BIOGRAPHY OF ELIZABETH MERRILL FORD: PAINTER, MURALIST, ART EDUCATOR
by Ashley Schork
submitted June 2009
Elizabeth Merrill Ford (February 19, 1902 to December 4, 1977) was a woman artist deeply committed to her community and the education of art. She was born the youngest in a large family and grew up in Beverly Hills, Chicago. She attended Chicago public schools, the Art Institute of Chicago from the years 1920-21 and 1923-26, and studied education at DePaul University. She was married to Donald Ford in 1926 with whom she had a son, Warwick Ford, who was born on March 12, 1928. Donald Ford died in 1934, right as Elizabeth began working at a Y.M.C.A in the adult education program. She later became the director for recreation for the Chicago Park System. Ford’s artistic interests were varied and diverse. As the director for recreation for the Chicago Park System, was involved in renovating the Japanese tea house in Jackson Park. She also designed the sets and costumes for federally funded shows while working for the Chicago Park System and created oil paintings of Chicago park scenes. Her best-known oil painting from this collection was of the Pinta (Columbus’s ship), which hung for years in the office of the Chicago Parks director. Additionally, Ford was interested in graphics work and created the cover for brochures for the Chicago Parks System, such as the Adler Planetarium.
Perhaps what Ford was best known for were her murals, some of which are displayed throughout the Southside of Chicago today. Many of her murals are in public schools in Chicago and were federally funded. Her two murals in Mount Vernon Elementary School are located in the auditorium and depict George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Other locations of her murals throughout Chicago are at the Vanderpoel School, Fort Dearborn Elementary School, and the Superior Tea Room. In addition to being federally funded, she also created works for private commissions. For example, she was commissioned to decorate a dining room’s walls with English landscapes for a citizen of Beverly Hills.
Ford worked with many different mediums and had many different inspirations. She not only worked with oil on canvas and created murals, but also painted pastel portraits. To make extra money, she often created pastel portraits of tourists over the summers in Michigan and was commissioned for her oil paintings. One of her oil paintings titled Suffer the Little children to Come Unto Me was exhibited at the Art Institute in 1924. While her interests ranged from teaching to oil and pastel paintings, to creating murals, Elizabeth Merrill Ford was constantly active in the arts within her communities throughout her lifetime. She was also an active member in many groups and clubs such as the “American Association of Women, the National Federation of Republican Women, the Teacher’s Retirement Society, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Santa Barbara Women’s Club, and the Stroller’s Club.” She frequently lectured and exhibited in Chicago at Women’s Clubs and seemed like a woman who believed that art was an essential part of a community.
Another lifelong passion of Elizabeth Merrill Ford’s was teaching. Merrill writes that, “from about 1939 until 1942, she taught art and English is several Chicago high schools as a substitute teacher while in the evenings she took courses downtown Chicago at DePaul University.” In 1942 she moved to Arizona for a year to teach, and then moved to California in 1943. She taught in Santa Barbara from 1944 until her death, receiving a degree in art from the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1954. She was also remarried on June 20, 1953 to Charles Cobb. Merrill writes that “although she largely gave up doing commissioned art work after moving to California, she did do a chalk and pastel mural for the Mission San Antonio near Jolon, Monterey County, California.” She died in Los Angeles on December 4, 1977 after battling cancer for several years.
The lack of visibility of the artist Elizabeth Merrill Ford may be due to many factors. A main factor as to why Ford is not highly visible within Chicago is that many of murals which she is known for have been poorly preserved and are located in community settings like public schools on the Southside of Chicago. Another reason may be because she moved to California halfway through her lifetime, making it difficult to find and locate all of her works. Additionally, her role as a teacher and lecturer shows that she placed a greater role in the education of art to others, which placed less of a role on her own works. Ford’s concerns for her community over marketing and exhibiting her own work and role as a community leader, educator, and artist, makes it difficult to research her and find her works because her interests and passions were so varied and diverse.
There were many obstacles encountered when researching Elizabeth Merrill Ford. A main obstacle was the fact that she was married twice, so it was necessary to research her birth name, Elizabeth Kilbourne Merrill, her first married name, Elizabeth Merrill Ford, and her second married name, Elizabeth Merrill Cobb. It was also difficult to locate images for Ford’s work since the majority of her works were privately commissioned or public murals.
