Marjorie Kurtz Hayek
1909 – 2000
Essay in Marjorie Hayek: Artistic Chronicler of Iowa's Rural Heritage©
by Pamela White Trimpe
The information for this essay was drawn from an interview with Marjorie Hayek on January 16, 1999, in her home as well as from a series of conversations with her throughout the course of the winter and spring of 1999.
Marjorie Hayek is a painter of familiar things — flowers, plants, barns, dolls, boards, churns, urns and even game — all "celebrations of reality" as Joan Bunke acclaimed in her February 10, 1974, Des Moines Register Parade magazine article on Hayek's art. They are depicted with great skill and extraordinary realism much in the manner of William Hartnett, the nineteenth-century American painter. In Hayek's art, as in Harnett’s, the subject may be a plain one, but the artist has made it so perfect — so like the real — that in looking upon it you are liable to forget that it is a picture and feel that you are looking upon a piece of board, a genuine brick, a dead rabbit or another object of ordinary life. The introduction to the catalogue accompanying the 1992 exhibition of Hartnett's work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art states: "The highest triumph of artistic genius is in approaching the actual — in the perfect reproduction of the subject presented." Marjorie Hayek’s art represents the actual in an accurate yet vivid and lasting manner.
Marjorie has indeed forged an art of her own making. Born on July 26, 1909, in Pleasant Plain, Iowa, to Peter Kurtz and Anna Pacha, she was the fourth of six children — two brothers and three sisters. Three of her grandparents were born abroad, one in Germany and two in Bohemia. She grew up on a farm doing all the usual farm chores and was involved in all the farm activities. When Marjorie graduated from high school in 1926, she went to work in the telephone office in East Pleasant Plain where she worked from 7:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. seven days a week except for Sundays when she didn't go to work until noon in order to attend Mass. In addition to helping her family financially, by the fall of 1929 Marjorie managed to save enough money to attend the Iowa Success Business College in Ottumwa, Iowa.
Upon her graduation from business college in 1931, Marjorie was employed by the Treasurer's Office in the State House in Des Moines. She worked there until she received an appointment in 1935 to the Veterans Administration in Washington, D.C. While in Des Moines, two momentous events occurred in Marjorie's life: first, she began her serious study of art at the Charles Cumming School of Art; second, she met her future husband, Will J. Hayek (1896 – 1982). Will was in Des Moines because of his appointment with the National Guard. When Marjorie moved to Washington, D.C., she continued her artistic study and seeing Will who traveled to visit her often.
Art for Marjorie was always a driving force. One of her earliest memories is of lying on the porch of her childhood home trying to draw a sunset. In fifth grade, Marjorie recalls receiving a favorite Christmas present: a fountain pen which she lost on Christmas day during a walk to the neighboring farm to show off her treasure! In seventh grade she was assigned to draw a map and her teacher accused her of copying — it seemed inconceivable to Hayek's teacher that even such an artistically precocious student could have invented such a sophisticated design. When she was fifteen, she received prizes for her artwork in the 1924 Iowa State Fair.
Marjorie's artistic talents persuaded her very practical father to take her to Brighton for a few art lessons. The early pastel entitled Seascape of 1928 is an example of the art Marjorie created during this period. Its rather exotic and dramatic subject matter is drawn from a photograph and represents a rare foray for Marjorie into the use of anything other than reality as subject matter.
When Marjorie first arrived in Des Moines in 1931, she was living near the art school established by the noted artist Charles Cumming (1858 – 1932). Cumming had already established the art department at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, in 1880, where he served as chairman until 1895. Cumming was later recruited to organize the art department at The University of Iowa in nearby Iowa City in 1908, retiring as chairman of the art department in 1926. By 1931, when Marjorie was living in Des Moines, Cumming, who had continued the art school he had first established there in 1895, was, despite his ill health, the major artistic authority in the state. Marjorie lived within walking distance of his studio and enrolled in night classes taught by Cumming. She recalls that he noticed her work and was very encouraging, urging her to keep studying.
