Thursday, February 4, 2010

Creative Legacy

Preface:  My maternal grandmother had creative and artistic talent that she used long after she retired from teaching.  This creative talent has now passed down through the Beck family for three generations and has become a legacy, with many of the descendants displaying a creative "streak."  Creative Legacy is a memoir dedicated to my Grandma and her creativity.

Creative Legacy
non-fiction memoir
by Greg Larson

     There are many things that I remember about Grandma, but most of all I remember her smile.  She always greeted us with a smile and hug whenever we visited.  Her words of encouragement and optimism always soothed me.  Grandma (Ethel Lea Beck) was an inspiration to me as a teen-ager.  At an early age, I realized that I wanted to live like her when I became “old.”  There were so many things that fascinated me; her artwork was the most interesting activity of all.  She was always energized about something, whether it was sewing, fashion, cooking, gardening, travel, photography or even the subject of color.  No matter the topic, she became immersed in it, and the energy made her appear full of life.

Ethel Lea Beck - 1960

     In the 1920’s, she married John Elliot Beck, a World War I veteran, and quarterback of the football team at Kansas State Teachers College in Emporia, Kansas.  They both graduated with teaching degrees; Grandma’s expertise was in home economics and sewing, and Granddad’s expertise was in industrial arts and coaching.  In the 1950’s and 1960’s during their years of high school and junior high school teaching, Grandma and Granddad spent their summers traveling the U.S.  Their goal was to visit all of the contiguous 48 states by car, and they hoped to eventually visit Alaska and Hawaii via boat.  As a young teacher and coach at Cottonwood Falls, Kansas, in 1931, Granddad had witnessed the wreckage of the plane crash which killed Knute Rockne.  After seeing the carnage, he vowed never to fly in a plane.

     They drove their Plymouth everywhere in the summertime, taking us grandkids on outings to a creek or lake near Emporia to fish and have a picnic.  I remember Grandma filling the plaid “scotch” bag and thermos bottles with food and drink, while Granddad loaded the trunk with fishing poles, tackle boxes, blankets and folding chairs.  The ride out into the Flint Hills seemed long and hot during the day, since the Plymouth did not have air-conditioning.  Any accessory in a car was considered a luxury, or as in the case of the radio, a nuisance.

     Grandma’s painting ability was impressive.  She was not afraid to try any art style, technique, or medium.  Her repertoire ran the gamut from still-life to landscapes to abstract works using watercolors, acrylics, gouache (poster paint), oil, and encaustic (bee’s wax).  Her abstract talent increased greatly during the ‘60’s when she enrolled in evening painting classes at the college.  At one point, she belonged to an artist’s guild in Emporia, and they displayed and sold paintings from an empty store space downtown.  Even today, on the backside of some of her paintings, I can find a price marked “$20.00” for something that I consider priceless.  I don’t know whether or not she ever sold any of her artwork.  I do know it was hard for her to part with any of the completed works, and I remember many times when she brought new paintings to my mom, aunt, or uncle, agreeing to “loan” the paintings to them for awhile.  Photographs from travels or from magazines gave her inspiration for the landscape paintings.  She told me that it was impractical to create a painting outdoors at the site, and that color photographs gave her enough documentation to guide her as she developed the artwork.

     The following are some representative works she completed in the 1950’s and 1960’s:

(circa 1950’s)
Ethel Beck
17”x10 ¾”
Watercolor and Gouache

Wintertime (above)
     The hills near the Cottonwood and Neosho river valleys are full of scenes like the one above, with walnut, maple and oak groves mixed with sumac and assorted underbrush that hug the creeks and ravines.  The painting depicts a frosty, overcast day after a snowstorm; a timeless view of nature in the Flint Hills, evoking a quiet and peaceful mood.

Abstract #1
(circa 1960’s)
Ethel Beck
14 ¼” x21 ½”
Watercolor and Gouache

Abstract #2
(circa 1960’s)
Ethel Beck
14 ¼” x21 ½”
Watercolor and Gouache

Abstracts #1 and #2 (above)
     Texture, color and balance are keys to the success of these paintings, which are viewed as a pair.  I can only guess at the subject matter of the paintings due to the abstract nature of the compositions.  I believe that Grandma’s sewing and fashion design background influenced these paintings.  Abstract #1 hints of pattern pieces of cloth.  At the top of the painting there appears a cubist version of an adjustable mannequin neck on a torso.   Abstract #2 evokes images of stacked bolts of cloth, although the tubes or pipes seem out of place (bed frames and curtains?).  Unfortunately, Grandma is no longer living, but many times I’ve wished I could have a conversation with her to discuss what inspired her to create paintings like Abstracts #1 and #2, and to learn about the details.

Night Skyline
(circa 1950’s)
Ethel Beck
18” x 12”
Watercolor and Gouache

Night Skyline (above)
     This painting, which hung for years on the wall of my grandparents’ basement, has always intrigued me, since it includes architecture and the man-made environment of the city.  It is the epitome of a winter night in Kansas City.  Snatches of streets, bridges and buildings create a cubist rhythm and balance, and the old concrete viaduct railing ties the composition together.  Her inspiration might have come from a photograph in a magazine, such as National Geographic.  With a night skyline as the subject, she gave it a Kansas City flavor.  Just looking at the painting now gives me flashbacks of tense drives home from my office at Crown Center through the snowstorms.  I see the bright headlights coming down the main street and the red taillights retreating up the hill.  The wet pavement, the hint of snow, and the industrial appearance of the shadowy skyline combine to provide the cold wintry feeling.

