The Interview Issue | Scott A. Shields

The curator of the Crocker Art Museum talks about a new exhibit on one of California’s most progressive female artists

E. Charlton Fortune in her studio at Portsmouth Priory, Rhode Island, c. 1950. Photographer unknown. Photograph courtesy of James R. Fortune.

E. Charlton Fortune in her studio at Portsmouth Priory, Rhode Island, c. 1950. Photographer unknown. Photograph courtesy of James R. Fortune.

This story was featured in the March 2018 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art March 2018 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

E. Charlton Fortune: The Colorful Spirit, the largest exhibition to date of work by California painter and ecclesiastical designer E. Charlton Fortune (1885-1969), runs through April 22 at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento. The show was organized by the Pasadena Museum of California Art and curated by Scott A. Shields, the Crocker’s associate director and chief curator. We spoke with Shields about the outspoken, ahead-of-her-time artist, whose first name was Euphemia—friends called her Effie—and who was not displeased when writers and critics assumed her paintings were done by a man. Shields describes Fortune’s art as “some of the most beautiful California paintings that have ever been made.”

How did this exhibition come together, and why is it happening now? It’s been a project long in the works for me, and then the Pasadena Museum of California Art thought they would like to do a show. It had been quite a long time since the last Fortune show, which wasn’t very large or comprehensive. So it just seemed like a really good time to showcase this pivotal California artist that everybody loves so much.

What’s the scope of the show? There are paintings from every phase of her career, as well as liturgical pieces. There are 85 pieces in the show—about 70 of those are paintings, including 60 easel paintings.

what stands out for you about Fortune as an artist? Her technical abilities, which were really immense, and also the subjects she took on. It’s a modern approach to landscape painting that most Californians hadn’t quite adopted yet. Her paintings are really more about the urban and human presence. She does these scenes—for example, a fish cannery—that could be something not especially beautiful, but she turns it into something that you never tire of looking at.

What’s interesting about her as a person? She was very progressive, always pushing the boundaries of her station. Some of the articles of the time were confused [about her gender] and most of them, even if they knew she was a woman, would talk about how “virile” and “masculine” her paintings were. She sort of liked that leveling of the playing field because women didn’t always have the same opportunities in terms of exhibition and recognition. Also, a lot of her works feature women doing things—being fisherwomen, mending nets, out in the landscape, tending animals, picking apples. She’s not seeing her women as playthings for men. She had a wicked sense of humor and was very outspoken, even by male standards of the time.

You’ve said she was a mover and shaker in liturgical design reform in the United States. How was her design different from what others had been doing? At first, there really were no others. She was always a Catholic, and she did not like the way churches were being decorated. At the time, churches would find their interior decorations through catalogs, and most of it was very Victorian, sentimental, sugary—things like lace and painted polychrome sculptures that all sort of looked alike. Her first church commission was for St. Angela Merici church in Pacific Grove. She was invited to paint the altar because they knew her as a painter. Pretty soon she found herself redesigning much of the whole interior. A lot of people in the past have thought she had some kind of religious conversion, which was not the case. The Great Depression happened, she realized her paintings weren’t as cutting edge as they once were, and she knew many people wouldn’t be buying paintings in this bad economy. But churches are always going to need decorations.

How would you describe her style of liturgical art? I’ll use her words. She wanted it to be “simple, honest, and strong.” It’s not austere; it’s beautiful but clean.

If you were to pick out a single piece in the show that most intrigues you, what would it be? Hmm. I think I love all of them. One in particular that I think is really striking is called PICKING APPLES. It includes a lot of things that she did well. It’s very colorful. It’s a scene of Monterey, looking down over the town, and has lots of architecture. It has two women on either side of a fence, and one is about to pass an apple to the other. I sort of read this as women working in tandem, one woman passing knowledge to the other. —Interviewed by Gussie Fauntleroy

This story was featured in the March 2018 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art March 2018 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

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