As a young man, Roger Medearis had a dream — to be an artist. Studying under the noted Regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton at the Kansas City Art Institute, his prospects seemed good. Then came World War II, and he served on the home front for the Navy, then the Army. When the war was over, he found to his disappointment that the folksy nostalgia of Regionalism had fallen out of favor, replaced in large part by the brash brush strokes of Abstract Expressionism. In 1950 Medearis gave up art and became a salesman, and in 1958 he moved to California.
But he was rediscovered in 1966, when Philip Desind, a Maryland art dealer, tracked him down. Medearis had begun dabbling at art again, and now, with this encouragement, he returned to his first love. “He said ‘I’m retiring,’ and took off his Brooks Bros. suit and grew a beard,” says his widow, Elizabeth (Betty) Medearis. “In his studio he wore his scrubs — he just wanted to paint.”
That interrupted career is featured in “Roger Medearis: His Regionalism,” at the Scott Galleries at the Huntington Library through Sept. 17. The mini-retrospective, featuring three dozen works, includes drawings, lithographs and paintings in tempera and acrylic and covers output from his art student days until his death in 2001. In 2003 Jessica Todd Smith, the Huntington’s curator of American art, visited Betty Medearis at the San Marino home the couple shared for 25 years. “I was impressed by the range and breadth of his work, coupled by his meticulous craftsmanship,” Smith says, “and I felt that the arc of his career made for an interesting story.”
The Regionalist spirit came naturally to Medearis. Born in 1920 in Fayette, Mo., the son of a Southern Baptist minister, he grew up in Midwest towns and was inspired by the homespun illustrations of Norman Rockwell. Medearis began selling his art as a student, and no wonder, given paintings as accomplished as “Breaking Ground at Bethel” (1940) and “Godly Susan” (1941), both in the Huntington show.
In “Breaking Ground,” the young and old citizens of a small town gather to break ground for a public building. An elder holds a shovel in one hand and a book, probably a Bible, in the other, while people look on and a picnic table is being set. They have exaggerated, gently humorous features and postures. “Some of the elements in the early work are very caricaturish,” Smith says. While there’s a certain timelessness about the scene, the newspaper on the table bears the headline, “French Accept Nazi Terms.”
After the war, Medearis’ art seemed influenced by Surrealism and sometimes a more somber mood, as reflected in a set of small still-lifes and landscapes in the exhibition. But at heart he was still a Regionalist. “It seemed to me that the New York artists had thrown off all restraint and were making whoopee with paint, while I continued to struggle with the American Scene,” he once wrote. “I knew that I could never part company with the Regionalists. Their people were my people, and their land my land.”
Smith believes there has been a revival of interest in Regionalism, and cites new biographies on Benton (and Grant Wood. Also, she says, “California/Western art is extremely popular.... For a time, there was a pervasive school of thought that American art wasn’t ‘important’ until the post-WWII period, when it began to distance itself from European modernism. In recent years, I do feel there has been a resurgence of appreciation and interest in painting with ties to classical realism.”
Throughout his career, Medearis’s worked slowly, painstakingly — partly because egg tempera requires small strokes of the brush to build areas of color and partly because it was in his nature. A tour through the studio behind the San Marino house — Betty has kept parts intact — shows a special tray he custom-made to hold each paint tube upright and at the ready. It would take him several weeks to complete a lithograph, and months for a painting; during the three decades he showed with Desind, Betty says, “Everything sold.”
In his restarted art career, Medearis turned to his adopted environs, and the exhibition includes such paintings as “The Beach,” a lively scene of sunbathers, surfers and even a few swimmers crowding a highly stylized Pacific cove, and “Home in the San Gabriels” (1996), showing houses set against the mass of the San Gabriel Mountains. “He was pretty attached to the landscape, and to the change of light,” Betty says. “People have said his work is surreal.”
Betty recalls how much he enjoyed making art — he would disappear into his studio every morning at 8, knocking off about 4 in the afternoon, with a short lunch break. “A few weeks before he died,” she says, “he was still painting.”