A look at how war affects an art and design school
Founded in 1866 on the heels of the Civil War, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) has endured through two World Wars, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, the First Gulf War, and the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—each one transforming the school in significant ways. Like other higher education institutions over this time, SAIC’s enrollment dramatically fluctuated during these wars—dwindling as students put their studies on hold to join the service and then rising again as veterans returned to their academic pursuits. Additionally, the psychological effects of wartime experiences have often manifested in the visual and cultural work of SAIC students and alumni who served in the military. Here is a look at how war has impacted SAIC, its students, faculty, curriculum, and community throughout its 150-year history.
Only one year after the end of the Civil War, a small group of Chicago artists met to discuss the formation of an art school. They lamented the fact that there was nowhere west of the Alleghenies where would-be artists could further their education. These artists began organizing classes, and three years later they established the Chicago Academy of Design, which would later be known as the Art Institute of Chicago.
Many of these founding artists had served in the Civil War. Henry Chapman Ford, Chicago’s “first landscape painter,” served as a soldier who prepared illustrated maps for the Union. Frederick Stuart Church enlisted in the Chicago Light Artillery unit. William M.R. French served in a Massachusetts regiment. After the war, he settled in Chicago, writing art reviews, delivering lectures, and in 1878 he became Secretary and then Director of the Art Institute until 1914.
Many of SAIC’s founding artists also depicted scenes from the Civil War. The most famous of these might be George P.A. Healy’s painting, The Peacemakers, which shows President Lincoln and Generals Sherman and Grant discussing the end of the war.
World War I
More and more artists migrated to Chicago throughout the late 19th century and early 20th century, and enrollment at SAIC steadily rose. In 1886 SAIC had 359 students; in 1893, that number increased to 929. By 1916, enrollment had skyrocketed to more than 4,000 students.
However, as World War I escalated and the US joined the Allies in 1917, SAIC’s student population decreased and became predominantly female. SAIC students responded to the Great War by forming the Students’ War Relief Association.
The group published a magazine called Crayon and Casque, which was mailed to the troops overseas. It gave them updates from SAIC and included a section called “Letters Received from Our Boys.” One SAIC student Frank Klepper, from Plano, Texas, wrote about serving in the camouflage unit of the 36th Infantry Division where he used his painting and drawing skills to design military camouflage.
The Students’ War Relief Association also raised money by organizing bazaars, plays, and lectures in order to supply the needs of students who were in the service—needs such as wool for socks and sweaters. Students contributed further to the war effort by designing posters, placards, and decorations for floats in conjunction with the American Red Cross.
Neysa McMein, who would become one of the most renowned American illustrators of her era, created posters and cartoons for the US and French governments as well as the Red Cross. She also traveled to Europe with the writer Dorothy Parker to entertain the troops. The US Marine Corps honored her with the title of noncommissioned officer—an honor only two other women received.
SAIC faculty member and founder of the Sculpture department, Lorado Taft, went to France as well to deliver a passionate lecture to the troops about the great works of art for which they were fighting.
Post-World War I
In 1919 an exhibit of work by students in the services was held at the Art Institute, and the War Relief Association hosted a Pageant of Peace on the Grand Stairway of the museum for the returning soldiers. Many artists, such as Ivan Albright, came back from the war profoundly affected. Prior to studying at SAIC from 1919 to 1923, Albright worked as a medical draftsman for a hospital in France during the war and this experience undoubtedly influenced the morbid style that would define his work.
Following the Great War, SAIC began to take a more pragmatic approach toward art education. The most significant development was a growing emphasis on industrial art, spurred on by the close of World War I and then the Depression. During the war, the skilled craftsmen of Europe were called to the front, and the supply of products that had been flowing steadily into American markets from abroad ceased. It soon became apparent this country lacked the trained artisans necessary to keep pace with its commercial demands and to prevent US dollars from being spent outside the country.
England alone had 37 industrial art schools, while the US had only three. Business and industry needed designers in the fields of textiles, rug and carpet weaving, linoleum production, metalwork, and the graphic arts of printing, lithography, poster making, and advertising. Advertising, in particular, was becoming a rapidly expanding enterprise. By 1929 SAIC established a School of Industrial Art, offering majors in all of these fields.
An equally important academic branch began in 1925 when the Goodman Theatre was built in memory of Lieutenant Kenneth Sawyer Goodman, an Art Institute employee who died during World War I in 1918. The school's Drama department had previously presented productions on the stage in Fullerton Hall of the museum. The Goodman Theatre provided a home for SAIC’s Department of Dramatic Arts, and the stage was at the time the largest in Chicago.
World War II
As the Depression continued and World War II broke out, SAIC was plagued by declines in enrollment. Some students enlisted almost at once; many others followed them during the course of the school year. The number of students dropped from 3,882 in 1938 to 3,213 in 1940. By 1943, at the height of the war, the student population had reduced to 1,769—many having left to join the service.
SAIC added special courses to the Evening School program for military and civilian use: mapmaking; illustrative drafting; design for occupational therapy; and visual educational techniques. SAIC alum Ivan Albright taught a Scientific Drawing class for servicemen. The school also conducted classes in first aid and other emergency measures.