An important factor in the lack of visibility of Elizabeth Merrill Ford is that although she received formal artistic training at the Art Institute of Chicago for three years, she did not graduate or receive a degree. This makes it more difficult to research her. She also attended DePaul University for education, but she did not graduate. Her formal artistic training was completed in her later years at the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1954. Her lack of formal training combined with the fact that most of her artworks were not traditional in nature attribute to her lack of visibility. While one piece, Suffer the Little Children to Come Unto Me, was exhibited at the Art Institute in 1924, most of her other works were not exhibited professionally at formal galleries, but around her communities. The image of her piece that was exhibited at the Art Institute is also not in the online archives of the Art Institute. The exhibition of her works within her community instead of larger galleries makes it not only harder to research and find images of her works, but makes it difficult to assess the impact in which her artwork made and how it was received.
The exhibition of Ford’s artwork in the public schools of the Southside of Chicago is an important factor in Ford’s life. Her role as an educator was a large part of her life. Her passion for art combined with her love of teaching others is synthesized in Ford’s display of her artwork in schools. Two important works to look at of Ford’s are History of American Progress and Century of Progress (1935-36), located at Fort Dearborn Elementary School in the auditorium. History of American Progress consists of “four oil on wood panels screwed to the wall and one painted directly onto cement. The eight Century of Progress panels are all oil on canvas adhered to the wall. Falk describes the History of American Progress panels as presenting “significant changes in the development of American civilization, with an emphasis on Chicago history”, and the Century of Progress as representing “the architecture and attractions of the Century of Progress Exposition held in Chicago in 1933 and 1934. Ford’s small panels are reminiscent of photographic views of the fair. Her crisp lines and vibrant palette capture the modern feeling of the fair. Few figures are present.” An image of panel four of History of American Progress was available online (see appendix A), taken by Ford’s grand-niece, Elizabeth Tamny, and is also included in Heather Becker’s book, Art for the People: The Rediscovery and Preservation of Progressive and WPA-Era Murals in the Chicago Public Schools, 1904-1943. Panel four depicts a modern city, showcasing modern technology and transportation. There are a few figures near the bottom of the painting. Ford uses her art to educate others, both in subject matter and the locations of her artwork.
Another example of Ford’s amalgamation of education and art can be found in the auditorium of Mount Vernon Elementary School on the Southside of Chicago. Two panels are located here, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, created in the 1930s. Both are oil on canvas on stretchers and are 8’8” x 7’8”. These murals depict the lives of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. She shows George Washington as hero, with mobs of people rejoicing over his return. She also shows a shoreline in the background with navel vessels to show his accomplishments. Becker includes an image of Ford’s mural of Abraham Lincoln (see Appendix B). Ford shows a younger Abraham Lincoln in a country setting, holding books with dogs at his feet, which Becker states are “symbols of Lincoln’s fidelity to his country.” All of Ford’s works described, located in Mount Vernon Elementary and Fort Dearborn Elementary, are historical in nature, depicting both American and Chicago’s history. Ford uses her artistic talents to educate the youth of her community about their history, making a lasting impression in the Chicago, although not highly recognized.
Other locations where Elizabeth Merrill Ford’s artwork can be found are at the Vanderpoel Art Association, Erskine College, and Mission San Antonio in Monterey County, California, although no information or images could be found of them. She also has a painting at the Vanderpoel School. She also had artwork in Washington School and Lincoln School, but they have been destroyed. The destruction of her work is a fundamental factor which adds to the lack of visibility of Elizabeth Merrill Ford as an artist. When artworks are destroyed and not archived, it becomes much harder to research an artist, to see their images and styles of work, and to give them credit as an artist.
Not only have some of Ford’s pieces been destroyed, but many have not been kept up in good condition. History of American Progress and Century of Progress (1935-36), are described by Becker as being in poor condition. She writes that “in 1999 the Century of Progress murals were coated with a thick layer of grime with scattered drip stains and smudges. The History of American Progress murals were also in poor visual and structural condition, coated with heavy grime that distorted the colorful palette. The paint surface was abraded and corroded, disfiguring the image. Cracks and losses were also apparent.” Ford’s murals of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln in Mount Vernon Elementary school are also described by Becker as being in poor condition. Becker states that the murals had “severe holes, scattered tears, bulges, layers of grime, and drip stains.” As of 2002, when Becker’s book was published, none of Ford’s murals had been restored. The conservation of Ford’s work is essential to her visibility. Without the conservation of her works, her talent cannot be seen or recognized. The disintegration of her works without their restoration also takes away from Ford’s credibility as an artist.