The classes at the Cumming School of Art consisted of drawing from plaster casts. The first year was spent mastering charcoal and pencil. This foundation in drawing was to serve Marjorie well — she learned that artists first had to learn to see an object in its entirety, not just a glancing impression but a full grasp of the thing observed. Cumming urged his students to visualize the subject as a whole and eliminate detail at first so they could control the picture's space and plan the design for the overall composition. From this point he led his students to see movement, shape, proportion and a division of the whole into its related parts. One draws, he said, not by the "addition of small parts but by division from the whole to the parts." Cumming also urged his students to incorporate emotion but not to neglect correct proportions. He commented to one student, "you think you are too smart to measure? Michelangelo wasn’t." He wanted his students to use rulers to check, after freely sketching, to help the eye see correct proportions. He always urged his students to "paint what you see, not the local color you to be there."
In 1935, Marjorie moved to Washington D.C. to further her secretarial career at the Veterans Administration later transferring to the Federal Communications Commission. She also continued her study of art and took night classes at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Marjorie jokes that her life in Washington was quite exciting and it became a bit more difficult to concentrate on her artistic studies. One of the diversions was Will Hayek who found business reasons to travel frequently to visit Marjorie. They were married on January 13, 1937, and moved to Iowa City that same year.
In 1941 they purchased their hilltop home on the corner of Dubuque and Kimball Roads in Iowa City and Marjorie was then very busy settling into the house and raising her eldest son, John, born in 1941. She was alone with the baby because Will was an Army Lieutenant Colonel and was away Iowa City for most of the war years. Marjorie used her secretarial skills to help out in her husband's law office, and kept the office running in Bill's absence during the war. She continued to be busy with domestic responsibilities, childrearing (second son Peter was born in 1944) and assisting with the secretarial work of her husband’s legal practice for most of the next two decades. She felt her work as a mother to be extremely creative and gladly made it her first priority.
However, Marjorie never really gave up her art! She became friends with Mildred Pelzer Lynch (1890 – 1985) who had studied art at the Pratt Institute in New York City as well as at The University of Iowa School of Art and Art History. An Iowa City resident during the 1930s and 1940s, Mildred is today perhaps most famous for the eight historical murals she did for the lobby of the Hotel Jefferson in Iowa City. Mildred befriended Marjorie and together they would "go off painting" to country haunts as Marjorie's time constraints permitted. Marjorie remained a friend of Mildred's long after she had moved away from Iowa City following the death of her first husband in 1950.
Marjorie took an art class from Lester Longman (1905 – 1987) the former of the School of Art and Art History who was responsible for acquiring many of The University of Iowa Museum of Art's modern masterpieces. In the 1960s, Marjorie studied with a painting graduate student, Dan Wood, who left the UI for a teaching position at the University of Southern Illinois.
By the late 1960s, Marjorie was able to resume a full and active artistic life. While she has never sold her artwork, she has entered numerous juried exhibitions and contests. A summary of her most notable awards includes: cash award at the 30th Annual Fall Show comprised of entries from a four-state region at the Sioux City Art Center(1967), honorable mention and cash award at the Iowa State Fair (1967), one of twelve selected from 1400 entries for the Northwestern Bell Appointment Calendar (1971), honorable mention at Mainstreams '72 International Show, Marietta, Ohio, one of thirteen selected from 2,075 entries for the Northwestern Bell Appointment Calendar (1974), included in the Invitational Exhibition Ten Iowa Women at the Cedar Rapids Art Center (1975), one of twelve selected from 2,900 entries for the Northwestern Bell Appointment Calendar (1976), one of twelve selected from 2,400 entries for the Northwestern Bell Appointment Calendar (1978), one of twelve selected from 2,300 entries for the Northwestern Bell Appointment Calendar (1980), included in the Iowa Invitational Show in connection with the opening of the Stanley Gallery, Muscatine, Iowa (1976), and honorable mention in American Artist magazine competition (1978).
Since beginning her art life in an almost full-time manner (she did lay down her pencils and brushes to nurse her husband during his last illness in 1982) she has had numerous one-person exhibitions. These include presentations at the Blanden Art Gallery, Fort Dodge, Iowa; Simpson College, Indianola, Iowa; Laura Musser Art Gallery and Museum, Muscatine, Iowa; Cedar Rapids Art Center, Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Clinton Art Association, Clinton, Iowa; Fairfield Art Association, Fairfield, Iowa; the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art and in 1999, The University of Iowa Museum of Art.