To keep in touch with students who had gone off to war, SAIC started a short-lived newsletter called Behind the Lions. In the first issue, Dean Norman Rice writes: “The School greets all of you who are in uniform, hopes you have not completely abandoned your creative efforts…and offers you its instruction and classrooms if you can use them during a Chicago visit.” Dean Rice would leave SAIC in 1943 to serve as a commissioned Lieutenant in the Naval Reserve.
Some of the female students even decided to revive a custom from the days of chivalry—a knight riding into battle wearing a token from his lady. They sent tokens such as lipstick kiss prints, miniature hand-tinted photos, and sleeves from garments to overseas students.
In a letter published in Behind the Lions, SAIC student Private Al Rudis writes: “Imagine my surprise when on opening my newsletter from the “Tute” I came across a little white slip of paper bearing the imprint of a set of lips. Am I the winner of a jackpot, or the victim of some gag? I’d rather have the donor of the impressions, but there is some sort of regulation which forbids women, mustaches, and dogs in the barracks.”
Another student, Private Keith Hovis, says: “I saw some reproductions of Hitler’s paintings, and I want to know if Adolf is going to give up as soon with this war as he did with his “art.’”
On the home front, students and faculty had to get creative during wartime rationing and material shortages. Fashion students designed clothing out of sheets, curtains, and upholsteries; one even designed a wedding gown that could be turned into kitchen curtains for a newlywed couple’s home.
Post-World War II: Monster Roster
The period after World War II was productive for SAIC and other schools because of the great influx of veterans. Many of them had been in the mid-stream of their educational lives when the war broke out, and most of them returned to school through the GI Bill. Swelled by the ranks of returning GI’s, attendance at the school reached a record high. The maturity and high level of commitment of these ex-servicemen greatly increased the quality and professionalism of the work being done.
The artist Leah Balsham notes, “That period after the end of World War II was really remarkable. The Gl’s had come back. They had a certain strength of character, and they welcomed the fact that they were alive every day. It was a tremendous period.”
One core group of students started creating work that seemed to be influenced by the war. Led by Leon Golub, who served as a mapmaker for the Eighth Air Force, these artists were dubbed the Monster Roster because of their distorted figuration, existential leanings, and mythological themes. Their work put Chicago on the art world map and directly influenced the Chicago Imagists of the 1960s.
Monster Roster member George Cohen initially studied at SAIC from 1938 to 1940, but then his academic career was interrupted while he served in the Army with the 63rd Reconnaissance Troop. He returned to SAIC and completed his BFA in 1946.
Another SAIC artist Tom Kapsalis (BA 1949, MA 1957) was a prisoner of war in Germany, captured during the Battle of the Bulge. Kapsalis returned to SAIC after the war—he graduated in 1949 and taught at the school from 1954 to 1975. He says, "I was a Gl myself. It seemed like we all had gone through something. I was over in Germany, and coming back here, you really wanted to forget the war. And art was something that was very important to us. I guess it was something like therapy."
Healing through Art
When Kapsalis was referring to art as therapy in the late 1940s, the term “post-traumatic stress disorder” had yet to be coined. “Shell shock” or “battle fatigue” was commonly used, but it wasn’t until after the Vietnam War that the disorder was officially defined. Today PTSD is an acknowledged effect of war, and art therapy is a common treatment.
Currently, SAIC has 26 students who are veterans, 18 of whom are attending on the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Most of them are enrolled in studio programs, pursuing their degrees in the fine arts. They use art to not only improve their mental health and wellbeing, but to cultivate a supportive community of other artists.
In summer 2015 SAIC introduced a three-week intensive course called Intro to Art for Veterans. Developed with the support of Vice Provost and Dean of Community Engagement Paul Coffey, the class was taught by SAIC alum and veteran Richard Casper (BFA 2012). He served as a Marine Corporal in the Iraq War, returning home from active duty in 2007 after sustaining injuries from four IED explosions. Casper came to SAIC in 2010 and he describes his time at the school as life changing. He says, “By the time I graduated, my anxiety and depression were gone.” Now he runs a program called CreatiVets, which uses art, music, and writing to address psychological and emotional needs that arise from combat-related trauma.
Six veterans signed up for the summer course, and they had full access to the school’s studios and equipment. Some of the vets, like Walt Cronin who served in the Vietnam War, had previous exposure to studio arts. Others like Gino Soto and Bree Fuller—both veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars—had no prior experience. They came to the program with an open mind. Soto says, “I’ve gone from suppressing to expressing my emotions.”
Fuller says, “A lot of us have lost more buddies to suicide than in combat. It’s a struggle every day for veterans.” She plans to continue exploring creative outlets when the class is over. And Richard Casper is looking for ways to expand the program at SAIC and with other universities across the country.
The Intro to Art for Veterans course illustrates how SAIC has responded to war throughout its history. The school has developed new courses and even new departments to meet the demands of war and returning veterans; it has trained the military’s skilled artists and designers and provided support for the troops; and it has provided an education and, more importantly, a creative environment for artists in uniform to express themselves and make work that changes how we think about war.