Kathleen Blackshear was an influential artist and teacher who inspired generations of SAIC students.
Kathleen Blackshear (1897–1988) was an influential artist and teacher, who studied under, and later taught beside, renowned art historian Helen Gardner.
Blackshear was born in Navasota, Texas and raised on a southern farm. The memories of this farm resulted in, years later, African American figures as the subjects of her paintings.
Blackshear’s painting style was influenced by Cézanne, Seurat, the cubists, and African textile art. She began attending SAIC in 1924 and studied under John Norton, Charles Fabens Kelley, William Owen, and Helen Gardner, where she developed a unique painting style. Gardner introduced her to African and Asian art that would go on to further shape Blackshear’s style and eventually her career.
In 1926 Blackshear was hired to teach art history under the direction of Gardner, and the two women became close friends. Blackshear shared Gardner’s idea of art history being more closely related to art than history. They brought students to the Oriental Institute and the Field Museum of Natural History to study non-Western art—among the first art educators, rather than anthropologists, to do so. As a result, they greatly influenced the style that emerged among Chicago artists during the 1940s and the 1950s. Blackshear rejected academicism in her art and teaching, and was remembered for the warm support and encouragement that she offered her students.
One of Blackshear’s students, Ann Grill, described her: "Miss Blackshear, a sturdy lady from Texas...always wore tailored suits and was direct and economical in her description of paintings and sculpture. Miss Blackshear also taught studio classes and it was in her Drawing and Composition class that students learned to see and know abstract forms.”
She earned her Master of Fine Arts in 1940 from SAIC as a member of the first class of MFA candidates. During her graduate studies, she began experimenting with ceramics, enamels, and the batik process.
Blackshear retired from teaching in 1961, and received the title of Professor Emerita from SAIC seven years later. Her work as an artist and teacher was honored with the 1990 retrospective exhibition A Tribute to Kathleen Blackshear, organized by SAIC. Her work is included in many distinguished museums, including the Art Institute of Chicago, and she is featured in frequent retrospectives