     I always assumed the element left of center was a huge smokestack, but one evening a couple of decades after Grandma’s passing, the silhouette of the Liberty Memorial and the north wall jumped out at me.  Then I saw the steam cloud at the top and became convinced this was an added Kansas City feature she gave to the painting.  Nighttime light and reflections are difficult to achieve in paintings. Grandma came close to mastering the techniques in Night Skyline.

Temple Ruins
(circa 1965)
Ethel Beck
24” x 36”
Encaustic on acrylic paint on masonite

Temple Ruins (above)
     I was a sophomore during the 1966-67 school year at Garden City High School.  My art teacher at school announced that there would be a city-wide religious art competition, and he provided us with information on how to submit entries if we were interested.  I hadn't created any significant religious art, but I talked to Grandma and asked her if she had anything she would like to enter.  In the mid ‘60’s she had worked in an unusual medium called “encaustic” in which the final layer of color was a blend of crayons and bee’s wax heated by a small torch.  She had a completed work entitled Temple Ruins and decided she would enter it in the competition.  The painting is abstract, compartmentalized, and multi-colored, with hints of glowing figures in boxes or rooms, and references to towers, windows and architectural elements.  It has a somber, eerie feeling, as if man has compartmentalized himself, or even worse, God has left the figures to remain in a purgatory prison.  Other parts of the painting are colorful and bright, giving the painting a stained-glass simile.  I never asked Grandma how or why she developed the painting, and again, I am left to speculate, knowing the answers disappeared with her.  On one of our many family trips to Emporia, we packed the painting in the back of the station wagon and transported it back to Garden City in time to submit it for the art competition.

     Unfortunately, Grandma was unable to come and visit the display of entries and see the awards.  My granddad had taken a turn for the worse with lung cancer and Grandma wanted to stay with him in Emporia.  On the Sunday afternoon of the art show, my parents dropped me off at the exhibit space near downtown Garden City.  For some reason, I was the only person in the family to attend.  I browsed the entries, viewing a wide variety of quality in different media, and began to see “honorable mention” and other ribbon awards for pieces from different categories.  I started to panic because I could not find my grandmother’s painting.  It was large enough that I thought it would surely be found easily.  I walked throughout the exhibit a second time but could not find her painting.  Where was it?  Had it been lost?

     Near the end of the viewing, the head jurist had scheduled a lecture to comment on the show and to provide a critique of the Grand Award.  I walked over to the room set up with chairs, and peered up the main aisle.  At the front of the room was Temple Ruins on an easel with a great big Grand Award ribbon attached to the frame!  I was bursting with pride, but was too shy to tell anyone about my relationship to the First Place artwork and its creator.  The lecture was a bit dry, and it was hard for me to concentrate on it, due to my excitement.  I do remember the jurist explaining that part of the art itself is the experience the artist has during the creation and execution of the artwork.  This was the pinnacle of my Grandmother’s art career, and sadly she was not able to be there to accept the award and share her experience with those attending.

     My granddad died a month or two later.  A few years earlier, Grandma and Granddad had taken a cruise to Alaska, the 49th state which they had visited.  Then in the early ‘70’s one of my aunts traveled with Grandma to Hawaii by plane…completing Grandma’s visit to all 50 states.  On her return, she painted several simple watercolors of surf, coral, and flowers she had seen there.  Shortly after that, the quality and quantity of her artwork significantly diminished.

     Her paintings are now treasures that are spread amongst 10 cousins, located from Kentucky to New Mexico.  Grandma’s creativity is also a legacy that is passing to other generations.  My aunt Jean was the most artistic and creative of Grandma’s three children; Joan, Jean, and Kenneth.  Many relatives from all of their families have creative strengths in architecture, art, photography, graphic design and writing.  It’s good to know the Beck creativity will continue for generations to come.

     Here is a small sampling of examples of artwork created by some of Grandma’s descendants:

Artist:  Jean Rankin
Daughter of Ethel Beck

Artist:  Emunah Rankin
Great-granddaughter of Ethel Beck
Daughter of Ted Rankin

Artist:  Hannah Beck
Great-granddaughter of Ethel Beck
Daughter of Robert Beck

Artist:  Erica Larson
Great-granddaughter of Ethel Beck
Daughter of Greg Larson


  1. Greg,
    Delightful story of your very talented grandmother. From your warm description, she excelled at the art of nurturing as well as the visual arts.

  2. Thanks for the history on Great Grandma and Granddad. I learned some things that I didn't know!

  3. Writing about family can be cathartic and full of peace. I found the life of your grandma facinating. Seeing her paintings made me want to get to know her. Great writing and presentation.

  4. Wow! This is a very touching post. Thank you for recording all of these things. It is so profound to have inherited such a meaningful history. I wish I could have known Grandma Beck better.

  5. Looking for frames at a Second hand store I came across a pen etching of a house with Ethel Beck's signature in the corner. I wanted to find out more about the artist who did this and backround on the piece. Google brought me to you and your blog, but I wanted to make sure I got the right Ethel Beck. On the bcak of the matt board is hand written in pen:
    "Steamboat House 308 E Goverment
    1881 - H[cannot read]e Beache built house
    Can you tell me anything more?

    Alicia Savage

    1. Alicia,
      I'm sorry I can't be of much help. My grandmother, Ethel, mostly painted watercolors, acrylics, and oils. She did very little pen and ink. If she did pen and ink sketches they would probably have been during her education in Emporia, KS. Do you know the city in which the house existed?
      Also, in which city did you see the sketch?
      In the 50s and 60s Ethel traveled around the U.S. with her husband, and she took many photos and then did artwork of them once she returned home.
      Greg Larson

    2. sorry for delay, i have a lot of art i have been researching. its in FL. The drawing was found in Aurora, CO. I can email you it if you think it may be your grandma and not another ethel beck