Like Jane Welsh Carlyle before her, if May Gearhart could speak now, she might say, “I too am here.” Here was Pasadena, California where the Gearhart family moved from Sagetown, Illinois in the late 1880s. The younger sister of the better-known Frances Gearhart, it was May who had the rigorous education, attending the school of the Art Institute of Chicago and studying for a year with Arthur Wesley Dow at Columbia. Later, she studied with Hans Hofmann at U.C. Berkeley in 1930. The youngest sister, Edna, taught art in the Los Angeles schools and all three sisters collaborated on an illustrated verse book for children Let's Play (1929, not published during their lifetimes.)
Unlike Frances, whose works are repetitive, May Gearhart’s woodcuts are records of individual places and persons. A miner’s cabin, a fisherman’s cove, a cottage in rural San Gabriel, all these images confront us with the freshness and delight of discovery in ordinary things. It is easy to believe that these carefully composed and colored images retain the artist’s original thrill of recognition.
Ventura Valley and Matiljia, two landscapes, show May Gearhart using the same palette of yellows and blues to great effect for different times of day. In Ventura Valley, the sun comes over the mountains, focusing like a spotlight on the ripening fields, as daylight recedes. By contrast, in Matilijia the sun is everywhere, the sky is yellow and it is the brilliance of the day that we take away.
The Panamanian Girl immediately charms us, but more than that, it too captures the steady seriousness of a young working girl. The artist’s vantage point is that of her subject: seated on the ground. The girl has stopped to rest in the shade of a palm tree, a plate of fruit in her hands and a basket of fruit beside her. Behind her, the outlines of a small town in the background suggest her destination.
What finally makes May Gearhart's work so satisfying is her ability to make the viewer see the isolated cabin and the sagging red roof as the equals in interest to picture postcard vistas.
Images by May Gearhart (1872-1951) from the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Fine Arts:
1. Fisherman's Cove, undated.
2. In San Gabriel, early 20th century.
3. Miner's Cabin, undated.
4. Ventura Valley, undated.
5. Panamanian Girl, undated.
6. Matilija, undated.