Roger Medearis: The Evolution of an Artist

The life and artistic career of Roger Medearis speaks to his ability to adapt to his environment while simultaneously continuing to develop and pursue a unique style. Born in Fayette, Missouri on March 6, 1920, Medearis found artistic inspiration in even the most unlikely environments. Living in several small towns around Missouri and Oklahoma did not offer the fine arts exposure that a budding artist usually needs to thrive, however, he overcame this challenge and capitalized on what was available. The Saturday Evening Post provided illustrations by Norman Rockwell to study and practice and so he spent many hours recreating the illustrations in gouache.

By 18, he enrolled in the Kansas City Art Institute where he studied under famed artist Thomas Hart Benton. Under Benton’s guidance, his style transformed from illustration to Regionalism. The focus of his works shifted to the people and places of the midwest that he understood. While still a student, he was able to sell his works, with the help of Tom and Rita Benton, in New York at the Associated American Artists Galleries. His most famous painting from his early career was a portrait of his grandmother titled Godly Susan (1941) which is now in the Smithsonian American Art collection. The painting was completed in the Regionalist style and reflected his apprehensions of the future. Medearis sensed the tensions of a world on the brink of change, commenting on the work later in life, “I was 21 and my life was just beginning. She was 81 – her life would soon be ending. That year, America entered [World War II] and nothing would ever be the same again!”

goldy susan

Roger Medearis, Godly Susan, 1941, Tempera, 27.63 x 23.63 inches, Smithsonian American Art Museum

With the outbreak of war and the Japanese attack on Pear Harbor in December 1941, his traditionally Regionalist pursuits ceased as he turned his attention to depicting the fascist atrocities that the war was confronting. These unusual paintings were exhibited in Kansas City among other places, and were utilized in newspapers to report civilian war support.

In an effort to more directly contribute to the war effort, he was hired by the Navy Department in 1942 to work as a civilian employee producing battle charts for the United States fleet. He spent several years in Washington, D.C. working in this capacity although he desired release to serve in the army. A letter form 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.”  His skill in designing and drawing relief for navigational charts had made him irreplaceable. After three years, he was finally released by the Navy Department and joined the army. At Fort Bragg, North Carolina, he created training charts for the Field Artillery.

He was discharged from the army in 1946 and anxious to resume his art, however, he returned to find stark differences in the tastes and preferences of the art world he had left in 1941. He and his new wife, Margery Schwarz, moved to Connecticut where he built a studio and worked on a new body of work. He opened two shows in New York City in 1949 and 1950 respectfully which were deemed unanimously successful. The second show included a genre painting titled Family Reunion (1950) which was exhibited in the show “American Painting Today 1950-1951” by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

FamilyReunion-Color

Roger Medearis, Family Reunion, 1990, Hand-colored lithograph, 14.00 x 20.00 inches, $1,850.00, Kiechel Fine Art

After the shows, meager sales began to reflect the reality of the American art market: the Regionalist style was no longer in favor. Instead, the quaint subjects and realist approach of the Regionalists was being marginalized by the growing popularity of Abstract Expressionism. During this time period, Medearis worked tirelessly to recoup his success and briefly experimented with a Surrealist style. After viewing the celebrated work of Jackson Pollock, an earlier student of Benton, at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York, he was unable to appreciate the theoretical movement of Pollock’s paintbrush and retired from art.

At the age of 30, he left his failing marriage and art career in the Upper East Coast and returned to the Midwest. For over ten years, he neglected his art and pursued a career as a traveling salesman. After finding success in business, he moved to California in 1958. California provided a rich environment of art museums and galleries which inspired him to begin painting again. by 1966, he built a studio and dedicated more time to his art.

Again with the help of Benton, Medearis was contacted by Philip Desind of Capricorn Galleries in Maryland. Desind had discovered his work at David David Galleries in Philadelphia while they exhibited Family Reunion (1950). According to Desind, “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.”

A mutually-beneficial relationship formed between Medearis and Desind at Capricorn Galleries. With Desind’s encouragement, Medearis produced more paintings, drawings, lithographs, ceramic sculptures, and bronzes than ever before. At first, he defaulted to  Midwestern Regionalism learned from Benton and primarily used egg tempera. Over time, however, his medium transitioned to acrylics and oils and he began to draw inspiration from the California landscape that now surrounded him. At last, his own unique style emerged as he distinguished himself from the great master and teacher, Thomas Hart Benton.

In 1976, he married Elizabeth (Betty) Burrall Sterling and moved to San Marino, California where remnants of his final studio still exist today. “Betty changed my life. She pushed me out into the great outdoors. We hiked the high camps of Yosemite, and down into the Havasupai tributary of the Grant Canyon, and roamed the states west of the Rockies.” The scenes of western America became his concluding subject matter, “He was pretty attached to the landscape, and to the change of light,” Betty says, “a few weeks before he died, he was still painting.”

Roger Medearis died in July 2001.

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