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Chicago painter Ellen Lanyon dies at 86

Artwork by Ellen Lanyon

Artwork by Ellen Lanyon

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Updated: November 11, 2013 12:34PM



Ellen Lanyon’s studio was an old curiosity shop, filled with antique tools and toys, spooky dolls, yellowing postcards and taxidermied rabbits.

Her still-life paintings had a hint of Salvador Dali and a touch of Hieronymus Bosch. There were birds, bugs, fish and fossils and coiling vines and sinister flowers. Often, they were juxtaposed with bric-a-brac from the human realm: meat grinders, magic tricks and timepieces.

Her paintings made her feel like a magician, she said, one “who can transform flowers into fire, create the animate out of the inanimate, and utilize osmosis and gravity to create illusion.”

Some called it “Cornbelt Surreal.”

Chicagoans may know her work from a sweet spot under Lake Shore Drive at the south bank of the Chicago River. Her Riverwalk Gateway features a series of ceramic tile murals that tell the river’s story. They depict the explorations of Marquette and Joliet; the engineering feat that reversed the river; its movable bridges; the Great Fire of 1871, and the 1933 World’s Fair.

“I would hope that taking a stroll on the Riverwalk would be like entering an art gallery,” she once told the Chicago Sun-Times.

Her paintings, drawings and prints were in galleries and museums all over the world, including the Art Institute, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the Milwaukee Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. She had more than 75 solo exhibitions, her son, Andrew Ginzel, said in an email.

A Chicago native, Ms. Lanyon, 86, died Monday as she was returning from Cambridge, England, where she had been working on a new series of prints. She had a heart attack while going through customs in New York City, where she had lived since about 1980, relatives said.

“She was so important in the history of Chicago art,” said Bob Hiebert, of Chicago’s Printworks Gallery, which represents her drawings and prints.

“By her talent, and her rigorously poetic evocation of nature, [she] always stayed absolutely current,” artist Tony Fitzpatrick said. Her work “made me feel, and got me thinking what a miraculous place nature is, and how it’s all around us — and how it’s a poem and riddle.”

Ms. Lanyon traced her passion to inheriting supplies from her grandfather, an artist from Yorkshire, England, who painted murals for the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.

“My father and mother put together his equipment that was left plus new tubes of paint, et cetera, and it was presented to me on my 12th birthday as a sort of, you know, a gesture. Passing the torch or something,” she said in the book, “Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention.” “And so I started painting . . .”

When she was about 7, her grandfather took her to the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair, where she was fascinated by the offbeat “Midget Village,” said to contain the world’s largest population of Little People.

She grew up on the South Side and attended Hyde Park High School. Singer Mel Torme was a fellow student, said artist Roland Ginzel, Ms. Lanyon’s husband of 65 years. She loved traveling to Lincoln Park to visit the Chicago History Museum, where she would lose herself in the miniature dioramas. A feminist aunt arranged for her to attend junior classes at the Art Institute, she told chicagoartistsresource.org.

At 15, to earn extra money during the Depression, she performed drafting work, enlarging mechanical designs at a Beardsley & Piper factory, according to the Loyola University Museum of Art and Mark Pascale, the Art Institute’s curator in the department of Prints and Drawings. That left her with “remarkable observational skills,” Pascale said in a piece he wrote about Ms. Lanyon.

In 1948, she graduated from the School of the Art Institute. She earned a master’s degree in fine arts from the University of Iowa in 1950.

Her career was especially remarkable in those early decades, when the art world “was pretty much a macho and male-oriented scene,” Fitzpatrick said.

When she started out, “art, like lots of other areas, was really dominated by men, and she was not intimidated by that, and she was not corralled into the conventional painting styles of the time,” said Louise Lincoln, director of the DePaul Art Museum, which exhibited her work last year. “She wanted to paint her own imagery; her own view of the world.”

She wryly referred to her successes as “keeping up with the boys,” Pascale said.

After Ms. Lanyon received a government commission about the Everglades, the fragility of nature became a favorite theme. “That experience triggered a study of environmental issues that has led to the use of imagery that speaks to how the human hand of invention has altered our environment,” she told chicagoartistsresource.org.

Shew was super-organized and had a prodigious memory. Pascale often called her when he had a question about something he couldn’t find in a book.

“I also used to refer to her as my hot date, because she was so self-possessed and she was so stylish,” Pascale said. She’d wear chic, well-cut, black clothes, he said, and she had “a pair of classic Armani glasses she found in a thrift store and they looked like a million bucks. She was so tough and so swell.”

In the 1960s, she managed Ox-Bow, a famed art school in Saugatuck, Mich. She also won a Fulbright study grant, awards from the National Endowment for the Arts and several Yaddo fellowships.

In addition to her husband and son, she is survived by her daughter, Lisa, and her brother, Richard Lanyon.

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