Alexander Simeon Masley was born 1903 in Akeley, Minnesota. One of three brothers born to parents who immigrated from what then was Czechoslovakia, he grew up in Minneapolis. His parents encouraged his artistic talents and supported him as he began his art education at the University of Minnesota and the Minneapolis School of Art.
During classes at the Minneapolis School of Art (1925 to 1929), Masley won the Ethel Morrison VanDerlip foreign traveling scholarship in 1929 and studied with Hans Hofmann at the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Arts in Munich, Germany, from 1930 to 1931. Masley concentrated on printmaking during these years, and became a leading wood engraver whose prints were noted for their compelling technical skill and stylistic compositions of workers and Minnesota landscapes.
A 1935 catalogue by the Weyhe Gallery in New York City listed Masley along with Rockwell Kent as among the primary woodcut artists whose works it offered for purchase. Four years later, the San Francisco Art Association, in a 1939 exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art, awarded Masley the purchase prize for his entry, a wood engraving entitled Earth Fruit.
After studying with Gilbert Rhode in New York, Masley went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota in 1941, and postgraduate degrees from Columbia University in 1948.
As Masley was earning a doctorate at Columbia, the University of New Mexico invited him to launch its Department of Art Education in Albuquerque, which Masley headed until his retirement. A few years after he vacated the departmental chairmanship in 1969, the university formally named the art education building and its art gallery after Alexander S. Masley and held a huge dedication ceremony for officials, faculty, students and family which the artist was able to enjoy. Masley donated a large collection of his art, including oil paintings and acrylics, sand paintings, early wood engravings and wood-block prints, to the university. Another large art donation to the university was made by Dr. Masley’s surviving family after he died in 1996.
He was a prolific artist. His interests lead him to focus on faces, birds and ballet dancers. He also experimented with ink, acrylics and latex paint and sand and designed unique tablecloths made of non-woven fabric. Typically, Masley made all the frames for his art. He studied home construction so he could build two art studios, a patio, a bathroom and a carport for his family home in Albuquerque, which Masley decorated with furniture he designed and built after he learned how to weld.
As a teacher, Masley held positions at the Minneapolis School of Art; the Stillwater (Oklahoma) Art Colony; the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis; the Department of Fine Arts, University of Montana; the Department of Art Education, University of Texas; the University of Wyoming, and Columbia University.
More than Masley’s artistic creations left a lasting impression on people. He was, after all, also a teacher of art and art education.
“I still remember your classes” in Minneapolis, artist Lester F. Johnson wrote to Masley in 1987, “and have always considered it was you who gave me a solid foundation for my paintings. I was lucky.”
A 1961 article on Lester Johnson in the magazine Art News described an incident involving Masley during Johnson’s early years studying at the Minneapolis Art Institute. “One of [Johnson’s] teachers there was Alexander Masley, a lively stimulating person now at the University of New Mexico. After a time there was a big political fight within the Institute and Masley was kicked out. Lester Johnson and a fellow student, Jim Forsberg, decided to study with Cameron Booth (like Masley, a former student of Hans Hofmann in Munich) at the St. Paul School of Art,” the Art News article states.
New Mexico artist Clinton Adams, in his book “Printmaking in New Mexico 1880-1990,” found it “curious” that Masley, “the most respected printmaker on the UNM faculty, did not teach printmaking….Masley, whose fine wood engravings and etchings had brought him acclaim in the 1930s, had come to Albuquerque in 1947 to found and chair a department on art education separate from the department of art,” Adams writes.
A local Minnesota publication reprinted a number of Masley’s early woodcuts in 1982 and described his young life as an artist. The Dalles Visitor newspaper quotes a 1929 article from the Minneapolis Journal: “Working from 5 o’clock in the morning until 8 and from 6 p.m. until dark in a tiny studio rented for $5 per month, Alexander Masley developed the technique of wood engraving which won for him the award last week of the Ethel Morrison VanDerlip traveling scholarship from the Minneapolis School of Art….While Masley was abroad studying at the Central School of Art in London, he worked with artists in the English Wood Engraving Society and exhibited some of his work with theirs.” After studying with Hans Hofmann, Masley “taught at the Minneapolis School of Art and the Walker Art Center, and he returned during the summers to Josephine Lutz Rollins’ St. Croix Valley art colony at Afton between 1935 and 1939 at Stillwater.”
Besides the purchase prize Masley won in San Francisco in 1939, his art has won awards at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Seattle Art Museum, and the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, among others.
Over the years, his art has been included in group exhibitions at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, New York World’s Fair (1936), Philadelphia Museum of Art (1939), the National Gallery of Art "Art in War" (1942), the Art Institute of Chicago (1942), Metropolitan Museum of Art "Portrait of America" exhibition (1944), the Museum of Fine Arts, Santa Fe museum (1948), Jonson Art Gallery, Albuquerque, solo show (1950), Museum of New Mexico Art Gallery (1950), Prang Studio, New York, solo show (1952), the Dallas Museum of Art (1957), the Jonson Gallery, University of New Mexico (1964 and 1982), and the University of Oregon (1964), Downtown Center for the Arts, Albuquerque (1980).
His works are held in collections at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art (prints), the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota (prints), the Walker Art Center (painting), the Minnesota Historical Society (etchings, wood engravings, wood-block prints), the Dallas Museum of Art (print), the Portland (Ore.) Art Museum (monotype), the Spencer Museum of Art (print) at the University of Kansas, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (print), the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History (acrylic painting), and the University of New Mexico (prints and paintings).
Information courtesy of the artist's son.