East Aurora Paint and Varnish Club (c.1904-c.1935) now the East Aurora Art Society (1953-Present), had its humble beginnings in the early 1900’s when it was originally organized by the Roycroft artist Alexis Jean Fournier (American, 1865-1948). Soon after Fournier had arrived in East Aurora, NY in 1903 to work at Elbert Hubbard’s famed Roycroft Arts & Crafts Campus, he decided to form a local Paint and Varnish Club. The club was co-organized by fellow Roycroft artist Eleanor Douglas (Canadian-American, 1872-1914) and a select few artists met regularly at Eleanor’s School House Studio which was located at 48 Douglas Lane (originally 61 Hamburg Street, Willink, NY), now East Aurora, NY.
Though it seems the Club didn’t last very long, it was later revived around 1917 by Merle D. James (American, 1890-1963), whose daughter Betsy married the famous American artist Andrew Wyeth. James was the art director of the Roycroft and designed for the FRA and other Roycroft publications from 1917-1924. He then became the Advertising Manager and Editor of the Rotogravure Department of the Buffalo Courier-Express.
Upon moving to East Aurora in 1917, James called together a number of his artist friends to paint and discuss art, and they would meet on Sunday mornings. Around 1920, the Club started meeting at the newly built studio of Merle D. James which had recently been added to his home called “Harmony Castle” located at 819 East Fillmore Avenue in East Aurora (Harmony Hill). The studio was complete with a skylight, stone fireplace and a large painting area to accommodate the members. By then, membership had grown to about 15-20 members and Fournier continued as an active member of the group. Other notable artists included: Karl Kipp (American, 1881-1954) and Walter Jennings (American, 1878-1963) of Roycroft Arts & Crafts fame, architect & painter Robert North (American, 1882-1968), Rixford Jennings (American, 1906-1996), son of Walter Jennings, the illustrator Margaret Evans Price (American, 1888-1973), Larkin illustrator Charles Rohrbach (Swiss-American, 1892-1967), and the artist & entomologist William Wild (German-American, 1875-1966).
Around 1927, the artists met in James’ studio to discuss the ways of amalgamating and exhibiting their work locally. By the fall of that same year they had their 1st Annual Exhibition of the East Aurora Paint and Varnish Club. The exhibition lasted for three days and was held in the Board of Trade Rooms Gymnasium, Clement Hall (now the Boys & Girls Club) in East Aurora, NY.
After 1928, the Club met at the studio cabin of Roycroft founder Elbert Hubbard, which was then known as “The Little Journey’s Cabin”. The small cabin was nestled in the woods and less than 30 minutes from East Aurora. It was Hubbard’s quiet retreat away from his busy family life at home and the Roycroft Campus so that he could write his articles and essays. It was outfitted with a wood stove for the winter and it was also a popular destination for visitors of the Roycroft Inn during the early 20th Century.
From research, the Club exhibited annually from 1927-1931, but only three exhibition references have been found from old newspaper articles, to include: The 'First Annual' in 1927, followed by the 'Third Annual' in 1929 and the 'Fifth Annual' in 1931, so I suppose it is safe to assume there was a Second Annual in 1928 and the Fourth Annual in 1930, though no specific reference has been found yet to date. The shows garnered wide attention throughout the region not only for some of its more famous and distinguished members, but for the high-quality of meritorious work that was exhibited. Club activity slowed considerably during the Depression years and had all but dissolved by the mid 1930’s, with the exception of a few original members and select artists who continued to meet on Sundays at the “Bungle House” studio of Alexis Fournier, located at 54 Walnut Street in East Aurora. At that point, the Club had become more of a social institution than an active working studio group.
In 1939, original members of the Paint and Varnish Club got together and revived the old Club under the new name of the East Aurora Artists' Club and they sponsored an art exhibit titled the “East Aurora Artists’ Art Show” at Clement Hall from June 4-11, of that year. The show included works by 40 artists and was open to all area artists, many of whom were former members of the Paint and Varnish Club. Merle D. James was in charge of the arrangements and Carl Bredemeier was the chairman of hanging and judging. The display featured various mediums including; oils, watercolors, etchings, wood cuts, drawings, sculpture, art crafts, hand-tooled copper, leather and wood carvings. The show honored the late Roycroft artist Sandor Landeau (Hungarian-American, 1864-1924) by displaying his oil painting of “Ali Baba”, the well-known local character made famous by the Roycroft founder Elbert Hubbard. The group later exhibited in 1941, from November 16-23, under the new name of the East Aurora Society of Artists—which is the first time that particular incarnation of their name was mentioned in any newspaper articles with artist Carlo Nisita listed as president of the group—held in co-operation with the village Board of Trade in observance of National Art Week, at the Board of Trade Building, Main Street, East Aurora, NY. The group exhibited over 100 paintings, as well as scultures, metalcraft, leather modelling by local artists and the art committee consisted of Carlo Nista, president, Charles Rohrbach, William Wild, Mrs. Penn R. Watson, Jr., Mrs. Elton L. Holbrook, and Robert L. Perkins.
