New exhibition at Wriston to feature Emily Parker Groom

Rachel Hoerman

Emily Parker Groom. To most Lawrentians, her name is as unfamiliar as the college she is associated with – Milwaukee-Downer. However, Emily Groom should be a name that hearkens back to the turn-of-the-century, and a life whose achievements are being showcased by the newest exhibition at the Wriston Art Center: “Emily Groom: a Milwaukee-Downer Legacy”.
A woman who dedicated her life to the advancement of the arts, Groom was born to a wealthy family in Massachusetts who moved to Milwaukee in 1880. She attended the School of Art of the Art Institute of Chicago and was originally hired onto the Milwaukee-Downer staff to teach fashion design, which she knew nothing about. She soon challenged administration in the college to create a department that took art as seriously as other fields of academia, and in 1902, got her way, becoming founder and chairperson of Milwaukee-Downer College’s art department.
Spending nearly as much time abroad as in the classroom, Groom traveled around England, Scotland, mainland Europe, and the Orkney Islands from 1907-1908, sketching and studying in London with artists like Frank Brangwyn, famed for his etchings and illustrations. She set up a studio in an old butcher shop with her friend, and also made numerous trips to Boston, Philadelphia, and New York City in pursuit of new techniques and a variety of subject matter. Groom was traveling in Europe at the outbreak of both World War One and World War Two, and returned home to join the war effort, taking active part in the Works Progress Administration of the Great Depression.
In 1936 Groom was chosen as one of 14 Wisconsin artists to be displayed in a National Art show sponsored by congress, and was actually Wisconsin’s most widely displayed artist.
The evolution of Groom’s art was greatly influenced by the artistic movements taking place at the turn of the century. She was in Europe when Impressionism truly began to take root, and much of her early work expresses an “American Impressionism” explained by Wriston Gallery Curator Frank Lewis as being: “a little less coloristic than its European counterparts, but with the same impressionist interest in atmosphere and light.” Through her work in such early pieces as “Crooked Creek in Winter”, Groom utilized the color of the paper and palette, letting it take an active part in the pictures she created. She employed a style very similar to the Impressionistic tendencies of artists like Van Gogh, Monet, and Degas, with bright expressive colors and images like her “Kirkwall Watercolor” that placed great emphasis on lighting and its effect.
In Lewis’ words: “In her work Emily Groom gave color a role of its own, making it less descriptive, and the piece more about the interplay between color and light. Many of Emily Groom’s paintings are careful responses to the atmosphere they were created in. She was constantly telling her students at Milwaukee Downer College to look around and watch what happened with their work during the artistic process, to encourage a greater sense of interaction between the students and their work.”
In her later years Groom seemed to favor watercolor over oil, and continued painting the landscapes and floral still-lifes that helped define her style for more than half a century. Comments Lewis: “As an artist Emily Groom was interested in making her mark. We can watch as her work seems to move away from landscapes toward sketch watercolors. In her later years, she painted images of domestic streets in Milwaukee and floral still lifes from her own garden that display a great deal of energy and a great deal of effort. Emily Groom found a great deal of beauty in natural things, and forced her students not to think conventionally in their work as well.”
A willful and determined woman, Groom held art shows at her parent’s Milwaukee residence in the late 1950’s, refusing to take commissions, and began an extension art class for older women through Milwaukee-Downer College. An active and fiercely committed participant in the world of art, Groom founded the Wisconsin Watercolor Society in 1953, and continued to paint and travel until her death one month short of her 100th birthday in 1975.
According to Lewis: “Emily Groom represented a strong, accomplished person at a time when it was a rare and difficult thing for a woman to be that way. You cannot name an early 20th century artist she did not show with, and she was an equal among them.