Islander’s new book spotlights Galveston’s nearly forgotten artists
Most of the artists in Pat Jakobi’s new book aren’t nearly as famous as the first one. Her “Early Galveston Artists and Photographers: Recovering a Legacy” (The History Press) opens with a visit to Galveston by early American artist and naturalist John James Audubon, namesake of New Orleans’ Audubon Zoo.
Exploring the marshy island for three weeks in the spring of 1837, he found the roseate spoonbills living here interesting enough to remark on them in later editions of his seminal volume “Birds of America.”
“He didn’t paint anything here, but did admire our birds, so it’s hard to say whether or not they made it into anything he did later on,” Jakobi said.
Jakobi, who moved to Galveston in 1987, first got involved in the local art scene by entering her photographs in juried shows put on by the Galveston Art League, founded in 1914. She eventually joined its board and collaborated on a self-published book about the league’s first 100 years, for which the year and a half she spent as a research assistant on a 2003 history of the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston proved invaluable.
“I was fascinated with the early history,” she said. “I wasn’t allowed to go into that when I was doing the book for the art league, because the focus was on the artists who actually showed in the league, but there were a lot of other people around as well. So I started in looking at their lives, and found out that there was nothing out there about most of them.”
The now-retired Jakobi works as a volunteer manager of the Galveston Art League’s gallery on Postoffice Street in the island’s downtown. Her book highlights the way Galveston’s relative isolation, both geographically and culturally, often made it difficult for the artists and photographers of the day — the book covers roughly the century between 1850 and the years after World War II — to make a name for themselves. But for many of them, Jakobi argues, fame and fortune were beside the point.
“Being recognized is not the most important thing, from my point of view,” she said. “Having your work sustained and available for people to look at is, I think, more important. These people didn’t paint to be rich; they painted because they wanted to and they liked to be seen. That’s the hard part: it’s really hard to see them.”
It’s almost shocking how little output from the artists in Jakobi’s book has survived into the present — the best places to start looking would be antique shops, eBay-type websites, and “the dusty corners of attics.” As she writes in the introduction, “Their value is usually more aesthetic and historical than monetary, but the search can be rewarding.”
Still, a few artists in the book found some success outside Galveston, including Paul R. Schumann, whose works Jakobi said can fetch as much as $20,000; and Boyer Gonzalez, a well-traveled friend and student of Winslow Homer’s whose widow, who was the Galveston Art League’s first president, donated about 100 of his works to the Rosenberg Library upon his death in 1934.
More typical is the fate of M. Angela McDonnell, an islander who studied at New York’s Metropolitan Museum School and the Chicago Art Institute. McDonnell exhibited as widely as California and Nebraska, taught private lessons for decades, and at one time several of her paintings hung in the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. And yet, Jakobi estimated a mere five or six of McDonnell’s works have survived into the present.
“Nobody collected her work, nobody saved her work, nobody showed her work and the ones that the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston had purchased were decommissioned, sold off to somebody and they don’t even have them anymore,” she said. “It seemed like it was just an accident of birth that kept some of these people from being as famous as their contemporaries were back on the East Coast.”
Throughout the book, an aesthetic emerges unique to what Jakobi calls “Galveston artists” — the painters and photographers who often progressed beyond simple landscapes and portraiture to capture the singular essence of the island. That could mean the oleander studies of Mato Gjuranovich or Marie Ragone’s murals at the old Balinese Room, a renowned club and gambling spot in Galveston.
“It’s so varied,” Jakobi said. “You have an island here that has marvelous architecture. It has a port. It has a beautiful water view. It has great wildlife, especially birds. It has open fields full of cattle. It has a mixture of churches, and multiple diverse populations. You don’t have to go very far to find something that’s worth taking a picture of or painting a picture of. And then you have really interesting people.”
The History Press will release “Early Galveston Artists and Photographers: Recovering a Legacy” on March 8. $21.99, arcadiapublishing.com