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 Roger Norman Medearis  (1920 - 2001)

About: Roger Norman Medearis
 

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Lived/Active: California/Missouri      Known for: regionalist painting, military drawing, lithography

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Ad Code: 3
Roger Norman Medearis
from Auction House Records.
BREAKING GROUND AT BETHEL
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
Biography from Kiechel Fine Art:
ROGER MEDEARIS

Roger Norman Medearis was born in Fayette, Missouri, on March 6, 1920, and during his childhood lived in a succession of small towns in Missouri and Oklahoma. From earliest memory he was fascinated by pictures. He had little access to the fine arts but by the mid 1930's he was so enchanted by story illustrations in the Saturday Evening Post that he spent many hours creating “tortured imitations” in gouache of the pictures he most admired.

In 1938, when he was eighteen, he enrolled in the Kansas City Art Institute, hoping to become an illustrator. There he met the celebrated artist Thomas Hart Benton and soon became his student and disciple. His goals as an artist were transformed by Benton's concept of Regionalism, and while still a student he made a number of paintings representing people and places that he knew through personal experience. These were sold (1940-41) in New York by Associated American Artists Galleries, where he had been introduced by Tom and Rita Benton. His last painting as a student, in 1941, was a portrait of his grandmother titled Godly Susan, which is now in the collection of the National Museum of American Art.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 brought his pursuit of familiar American subjects to a halt. Following Benton's example he set about painting a series depicting fascist atrocities. These paintings were exhibited in Kansas City and elsewhere, and were reproduced in newspapers in connection with civilian drives supporting the war. (The paintings were later destroyed though photographs still exist.)

In 1942, as the war continued, he was hired by the Navy Department and moved to Washington, DC, where he spent several years drawing battle charts for the United States fleet. His ability to interpolate, design and draw relief for navigational charts became so specialized that "it would be almost impossible to replace him". A letter from the Hydrographer (G.S. Bryan, Rear Admiral, U.S. Navy), dated June 15, 1945, states: "Although Mr. Medearis has repeatedly requested a release to join the armed forces, the Hydrographer denied it and requested deferment in his case due to his value to the war effort as a civilian employee."

After nearly three years he was released by the Navy Department to serve in the army. At Fort Bragg, North Carolina, he spent over a year making training charts for the Field Artillery. Thus by the war's end, he had served as an artist in three arenas: the civilian war effort, the navy, and the army.

Throughout the war years Medearis had longed for the time when he could return to art and soon after his discharge from the army in 1946, he moved with his new wife, Margery Schwarz, to Chester, Connecticut, and constructed a studio. As he worked during the following two years, he was unaware that the America he had known before the war had disappeared, and the Realism to which he was dedicated was rapidly giving way to new trends. Even so, seven paintings were sold at his first show, which opened on April 1, 1949 in New York City at Kende Galleries on 119 West 57th Street.

His second show opened on June 5, 1950, with results similar to the first. Included in the second show was a genre painting titled Family Reunion, which was exhibited later at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the show “American Painting Today 1950-1951.”

Critical notices were kind enough, and sales were promising, but the income from those sales was meager, and it became clear to him that his income was not likely to improve in the near future. As he visited the New York galleries he could see the magnitude of the trend away from Realism. At the Betty Parsons Gallery he saw the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock, an earlier student of Benton, and was baffled by the meaningless webs of paint. Like Rip van Winkle he struggled to comprehend what had happened to American art during his long absence. He had worked tirelessly in Connecticut, believing he could recover lost time through hard labor. But he now realized that he could not prevail, not for years to come, against the accelerating trend to Abstract Expressionism, nor could he ever part company with the Realists. Deeply depressed, he began to conceive of his career and his failing marriage as one and the same disaster. Finally, at thirty years of age, he made up his mind to abandon art, ¬to put away his paint and brushes and everything that reminded him of his earlier dreams.

Parting from his wife and infant son, Thomas, he returned to the Midwest where he found a job in the paper industry. For over ten years he avoided all contact with the world of art. As a salesman he traveled thousands of miles and lived in several states. Few of his business associates suspected that he had once been a serious artist with great expectations.

He was successful in business, and in 1958 he remarried and bought a home in Monterey Park, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. But by the early 1960's he found he could no longer isolate himself from his past. He began visiting art galleries and museums, and almost furtively he resumed painting in his spare time, working in his garage. Then in 1966 he built a complete studio and continued painting there, spending more and more time at the easel at night and on weekends.

At that time, in 1966, he received a phone call from Philip Desind, director of Capricorn Galleries in Bethesda, Maryland, and that began a relationship which lasted until Desind's death thirty years later.

"The first painting I ever saw by Roger Medearis was at David David Galleries in Philadelphia in 1966,” Desind wrote. "Sam David had acquired Family Reunion through an estate sale, I believe. He thought the artist was probably dead.” I couldn't get that painting out of my mind. For over two months I tried to find some trace of Medearis. I felt this was the work of a young artist and that he might still be living. Then it occurred to me to contact Thomas Hart Benton – the style showed his influence. “Yes,” Benton said, “Medearis was his finest pupil in the late 1930’s. He had recently been in touch with him. He was living in California and painting again.”

Following Desind's call, Medearis sent a still life painting titled L.A. Bouquet – the first of a flow of paintings, drawings, lithographs and bronzes, which comprised most of the artist's production for the next 30 years.

He recalls "I painted slowly, and Phil respected that. I never felt crowded. For the first several years, when a painting was finished and shipped I let Phil know it was coming, and sometimes rather than wait for delivery he would go to the freight office and pick it up. The arrival at Capricorn Galleries was a special occasion there and for me in California, and we celebrated together by telephone."

Medearis resigned from his position with Container Corporation of America early in 1969, and resumed his true identity. He picked up his brushes and began again, as if there had been no interruption. His medium continued to be egg tempera, his subjects the typical imagery of Midwestern Regionalism, and his style obviously derived from Benton. As time passed his medium changed to acrylics and finally to oils. His subjects changed from the Midwest to the Far West, from figures to landscapes. The last rudiments of his teacher's mannerisms (never a concern to Medearis) diminished until his own personal style became unmistakable.

Practically all of his art (with the exception of stone lithographs sold in other cities) was sold by Desind to private collectors in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC, during the 30-year period (1966 –1996). At times the gallery sent his paintings to exhibitions at the Butler Institute of American Art and to some others, but most of these paintings were borrowed from private owners. Periodically, Medearis shows were held at Capricorn. These were usually made up of one or more new paintings plus others previously sold to collectors but not exhibited before.

Medearis sold his home in 1975 following the death of his wife, Judith. (A portrait, Judith, is in the collection of the National Museum of American Art in Washington.) He was married to Elizabeth Burrall Sterling in 1976, and moved to San Marino, California, where his present studio is located. "Betty changed my life," he says. "She pushed me out into the great outdoors. We hiked the high camps of Yosemite, and down into the Havasupai tributary of the Grand Canyon, and roamed the states west of the Rockies.” He came to love the western landscape, especially the slopes and hills and mountains of California, and these became the subjects of his paintings, drawings and lithographs.

Roger Medearis - 1997

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