Marjorie has also participated in a number of competitive exhibitions including the Iowa State Fair, Des Moines, Iowa; Annual Fall Show, Sioux City Art Center, Sioux City, Iowa; Mid-Mississippi Valley, Davenport, Iowa; Mainstreams '71, '72 and '73 (International), Marietta, Ohio; Allied Artists of America (National), National Academy, New York; 36th Midyear Show (National), Butler Institute of American Art, Youngston, Ohio; Annual Muscatine Area Art Exhibition, Laura Musser Art Gallery and Museum, Muscatine, Iowa; Mississippi Corridor 1980 (Ten States); and the Annual Rock Island Fine Art Exhibition, Rock Island, Illinois, in 1981.
Marjorie has had a remarkable artistic career especially when one realizes that she has never been represented by a dealer or offered her work for sale. She was given the opportunity several times during her career to become associated with leading national dealers of realism but always resisted. To her, her paintings are a part of "her family". She cherishes each work, which is understandable when one appreciates the hours that go into the making of her art. A well-known dealer in the Washington, D.C., area contacted her. "The dealer asked me what I was on. When I told him he said, 'Hurry and finish it and send it to me.' I thought, 'I can't work like that.'" She enjoys that her paintings and drawings hang in her sons' homes and in their law office, [Hayek, Brown, Moreland & Hayek, L.L.P.], located in downtown Iowa City. Of course, her brick house overlooking the Iowa River above Dubuque Street is filled with her artistic endeavors.
Marjorie is perhaps most famous for her depictions of Iowa barns, especially the unusual and the rare examples of rural construction that can be found around the Iowa countryside. Four of her drawings were chosen for inclusion in [Without Right Angles:] The Round Barns of Iowa, a 1983 Iowa State Historical publication written by Lowell J. Soike and published by the Penfield Press of Iowa City. Her 1973 drawing of the Bothell Barn located just east of Iowa City in Lincoln township may very well be the most outstanding of the fourteen barn drawings she has done over the years. The octagonal barn is meticulously rendered in precise lines and shadow, lending a sense of timelessness to this structure that was already falling into disarray more than twenty years ago. She also created an oil painting of the subject, which is rare for her.
Marjorie created her barn drawings on site and did not work from photographs. She had a Wagoneer that she converted into a movable studio, complete with chairs and easels with sawed-off legs. After locating a barn or other antique structures of sufficient architectural merit to capture her interest, Marjorie then would contact the owner of the property. (On one occasion her request produced a humorous result: upon asking the owners of the Gillingham barn if she could paint it, they patiently informed her that they did not wish it painted because they were going to tear it down.) She would then "set up camp" as she said. She would spend almost every afternoon at the site working on her drawing — always maintaining the same time of day in order to preserve the same lighting effects. It would often take her more than a month or two to finish one drawing, if she was not interrupted too often by overly enthusiastic owners offering her refreshments. As she recounts, it often took quite some time to set up for her afternoon of drawing because of the basket of assorted drawing pencils she had to sharpen! She also had to make certain that she did not run out of RIVES drawing paper.
In Marjorie’s opinion, rarely did a subject demand to be painted if she had drawn it. But a few exceptions are the paintings and drawings she did of Bothell Barn, both of 1973, Solon Station, both of 1972 and Smith Barn, drawing of 1976 and painting of 1977. Interestingly, her painting Old Brick, 1974, predates her drawing of the same subject in 1980; the painting was reproduced with Marjorie's permission as a benefit to raise funds to and save the historic church from destruction.
In 1967, Marjorie painted Annie's River Junction, a scene of all that remained of a small town south of Iowa City. Marjorie became acquainted with the Annie in the title. The painting she created is only of the buildings yet they are saturated with Annie's aura of surviving every adversity placed in her way. The dilapidated structures, little more than shacks in reality, are in Marjorie’s art transformed into almost heroic structures.
Marjorie states that she draws and paints the things that she is most comfortable with — those things with which she is most familiar. "I think everybody, or at least I, must do the things that they're most familiar with, and naturally these are the things I see. This pheasant. My husband's things. His gun, his hunting cap and his jacket and also the little mouse-eaten box that he used to sit on."
Marjorie is content to be considered a realist artist but she feels that her style is personal no matter how much it may recall the early nineteenth-century works of such artists as William Hartnett. Style, Marjorie asserted in her 1974 Des Moines Register article, must be one's own. “I think it's just as personal as your handwriting,” she says. "I really don't feel the need of taking something as beautiful as a natural object and changing it. I only want to paint or draw it like it is, only more so, to accentuate.” She continued in the article discussing her style, "Any artist puts her own stamp on any subject, as different from the art of anyone else as her personality is different from that of other artists. I try to paint or draw the familiar, the things and places I live with and best — old mellow barns, for example. The beauty of the wood in this state of decay is one of Nature's own special masterpieces."
