At Home with Indiana Artist T.C. Steele

I’m standing in a living room, admiring the bold olive green paint, the dark polished woodwork and the shelves lined with books. But it’s the west wall that keeps grabbing my attention. Nearly every available space is covered in paintings, including landscapes and portraits, all skillfully done and breathtakingly beautiful. But, in the home of Hoosier artist T.C. Steele in southern Brown County, staring at his amazing works of art, I shouldn’t expect otherwise.

T.C. Steele's paintings grace the wall of his front parlor at his home near Nashville, Indiana.

T.C. Steele’s paintings grace the wall of his front parlor at his home near Nashville, Indiana.

I’m visiting the T.C. Steele State Historic Site just two miles south of Belmont off of State Road 46 west of Nashville and I’m thoroughly enjoying the blissful atmosphere. Any Hoosier who’s ever traveled in Brown County in the fall knows that the leaf peeper traffic can sometimes rival that of I-465 during rush hour, but turning on to T.C. Steele Road – which is NOT well marked, by the way – it’s possible to leave the thundering Harleys behind. This quiet, winding, tree-covered road is, in places, barely big enough for two cars to pass and is gravel in spots. On the Saturday I visited, I saw not a single one as I drove to the 211 acre site.

Coming to the former homestead of Indiana’s foremost landscape artist, one is immediately taken by the beauty of the place. Steele’s former home is an amalgam of towering oak and tulip trees, formal gardens, sweeping lawns, climbing vines and goldfish ponds which once served as emergency water sources for the home in its early years when it lacked running water. Dark red buildings – from the artist’s former outdoor studio to his larger, dream studio, to the home he shared with his second wife, Selma – dot the landscape and, frankly, as an amateur artist, it made me want to grab an easel and paint.

Inside the home of T.C. Steele

Inside the home of T.C. Steele

The grounds and formal gardens, which Selma Steele created for her husband to do just that, paint, are free for visitors to explore along with several hiking trails scattered about the 211 acre site. I popped into the office/gift shop to inquire about a tour and, discovering I had a 45-minute wait, I gladly spent it exploring and hiking. A slow idle among the gardens to the goldfish pond rewarded me with not one but 21 frogs sunning themselves on lily pads, and I had the pleasure of dodging dozens of falling acorns as I explored the Dewar log cabin which Selma Steele rescued from demolition and had moved to the property in the early 1930s.

After a half mile trek on the aptly named “Trail of Silences” which is not aptly rated as moderate given my desk-job physic, I waited outside the doors of Steele’s large studio for the tour. By this time a handful of other visitors had arrived, but, still, we barely constituted a crowd. After a brief background on Steele, his wife and their home, known as The House of the Singing Winds, Indiana State Interpreter John Moore unlocked the studio door and we were plunged into the world of the artist.

Theodore Clement Steele – T.C. to family and friends – was the most prominent artist of the Hoosier Group, a circle of talented, nationally recognized Indiana artists which also included Otto Stark and William J. Forsyth. Born in Gosport, Indiana in 1847, Steele lived most of his life in Indiana with the exception of five years spent training in portraiture at the Royal Academy in Munich, Germany. While in Germany, Steele was exposed to the work of landscape painters who embraced en plein air impressionism – a style of painting aimed at catching natural light while painting on site and out of doors – and it would eventually change his own style of painting and lead him to this out-of-the-way hilltop in remote Brown County.

Upon returning to the United States in 1885, Steele began making his fortune as a portrait artist in Indianapolis– this being the pre-selfie days of ever present cameras – and he and his first wife, Libbie, amassed enough money to purchase a summer home in Brookville where he practiced his landscape painting skills. That Steele once called Brookville home was news to me, and it turned out to be just one of the many interesting tidbits I learned during our tour of Steele’s studio and home. To know that one of my favorite artists once lived as close to me as Brookville was surprising to say the least. One can’t help but wonder what may have happened to Franklin County had Steele remained in Brookville, rather than forsaking it for Brown County in 1906.

One of Steele's paintings from his Brookville, Indiana days

One of Steele’s paintings from his Brookville, Indiana days

But forsake it he did, leaving Brookville in grief after the death of his first wife. Eventually Steele met his second wife, Selma Neubacher – who, at 23 years his junior, was an artist friend of his three children – and, after scouting around Brown County for some time, Steele purchased this hilltop as the site of his next summer home in 1907.

That same year the Steeles built their home, expanding upon it over time and adding other outbuildings as needs arose. During their years at The House of the Singing Winds, the view from the porches – as seen in many of Steele’s paintings – was expansive as the area had been logged and farmed, unlike the rather wooded grounds surrounding the home today. On the day I visited, it was possible to compare an actual view of the home with one Steele had painted decades ago from the same vantage point. The Indiana State Museum manages the site and with over 300 of Steele’s paintings at its disposal, changes the exhibits often, but as the home is featured in many of his paintings, you will most likely have the same opportunity to do so yourself, should you visit.

