When I was a little kid, I was fascinated by a triangular outdoor painting under the peaked gable of a romantic-looking little house. It was a portrait of a lady artist – palette in hand, surrounded by all her brushes, rags and supplies, with a half-finished painting in the background. It was somewhat faded, but I always wondered: Who is that lady?
Steve Gruber is an Elkhart native who produces ArtWalk, founded a gallery and studio space called Arts on Main, and is an advocate for local art. You can read more of his work in his community blog
for The Elkhart Truth, Art Sense
The lady in question was a much-loved and nationally-recognized Elkhart artist, Harriet Monteith (1903-1975). The painting was a stylized self-portrait meant to symbolize an artist at work rather than an absolute representation of the lady who painted it. Harriet Yoder was a very talented and classically trained Wakarusa girl who met her husband-to-be Mark Monteith, an Elkhartan, at a baseball game. After they married, they transformed their riverfront property at 871 E. Beardsley Avenue in the mid-1930’s into a storybook compound of romantic Tudor architecture, with garden flowers in profusion.
Decades before “repurposed” salvage became mainstream, the Monteiths incorporated architectural salvage into their home renovation and studio construction. A magnificent three-panel leaded glass window from the razed Studebaker mansion in South Bend became the focal point of Harriet’s studio, flooding it with light. In 1957, she stretched her large canvas “self-portrait” onto Masonite and affixed the large triangular painting onto the gable end of her studio’s exterior wall. For 50 years, the languidly elegant lady artist presided over Beardsley Avenue traffic. As motorists slowed down to approach the stoplight, several caught a glimpse of this patrician lady whose Old World milieu made her studio a landmark.
All that remains of the three distinctive brick structures of the Monteith compound is the tiny tea house at the river’s edge. The studio was dismantled in 2010. Elements of that structure were donated to Wellfield Botanic Gardens with the idea of constructing a garden cottage that would incorporate the large Studebaker window and the iconic mural painting. As plans were developed, Harriet was “warehoused” for three years, but it was ultimately decided not to utilize these relics of the artist’s studio at Wellfield Gardens.
Eric Zell of Elk River Upcycle acquired the painting, and I bought it from him a few months ago. While Harriet’s elegant pose remains eternal, five decades of exposure to Indiana weather have faded the rich pigment of her “studio” subject and a portion of her regal cheekbones have altogether disintegrated. In fact, much of the painting has deteriorated.
She will return to a wall – this time inside. The genteel lady artist will be housed at Arts on Main, 205 S. Main Street, where she will watch over the “Harriet Monteith Gallery for Emerging Artists” – a fitting tribute to her decades of careful instruction to three generations of Elkhartans, her tireless promotion of the arts from her own studio and her support of the Elkhart Art League. The canvas will be stabilized and portions of the missing paint will be reapplied. This depiction of a romantic studio artist will be displayed to inspire a new generation of studio artists. Harriet’s public art piece lives on – this time with the benefit of indoor climate control.
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