated her “Spring Snow” watercolor into the Brauer Museum of Art’s collection. Her “Self Portrait” from 1934 was donated to the same museum as a gift, and then shortly afterward there was a Sloan Gallery and Moellering Library exhibition put on that fall for Hazel’s works.

Dankook University had an exhibition done by their Institute of Asian Studies and Cultures which she took part in because of the inspiration for her works. Indianapolis Museum of Art, Northern Indiana Art Salon, Gary Southern Shores Exhibit, Dunes Art Foundation, and South Bend Art Center have also displayed her pottery, watercolors, and woodblock prints (Art Barn). In her public farewell, the Art Barn listed that her work was for sale or rental at the Chicago Art Institute, Collectors Showroom in Chicago, Station Gallery at Crown Point, and the Freight Station and Chesterton Art Gallery. Hazel died in 2002 and had her ashes spread on a mountainside covered in daffodils that she often planted (Urbanik). 

A year after she passed away, her paintings were donated to the Chesterton Art Center. Judy Greurich, the director, believed Hannell is indirectly responsible for a new roof on the Art Center building because of the sale of these. The Rogue Valley Symphony Guild also sold some of her paintings in order to help the Symphony flourish in 2002 (Mail Tribune). Even after her death, her ability to help her community with her talent carries on through its sale.

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