In addition to being involved in the schools throughout her community, Ford was involved in many other aspects of her community. She was commissioned to complete a group of murals for the Superior Tea Room in Beverly Hills in 1934. The murals at the Superior Tea Room were advertised in the Chicago Tribune on February 4, 1934 by journalist Eleanor Jewett as “ historical in nature. They depict a history of Beverly Hills from 1833-1933 in a colorful and imaginative manner.” The mural is described as beginning with scenes from Native American and Pioneer days and then “comes up from the first settler, the first school, the first real estate activities, and the first local trains. The year 1900 presents neighborhood scenes, and from then on with a rush of civilized development various modern buildings are shown, residents and business blocks, and finally scenes from Ridge Park, portraying typical local activities of clubs, teams and groups now existing.” Although there was no image available for this mural, the subject matter described by Jewett seems typical of Ford’s artwork, especially the murals at Mount Vernon Elementary and Fort Dearborn Elementary. All of her works described have been historical and depicting the history of the community, Chicago, and America. Once again, her artwork’s purpose seems to be to educate her community about their own history.
Other Chicago Tribune articles describe some exhibits in which Ford assisted at and took part in. In 1933 she took part in an outdoor exhibit in Beverly Hills in which the genres of oils, water colors, pastels, and sketches were all shown.22 The Chicago Tribune also mentions that Ford attended a lecture by Sister Stansia, a fellow artist, muralist, and student of the Art Institute of Chicago in August 1934. The mention of Ford at a lecture in her community reveals that she was an influential member of her community; people must have cared about what she attended and where she went if she was brought up in the article.
Ford herself was an active lecturer within the Southside of Chicago. In March 1935 she discussed the “A, B, and C’s of Painting” at an art day set up by the Neighborhood Women’s Club. She also gave a talk on “Painting through Palos” at an exhibit by local artists arranged by the Chicago Lawn Women’s Club in March 1935. Other topics of her lectures in which she gave within her community were “The Seven Wonders of the Parks,” which she gave in April 1937 and Japanese Gardens in Jackson Park, which she lectured on in 1937. She exhibited in numerous other art exhibitions within her community for local residents in the 1930s. She also lectured on “Portrait Technique” in January 1939 and “Chicago Japanese Gardens and Temples” in February 1938.
The topics of Elizabeth Merrill Ford’s lectures show how varied her interests were. Not only was she a teacher and muralist within her community, but she was educated on painting techniques, portraits, and gardening. Her large range of subjects that she was able to engage with, understand, and teach to others shows her strong passions for many different forms of art. Many groups and clubs such as the “American Association of Women, the National Federation of Republican Women, the Teacher’s Retirement Society, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Santa Barbara Women’s Club, and the Stroller’s Club,” which she was a apart of also show her wide array of interests. These groups which she belonged to show her dedication to her own family’s history, her country’s history, and her community’s history.
Although there are only a few images of Ford’s available, her style seems to be colorful and a bit cartoon-like and fantasy-like; very appropriate for an educational setting in a public elementary school for a younger audience. In the images found, the emphasis is mostly on the landscapes of the painting rather than people, although she did do some portraits in her life time. Her mediums used varied greatly, although she seemed to be very involved with public art and murals. Her formal education at numerous universities for both fine art and education show that she was a dedicated artist and was constantly learning, as well as teaching new techniques. Her lectures on Japanese gardens are particularly illuminating, further showing that she was invested in the outdoor aesthetic of the neighborhoods of the Southside of Chicago.
Finally, it is apparent that in all the images available by Ford, she signed her work “E.M. Ford”. This could be for practical reasons; that her name was too long to sign in its entirety. However, in light of looking at Ford as a woman artist, this could be significant. It could be hypothesized that she might have not wanted to be recognized as a woman artist, as many modern women artists have. Artists such as Lee Krasner and Claude Calhun used pseudonyms or androgynous names to avoid the stigma that many female artists receive. While Ford’s opinions on feminism and gender roles is not known, it is known that she took part in many women’s clubs.
It is evident that Elizabeth Merrill Ford was a prominent artist in the Southside neighborhoods of Chicago, although not a highly visible artist today. Her use of mediums such as oil paintings and murals, along with the placement of her paintings, show that she used art as a tool for education and to revive history within her community. She was clearly an educated women who was interested in her own history, as well as her country’s and her city’s histories. Her works were mostly exhibited in public settings, although she did create some private works for people. It would be interesting to see how the private commissions differed from her public works.