Outside Steele's dream studio at his home near Nashville, Indiana

Outside Steele’s dream studio at his home near Nashville, Indiana

T.C. Steele died in July, 1926 and is buried alongside Selma on the grounds which proved to be another surprise for me as I hadn’t planned on standing at his grave, but was honored to do so. Selma Steele struggled financially after his death, but remained at The House of the Singing Winds until her death in 1945. Upon her passing, it was discovered that Steele’s last painting – a still life of Selma’s peonies – was still upon his easel.

Selma left the property and paintings to the State of Indiana as a tribute to her husband and his work, but it fell into disrepair until the Indiana Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Indiana State Museums and Historic Sites took over its care in the 1980s. Extensive repairs, renovations and restorations were undertaken, and Steele’s paintings were restored. Today, it is a testament to T.C. and Selma’s individual talents, his with a paint brush, hers with a garden trowel.

One of T.C. Steele's paintings of his home near Nashville, Indiana - The House of the Singing Winds

One of T.C. Steele’s paintings of his home near Nashville, Indiana – The House of the Singing Winds

The T.C. Steele State Historic Site is open year round, Tuesdays through Saturdays 9 A.M. to 5 P.M. and Sundays from 1 to 5 P.M. The site is closed on Mondays and holidays. With the exception of the Dewar Cabin, the buildings are not open to the public except during the daily guided tours which are frequent and well worth the wait and cost. Parking is free and readily available, and visitors can explore the grounds, gardens and trails for free too, but admission is charged for tours. Prices are $7 for adults, $5 for seniors and $2 for students and children over the age of three. Children under the age of three are free. Group rates are available too and members of the Indiana State Museum or any one of its other 10 historic sites get free admission.

For more information on the T.C. Steele State Historic Site or to plan your visit, check out the following links.

Friends of T.C. Steele – http://www.tcsteele.org/

Indiana State Museum – http://www.indianamuseum.org/explore/t.c.-steele

Follow my newspaper blog at: http://outaroundwithrobin.wordpress.com/ and on Twitter at https://twitter.com/RobinFritz or email at outaroundwithrobin@gmail.com

Me working on a community art project - painting crosswalks in Shelbyville, Indiana.

Me working on a community art project – painting crosswalks in Shelbyville, Indiana.

By Robin Winzenread Fritz

Reprinted with permission from the Greensburg Daily News

Advertisements

Oh Bring on the Nooks and Crannies…

My childhood home – the place where my mother still resides – was simple and pleasant enough.  It had three bedrooms which housed six people, and the one and a half baths proved to be more than adequate since my brothers were allergic to cleanliness.  Like most American homes, it had all the necessities – a serviceable, but lackluster kitchen, a living room/dining room combo with a large picture window looking out over a front lawn sprinkled with dog poop, and a tiny family room with a fireplace.  And, like so many other Hoosier homes, it was a standard ranch-style one-story brick house, in essence a nearly identical replica of its many cookie-cutter brethren. 

An amazing Oh-Florence.com apartment with one heck of a view!

Now, don’t get me wrong, I LOVE the home I grew up in.  It was and always will be home even though I now own one of my own.  Yes, it was loving, yes it was warm and, yes, it was home, but a creative living space, it was not, despite my attempts to color it up with homemade macaroni art. 

Nooks and crannies?  Nada.  Twisting staircases?  Forget about it!  Frescoed walls?  Arched hallways?  Dormers with window seats? Butlers’ pantries?  Hidden passageways?  Bay windows? Nope.  Not a one.

So while my home provided all the love and comfort a girl could need, it wasn’t exactly inspiring on a creative level.

While most kids may give little thought to nooks and crannies, as a child, I was different.  Buildings and boats fired my imagination, and I spent quite a bit of my childhood drooling over both and building models of each.  I once owned so many dollhouses that my younger brothers threatened to line them up and

Oh-Paris apartment with the fireplace of my dreams. Hot dogs anyone?

recreate the great Chicago fire.  When we visited downtown department stores, my siblings would run for the toy aisle.  Me?  I ran for the furniture.  As an adolescent, I actually saved up my allowance to subscribe to House & Garden magazine and that one day a month when it arrived in the mailbox was my own private Christmas morning.  Yeah, I was that weird.

And that mania hasn’t mellowed with age, oh no, quite the contrary!  I actually have an inch-thick file of colored chip strips collected from various paint departments.  I now subscribe to more decorator magazines than I have toes and fingers, and my husband has to pry me out of the kitchen display sections of home improvement stores with a crowbar.  When we drive anywhere in the

This Oh-Florence apartment has a triangular-shaped terrace! Almost makes me wish I was better at geometry.

dark, I peer at passing houses in hopes that I may spy a staircase or built-in bookcase through the windows.  Naked people doing God knows what in there?  Who cares!  I want to see their walls!

