Forsyth Irvington House ca. 1914, photo courtesy of Susan Forsyth Selby Sklar
Guest Author: Rachel Berenson Perry
Hoosier Group artist William J. Forsyth (1854 – 1935) lived in Indianapolis for most of his life. In 1906, he moved his young family to 15 S. Emerson Avenue in Irvington. The rambling, nine-room house stood on the corner of Emerson and Washington streets in a partially undeveloped area, bordering Center and Warren Townships. Nearby Pleasant Run Creek meandered north through pastures and woodland, providing excellent painting grounds, and a close by interurban bus stop made an easy commute to Herron Art Institute, where Forsyth taught drawing and painting. He built a separate studio, which became headquarters for his summer landscape painting classes and where students set up easels in Hilton U. Brown’s neighboring pasture.
Forsyth’s Irvington household with his wife, Alice, kept an “open door” policy, welcoming their children’s neighborhood friends as well as Herron students, faculty, fellow artists, relatives and acquaintances. Lively dinners with opinionated conversation were the norm.
Both William and Alice became avid gardeners, devoting hours to tending vegetables and flowers during growing season, with interesting plants, dug on sketching forays, carefully added. Forsyth’s middle daughter, Constance, remembered, “Parts of our yard were a planned and encouraged wilderness (as foregrounds for landscape paintings), but the triangle at the corner (East Washington Street and Emerson Avenue) was a neat plot of grass with a low hedge on the two street sides. ( Forsyth) kept this carefully clipped, but he kept the most awful collection of old clothes to wear while doing this and this only. People always stopped to talk to him.”
Forsyth’s three daughters attended School #57 on the corner of Ritter Avenue and Washington Street, where their father painted a series of seasonal landscape murals in 1922. He donated a painting to the school each time one of his daughters graduated. He repeated this practice when each of his daughters graduated from Shortridge High School and later, Butler University.
Forsyth delighted in being in the limelight, though he was reluctant to play politics or kowtow to several of the city’s more privileged citizens. His interest in individuals from all walks of life attracted numerous friends. He loved joining groups and organizations, always wanting to be part of the action. A leader of the Bohe Club in his early days, he also was an active member of the Literary Club, Portfolio Club, Century Club, Optimist Club and Masonic Order.
He participated in the Little Theater Society productions and he became an honorary member in October 1918. Also a member of the Irvington Dramatic Club, along with his friend and fellow art instructor, Irvington resident Clifton Wheeler, Forsyth was known for ad libbing his lines, requiring fellow actors to scramble to keep up.
In fall 1928, Forsyth painted two portraits of himself simultaneously, which he declared to be “deuced hard work even if one is boss of the model.” As luck would have it, Forsyth exhibited one of his self-portraits in the inaugural exhibit of The Irvington Artists, which took place that fall in the Carr auto showroom. Originally sponsored by the Union of Clubs, the 10-day show met with unexpected success, attracting more than 1,500 people. It was a success for Forsyth as well; he sold nine paintings. Forsyth’s self-portrait was purchased by the club women who, according to Ann L. Hall in her 1961 paper for the Irvington Women’s Club, “felt that it could not leave the community.” The painting was donated to the Irvington Branch Library, where it still hangs today.
The Irvington Artist exhibitions became an annual event for the next 10 years. The 10 exhibitors at the first Irvington Artist exhibit were, in addition to Forsyth, Clifton Wheeler, Hilah Drake Wheeler, Robert C. Craig, Frederick Polley, Constance Forsyth, Simon P. Baus, Dorothy Morlan, Thomas Hibben Jr. and Helene Hibben. Robert Selby was added in 1931, Charles Yeager in 1932 and, in 1935, William F. Kaeser joined. The year after Forsyth’s death in 1935, the artists opened their studios for the first neighborhood studio tour instead of exhibiting at Carr’s Hall. The last of the Irvington exhibits took place in 1937.
Don’t miss William Forsyth: Only the Strong Persist, a retrospective art exhibition at the Indiana State Museum Nov. 8 – March 29, 2015.