Faculty Focus: Rescuing an Artist from Obscurity
- © 2017 Tamzin B. Smith
- Courtesy of The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University
- Mark Samuels Lasner Collection, University of Delaware Library
- Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University
- Published by Doubleday & McClure Co., 1899
Assistant Professor of English Elizabeth Foley O’Connor is piecing together the story an obscure modernist artist whose accomplishments in the world of art, publishing, and theater she believes deserve greater recognition today.
In her day, Pamela Colman Smith was quite well known in artistic and literary communities of pre-World War II New York and London, but the unconventional figure who today is recognized primarily as the illustrator of the world’s most celebrated Tarot cards—the Rider-Waite—fell out of favor and died in financial ruin.
It’s not from lack of talent, imagination, or ambition, insists Elizabeth Foley O’Connor, an assistant professor of English at Washington College who has spent the last seven years tracing Smith’s life and career as an illustrator, painter, poet, folklorist, stage and costume designer, suffragette, and publisher. But rather, O’Connor suggests, she never really found success because she defied definition. Both her gender and her race were indeterminate. And when New York publishing houses rejected her work, she launched her own small magazine, The Green Sheaf, which published the work of notable writers of the day as well as a host of unknown female artists. Remaining single, this “odd-artist mystic girl,” as termed by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, focused instead on her art and mentored other female artists.
“There is a gendered element to this,” notes O’Connor, whose book on Pamela Colman Smith is under contract with Clemson/Liverpool University Press. “She was very much a feminist before her time and she loved to take people to task. It cost her key connections with men, including W.B. Yeats,” whose advice she eschewed in favor of following her own ideas. Additionally, O’Connor says, because her contemporaries viewed her at times as black or Asian, “questions about her physical appearance seem to have affected the way Pamela and her work were received, possibly explaining her lack of sustained success in her artistic and publishing pursuits.
In the biography O’Connor contributed for the newly released volume, Pamela Colman Smith, The Untold Story, she describes Smith’s childhood in Jamaica, her artistic training, her interest in mysticism, her contributions to the suffragist movement, and her synesthesia, a cognitive condition that allowed her to perceive aural impressions as visual imagery. “Her ability to visualize music she heard is one of the most important keys to her artistic ability,” O’Connor writes.
“Her ‘music pictures’ catapulted Colman Smith to avant-garde artistic prominence,” O’Connor notes, “and very much anticipated the modernist movement. She was the first nonphotographic artist to exhibit her work at Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery in Manhattan, where Georgia O’Keeffe would later exhibit her work.
“There are a lot of similarities between the two women,” O’Connor continues. “Both studied with Arthur Wesley Dow in New York, both were interested in color and movement of line and challenging artistic conventions. For a variety of reasons O’Keefe, who was nine years younger, would succeed where Smith failed in establishing her legacy as an American artist.”
The release of Stuart R. Kaplan’s Pamela Colman Smith: The Untold Story was the cover story for Publishers Weekly this summer, and O’Connor was interviewed about Colman Smith for the digital storytelling company Shondaland, Kirkus, the Tulsa Review of Books, and the Washington Post’s The Lily have also featured reviews of Kaplan’s book. And there is more to come about Colman Smith from a Washington College English professor.
O’Connor, whose manuscript is due next fall, has visited 24 libraries museums throughout the United States and London piecing together Smith’s story, and she continues to uncover connections with communities domestically and abroad. In addition to the newspapers and magazines of the day, the National Gallery in Ireland, the Sorbonne in Paris, the University of Amsterdam, the New York Public Library, the British Library, Yale University, Huntington Library in California, and Dartmouth University have each yielded up Pamela Colman Smith treasures. Stuart Kaplan has amassed a huge collection of her art. But the story is not yet complete.
“One of the challenges is that there is not a Pamela Colman Smith archives. And there are records in Jamaica that have not been digitized,” says O’Connor. It’s hard to get an idea of what’s there. We’ve made significant strides in piecing together the story—and one that I’m happy to be a part of—but it’ a process. I’m excited that Pamela has been getting attention and finally getting the recognition she deserves.”