When my children were little, I gave thanks for Halloween because it meant trick-or-treating in the oldest neighborhood dripping with big turn-of-the-century mansions left over from a more prosperous age.  Thus while my kiddies begged for candy at strange door after strange door, I peeked into one architectural beauty after another, here a Queen Anne, there a Victorian, everywhere a Gothic.  It was heaven.

So imagine my joy, my glee, when I stumbled upon Oh! 

Headquartered out of Barcelona,Spain, Oh is a vacation property management company specializing in Europe.  With hundreds of rental properties to choose from in such locales as Venice, Paris, London, Prague, etc., they are, in short, the maker of vacation dreams.  I discovered this by accident when I stumbled over a retweet of Oh’s spring blogger competition and entered.  The contest was inspired, but simple – pick one of ten European cities and write a blog post about why you want to go there and the top five things you would do while visiting.  In return, the winner would receive one week in four different cities, equating to a month-long grand tour of Europe!  My imagination inflamed, I entered, I dreamed, I won.

Well, I won a runner-up spot!  Congrats to Leah of “Leah Travels” who won the grand prize with her fabulous winning blog entry onFlorence.  See the link to it below – it’s delicious!

http://leahtravels.com/site/places/italy/i-want-to-go-with-oh-to-florence

After discovering my wonderful runner-up status, I proceeded to scare the neighborhood dogs with my peeling screams of delight.  I then ran around the house asking my family to pinch me because I had to be dreaming, but my children declined, oddly enough, and my husband wouldn’t stop.  Go figure.

After that, I sat down and I dreamed.  And indulged.

For my runner-up prize is three nights in Venice, Italy in accommodations provided by Oh, and after going to Oh’s property rental site (see link below) I spent the rest of the day pouring over Venetian rental property after Venetian

This puts my sofa from Big Lots into perspective.

rental property after Venetian rental property.  For on Oh’s site, one can not only see where the rental property falls on the map, one can also drool over pictures of the accommodations and, in many, cases view a layout of the apartments.  Le sigh!

http://www.oh-venice.com/

As a nook and cranny junkie and a lover of creative living spaces, I was hooked.  Apartment after apartment after apartment – many located in buildings older than my hometown – scrolled past on my computer monitor and time slipped away.  In my own way, I was an explorer, off to distant lands, making my way through unfamiliar territory and loving every minute of it.

And I couldn’t stop at Venice.  After that it was on to Oh -London and Oh -Florence and – oh my God! – Oh -Paris!

And now Oh’s property sites have replaced Pinterest as my day-time dream-filled distraction of choice.  Where as Pinterest drips with things I will never have or places I can never attain or clothing I will never fit into, Oh’s property

A Venetian room with a view courtsey of Oh-Venice.

is oh so attainable and very much available for rent, thus making these little slices of heaven one can actually enjoy as I will be doing in September.  *Pinch*  Ouch!  God, that felt good!

Venice awaits and maybe next year my daughter and I will finally fulfill one of her dreams and get to Dublin.  My 70-year-old mother has always wanted to see England, the home of her grandmother.  My husband dreams of his family’s mother country of Germany and Berlin.  And I will definitely have to get to Barcelona if for no other reason than that of drooling over matadors in tight shiny satin pants.  It’s wonderful to dream, isn’t it?

I once worked with a woman who grew up in southern California between the Pacific Ocean to the west and burnished mountains to the east.  She moved to

My Cape Cod doesn’t look like this. Neither does the yard barn from Lowes.

Indiana after marrying a native Hoosier, but while she loved the man, she failed to fall in love with my home state.  As she grew up a stone’s throw from both deserts and palm trees, I can understand why.  Her benchmark for beauty was set high at an early age.  Growing up in a vacation destination, could she appreciate Indiana otherwise?

My childhood home is much like the land in which I live.  Both are serviceable and have their charms.  They’re understated and often overlooked.  Bells and whistles are non-existent.  But living in that little cookie-cutter house surrounded by Indiana’s flat fields of corn left me with a very flexible benchmark for beauty.  I delight in a winter wheat field.  Golden pastures of rolling hay bales give me pause.  And I will swoon over Venice.

September will be here soon and with it Italy.  I am preparing now to be left speechless.  And in the meantime I will dream and plan and drool.  And even while I will fantasy over Parisian apartments and London hotel suites and

I think Anthony Bourdain visited the owner of this building in an episode of No Reservations. I recognize the courtyard!

Tuscan abodes, I will embrace my quaint little house and my childhood home and my flat little land and thank them for being what they are and for shaping me into who I am.

By Robin Winzenread Fritz,

Writer, dreamer and lover of spaces big and small.