A journey with ‘Mike’

AMSET hosts homecoming exhibition for pioneering SETX artist

"The Gorge" by Will-Amelia Sterns Price

“The Gorge” by Will-Amelia Sterns Price

Will-Amelia Sterns Price was a wife, mother and grandmother — she was also a pioneering artist who was a driving force in the burgeoning Southeast Texas arts scene of the mid-20th century.

In the Art Museum of Southeast Texas’ exhibition, “Will-Amelia Sterns Price: Mike’s Road To Taos,” the full breadth of this influential Beaumont artist has been lovingly gathered by her grandson, Stanley K. Price.

The “Mike” of the show’s title is Sterns Price herself. She earned the nickname when a patron telephoned and jokingly asked for “Michelangelo.” The name stuck.

The exhibition’s catalogue features an essay by the artists where she describes Will-Amelia — named for her father and her maternal grandmother — as problematic, because people assumed her name was Wilhelmina.

At the opening, Stanley talked about the surprise he had when his grandmother was featured in an AMSET show a few years ago. He did not realize the influence she had had on the local arts scene, and the high regard in which her work was held. Until that time, she was simply his grandmother. The children rarely saw her work, as she would stop and devote her time to them when they were around.

Stanley was inspired to become a historian of Mike’s work, and the catalogue features several of her writings that describe how she developed her love of art.

In 1934, at the age of 27, Mike and her family spent the summer in Taos, an arts community that had rapidly become a mecca for painters, musicians and writers. While she was there, Mike visited Walter Ufer, one of the founding arts colonists, and after some persuasion on her part, she became his student.

The 1935 watercolor “Taos Communal House” is a fine rendering of a New Mexico abobe.

“Shrimper” and “Untitled (Old House)” are dark and do not reflect the bright light that would later be the hallmark of Mike’s work.

Her husband was transferred to Beaumont in 1942 and Mike helped found the Beaumont Art League, serving as its first president, and later the Beaumont Art Museum, now the Art Museum of Southeast Texas, which hosts the current exhibition.

The portraits of family and friends from the mid to late ’50s find the artist working on developing a craft. “St. Francis of Assisi” from the same period, has elements of cubism subtly worked into its background, both in its design and its color pallet. Remember, Mike was a dedicated mother yet she still found time to paint. However, by the 1950s, once the children were older, she became more prolific.

“Dock,” painted in 1960, sees Mike break from the purely representational, the boats floating not just on the water, but also in front of a background that is more suggestion that representation, often little more than slabs of color.

In 1962, when her friend Doel Reed retires to Taos, Mike and her husband make plans to do the same. The couple bought a house in there in 1967.

The Taos-inspired landscapes she painted over the rest of her life reflect the rich, deeply vibrant colors that are a trademark of the paintings from that area.

1977’s “Arroyo” and “Sagebrush” are excellent examples of the Taos style, with the sparse mountain terrain alive with a dynamism. These are purely landscape, but as the 1980s arrived, Mike began to drift away from the purely representational into an almost expressionistic style.

“Corndancers” features a pair of semi-abstracted, red-clad dancers, which segues into “Poppy Fields” with its giant slab texture — it is brilliant, both in rendition and in the bright color that generates from within.

The sumptuous “The Gorge” is the perfect hybrid of luminous landscape and rough-hewn brush strokes. The sun is setting just around the corner, with one side, to quote Dylan Thomas, “raging against the dying of the light” from the creeping shadows.

Illness led to a return to Beaumont where Will-Amelia Sterns Price died in 1995. Her “Road to Taos” — and back — is a journey that the discerning Southeast Texas art lover will want to take.

“Will-Amelia Sterns Price: Mike’s Road To Taos” is on display through Sept. 6.

The Art Museum of Southeast Texas is located at 500 Main St. in Beaumont.

For information, visit www.amset.org.

By Andy Coughlan

ISSUE Editor