Exhibitions of the East Aurora Paint and Varnish Club:
1927- October 30-November 6, exhibited, 1st Annual Exhibition of the East Aurora Paint and Varnish Club, held in the Board of Trade Rooms Gymnasium, Clement Hall (now the Boys & Girls Club), 24 Paine Street, East Aurora, NY.
1929- November 17-24, exhibited, 3rd Annual Exhibition of the East Aurora Paint and Varnish Club, Clement Hall, (now the Boys & Girls Club), 24 Paine Street, East Aurora, NY.
1931- November, exhibited, 5th Annual Exhibition of the East Aurora Paint and Varnish Club, Clement Hall, (now the Boys & Girls Club), 24 Paine Street, East Aurora, NY.
*As noted above from research: The Club exhibited annually from 1927-1931, but only three exhibition references have been found from old newspaper articles, to include: The 'First Annual' in 1927, followed by the 'Third Annual' in 1929 and the 'Fifth Annual' in 1931, so I suppose it is safe to assume there was a Second Annual in 1928 and the Fourth Annual in 1930, though no specific reference has been found yet to date.
Later Exhibitions Under Various Other Names:
1939- June 4-11, exhibited, group show, “East Aurora Artists’ Art Show”, sponsored by the former East Aurora Paint and Varnish Club under their new name of the East Aurora Artists' Club, and was open to all area artists, 40 artist represented, Clement Hall (now the Boys & Girls Club), 24 Paine Street, East Aurora, NY.
1941- November 16-23, exhibited, group show, under the name of the East Aurora Society of Artists, which is the first time that particular incarnation of their name was mentioned in any newspaper articles with artist Carlo Nisita listed as president of the group, held in co-operation with the village Board of Trade in observance of National Art Week, held in the Board of Trade Building, Main Street, East Aurora, NY.
From about 1942 through the early 1950’s, there is no record of Club activities and by all intents and purposes, was defunct. But, as fate would have it, in 1953, the local artist and art instructor Carlo Nisita (American, 1895-1990) wanted to reactivate the old Paint and Varnish Club. Nisita, who taught art at the East Aurora High School at the time, invited local artists together to meet at the school to discuss the idea of starting a new art club. Nisita presented his idea for the new venture to not only include painters, but craftsman, musicians and creative artists in all fields. For this reason, Nisita changed the name to the Aurora Arts Club, and acted as its first president. The Club originally had thirteen members, some of whom were original members of the former Paint and Varnish Club. That same year, they had their first ‘Outdoor Art Show’ on the grounds of the East Aurora High School campus (now the East Aurora Middle School) which was held in conjunction with Nisita’s adult art class. The show was open to all artists at that time but was later limited to artists within an eleven mile radius of the town.
The mission of the Aurora Arts Club, however, never fully materialized so their name was changed to its present title of the East Aurora Art Society in 1959, and they have been going strong ever since. A constitution was adopted and a seal based on the famous Roycroft ‘Orb’ insignia was designed by one of the former members, Rix Jennings. The seal was used on all official business of the Club and on the ribbon awards. The Society originated the first outdoor show in Western New York and the model was soon copied by other cities and villages. Initially the Society had no official headquarters and for many years they met at various churches, members’ homes and the East Aurora town hall. Exhibits were held at various locations including; the Roycroft Inn and the Episcopal Church, East Aurora.
Eventually they were able to rent the former Merle D. James studio on East Fillmore Ave., the site of its forerunner, the ‘Paint and Varnish Club’. Afterwards, the studio was used for exhibits and art classes which were given by Rix Jennings (American, 1906-1996) and also the well-known watercolorist Robert N. Blair (American, 1912-2003). The Society has been exhibiting yearly every summer on the campus of the East Aurora Middle School. Their Annual Summer Outdoor Exhibit is held every June and coincides with the Roycroft Summer Arts & Crafts Festival. The show is free and open to all artists, attracting exhibitors from all over the region and nationwide. The event is Western New York’s longest-running exclusive fine arts show, and features various artworks in a wide variety of mediums including; oil, acrylic, watercolor, pastel, pen & ink, collage, graphite, charcoal, printmaking, sculpture, photography and mixed media.
The purpose of the East Aurora Art Society is to bring together artists both professional and amateur to share ideas, learn and grow from each other, and share their talents with the community. All artists in various media are invited and encouraged to join the society to share resources and common interests. The society offers monthly meetings, informative demonstrations and program speakers who educate the group on all areas of art. The society also provides a monthly newsletter and exhibit opportunities throughout the community. The society also offers a mentoring program to help each new member get the greatest benefit from what the organization has to offer.
(Written by Mark Strong of Meibohm Fine Arts, Inc., meibohmfinearts.com, 08/2013, Sources: Too long to list here and are furnished upon request.)