The Beauty Behind: The Splendid Disarray of Beauty
An interview with author Richard D. Mohr
Noted author Richard D. Mohr has published a book that is beautiful indeed. Telling the story behind the design team George Dennison and Frank Ingerson, the two men left their mark all along the West Coast, as well as connections to Seattle. The Splendid Disarray of Beauty tells the story of one of the earliest, out and open gay couples in the United States, as well as the design and school they promoted.
Eric Andrews-Katz: What brought these two men to your attention?
Richard Mohr: After falling into total oblivion upon their deaths in the late 1960s, the Boys were rediscovered in 1990 at, of all places, a Home Show in San Jose. It’s a fun story: The wife of the last person alive who knew the men personally and who inherited some of their work walked up to a friend of mine, a tile setter and tile historian, who was conducting, at the show, a demonstration of traditional tile making techniques and says to him, “I have some old tiles you might be interested in.” And the rest is history.
Andrews-Katz: What makes ’tile design’ an art form?
Mohr: Tiles are a deeply embedded form of material culture in the West, from medieval times to the present. Cathedral floors of 10th Century England paved in art tiles made in the same manner as those of the Boys reflected the divine. Alas, tiles now have been debased to being mere cladding for airport washrooms. But with the Boys’ Cathedral Oaks tiles as inspirations, we can do better.
Andrews-Katz: When and how did George Dennison and “Frank” Ingerson meet?
Mohr: The Boys, Frank Ingerson and George Dennison, began their fifty-five years of love and life together at Seattle’s 1909 World’s Fair, the Alaska Yukon Pacific International Exposition. George was the superintendent of the State of California Building and half way through the Fair also took charge of the decorative arts exhibits in it, where Frank won grand and gold prizes for his fancy leather goods. But the men had crossed paths once before. They first met four years earlier at Portland’s 1905 World’s Fair, the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition. George was the superintendent of the California Building and Frank was scouting for a venue to avoid the brutal Chicago winters he had been enduring since 1905. They met in the building’s art stalls. It may have been love at first sight, but it was not bonding at first sight, because, at that point, George was in the middle of a decade long domestic partnership with another man, one nowhere near his match. George and the earlier fellow were together unit 1910. It wasn’t that Frank was a homewrecker exactly. I like to think rather that George was like a phototropic plant changing direction from the moon to the sun. He didn’t have much choice in the matter.
Andrews-Katz: Describe Cathedral Oaks and the School that developed there?
Mohr: Founded in 1911, Cathedral Oaks was the first, freestanding, summers-only art school in California. It was dedicated to the aesthetics of the dean of American Arts & Crafts design, Arthur Wesley Dow, but put its own sinuous spin on his ‘look’. Almost all of the school’s students were art teachers in public schools or arts administrators. This was the era in which American education demanded that teachers be credentialed. The school helped with that. It also gave single women –who included all but one of the known students – a safe place to take a holiday away from home.
Though brief in duration, the school was widely influential. By the time it closed at the end of the 1914 season, it had inspired the formation of three other summers-only art schools in northern California, and through its distinguished alumni lead to the creation of the California Society of Etchers and the ArtCenter College of Art in Los Angeles (now in Pasadena).
Andrews-Katz: How did “D & I” leave their design style on Seattle, and other West Coast cities?
Mohr: Though the Boys bonded in Seattle, it was not the location of any of their major works. The Boys’ two most outstanding works were sited in California. They put the roar into the Roaring Twenties by putting the coconuts into the Coconut Grove (1921), the Marrakesh fantasy that was the site of six Academy Award shows and countless Golden Globe ceremonies. Shifting from the profane to the sacred, they designed and constructed one of the most important religious objects in America, the Ark of the Covenant for the Reform Temple Emanu-el in San Francisco (1926). This is a 9’ x 4’ x 3’ 3000-pound “jewel box” of bronze, gilt, gesso, and enamel. This and yet the Boys had no religious beliefs whatsoever, not even the Theosophical ones so popular among West Coast Arts-&-Crafters. The project was an exemplar of liberal values in action.
Andrews-Katz: How has their design style influenced those designers that followed later in the 20th Century?
Mohr: Their influences were through institutions and people, not through things. Nearly everyone who passed through their school was magically transformed by it, shot off on a new trajectory. Artists would become administrators and vice versa. People who arrived as mere technicians, left as artists. That sort of thing. And since some of these shifts were in opposite directions, clearly the Boys were not pushing people to do one thing or another. They provided a nurturing ground for individual development. Were it that all communities operated that way.
Richard D. Mohr is the author of Gays/Justice (1988), Pottery, Politics, Art (2003), God and Forms in Plato (2007) and several others. He has been a regular contributor to The Journal of American Art Pottery Association since 1993 and is currently a professor emeritus of philosophy and of the classics at the University of Illinois-Urbana.