Marjorie has been a member of the Questors, a study group to the serious study and exploration of antiques, since 1961. This association has underscored her life-long interest and appreciation for "old things." Many of her subjects for paintings and drawing are drawn from the antique objects that inhabit her stately brick house. According to Marjorie, "Objects that were once useful have character, a special beauty. I find satisfaction in making them important again.” Many of the works featuring antiques are done in her studio. She arranges still life settings in a story-telling manner and then leaves them for the weeks or months it may take to complete the painting. All of her grandchildren became accustomed to notes scattered around stating simply "Don't Touch!"
What attracts Marjorie to a composition is usually one object. For example, in her 1975 painting Still Life with Blue Cup, she became fascinated with the old enamelware cup and its vibrant blue color. Setting it amidst her painting equipment seemed to "be just right.” Marjorie always stretches her own canvas, using a good quality of prepared linen canvas. She does not prime but may on occasion make sketches of the subject at hand on scrap paper.
Greenhead Mallard and Rabbit, both dating from 1970, along with Rustling of Spring, 1972, bear a direct connection to the work of William Harnett (1848 – 1892). The barn board backgrounds are painted in a convincing trompe l'oeil manner and the inclusion of the dead game in the first two and the violin in the latter confirms Hayek’s homage to her favorite artist. Marjorie was given the mallard just after her son, Peter, had killed it and she quickly placed it in the freezer after carefully arranging it in the position she deemed appropriate for her painting. She would work on the painting only until the carcass started to bleed, then would return the dead duck to the freezer and wait for it to become solid again, thus avoiding any bleeding marring the feathers she wished to meticulously replicate. She received the rabbit alive (but near death) and used her husband's pistol (also the subject of a painting) to mercifully kill the animal and then positioned it as she saw fit, again resorting to the freezer between sittings. Although rather grisly, in this manner Marjorie was able to capture the realistic appearance of the animal. The objects included in Rustling of Spring were chosen because of their color and how they seemed "to fit." Marjorie says that she works on her compositions for a long time, arranging, sketching and playing with elements, to make certain that she has it the way she wants it before she begins the actual painting.
In pursuit of realism, Marjorie is always striving for perfection. In her painting Corn, 1974, she struggled with the design until she decided to bend the stalk over so it would fit the composition. She wanted to study, examine and "see" an individual stalk of corn rather than represent a field of corn. Each work Marjorie undertakes is an effort on her behalf to represent the reality on which she has chosen to focus. Her sharp, sure gaze takes in every crack, chip and color imperfection present in the still life objects, plants or animals employed as her subjects.
As an artist, Marjorie's goal has been to improve from one painting or drawing to the next. Each one presents a new challenge and she always completes one work before she begins a new one. She admits that when her works are finished they are often a subject of irritation for her. Despite her careful craftsmanship, Marjorie remains her own worst critic. "I have never finished a painting that I have really been pleased with, really happy with. You never quite do it. Still, I don't go back and try to correct them. I can't get involved again."
Even today she continues to sketch leaves, branches and bits of still-life objects with the same intensity that occupied her earlier efforts. Her passion for art gives her the strength to survive through times of hardship and illness. She admits to being addicted to the absorbing, often difficult and solitary work. "You're thinking all the time, with every stroke. You’re weighting — is this the right color? Should I add a little more white? How does it all work as a unit? Every brush stroke is different."
Marjorie is an artist who is not afraid to try new things. What she said in her 1974 Des Moines Register article is still true today: "I think your reach should exceed your grasp and I think that this is why painting is so exciting for me, because, you see, I know that the next one is going to be better."
Excerpt from Forward in
Marjorie Hayek: Artistic Chronicler of Iowa's Rural Heritage
This book marks the achievement of a dream for me: I wanted to leave a lasting description of my life with art so that my family would know more about the part of me that was compelled to go to the countryside to draw day after day, or to paint a still life for weeks on end.
I also hope that those who read this book and view these images will gain a further understanding of the beauty that is present in our rural surroundings. I have lived with old things, spent my life drawing buildings that are in a progressive state of decay and tried through my art to share with others the visual beauty and sense of importance that these objects possess.
I dedicate this book to my family.
Marjorie Kurtz Hayek