Thursday, February 16, 2012

Deaf-Mute Artist of the 19th Century

Although the Tuttle family in the 1840's felt that their firstborn son became deaf when his father discharged a shotgun near him, it is more probable that young Francis Marion was actually born deaf. Today we know that a loud noise is unlikely to cause hearing loss, and can guess that it was caused by German measles during his mother's pregnancy, or an unspecified illness that went away uneventfully. Perhaps it was even genetic, that appeared unexpectedly and disappeared just as mysteriously. 

Those times, without modern knowledge of etiologies of deafness, it was easier to admit to a father's error  rendering one's own son a
deaf-mute than admit to a "taint" in the family. The Tuttle family was prominent in Geneva with a lineage extending back almost to the Mayflower. Colonel Tuttle was the inventor of the Tuttle Saw, and his large factory manufactured the saw popular with lumberjacks and millwrights. His own father established the Geneva tavern, then Col. Tuttle rebuilt it as a cobblestone that still exists nowadays as a historic building. 
Saks Fifth Avenue and St Patricks
In 1850 there was just one school for the deaf in New York and the Tuttles' son may have begun there at age 11. This was the New York Institute for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb, in Manhattan on a ten block area now occupied by Saks Fifth Avenue and St. Patrick's Cathedral. This was the school we know now as New York School for the Deaf or "Fanwood" after it moved to White Plains. Even as a boy, F.M. was referred by his initials rather than by his name Francis, a custom he continued all his life.

Professor C.W. Knudsen taught art and handicrafts at the Institute. He had his pupils draw grids on small illustrations and then redraw them larger on bigger grids, and would rigorously demand accuracy in this draftmanship. "Almost the only employments (that are) above the level of handicrafts, in which their privation will be no bar to high proficiency." was his belief. Each class did two hours a week in this practice, some also being instructed in wood engraving. Prof. Knudson said that those who showed a skill for "painting, engraving, and their kindred arts could be honorably employed and conquer a high social position."

When F.M. was sixteen, he received a certificate from the school and an award of drawing instruments for his excellence in art. The school recommended that two of their students, probably including F.M., receive further tutoring in painting but this would not happen for some time.

F.M.'s two years younger brother died that year so F.M. was not at the Institution until age 20 when he is again listed in residency at the school. This might have been for tutoring. At age 26 he married a former schoolmate, Eunice Jenner Barker, age 24. It appears that F.M. lived in New York for some time before moving with his wife to his widowed mother's house in Geneva near Seneca Lake.

Tuttle home as it appears today
F.M. began advertising his art skills in the Geneva Gazette newspaper at age 28. His relationship with the paper's editor proved to be important to his business as an artist, for the paper faithfully printed every time a painting was finished, would praise it highly, and announce where it may be seen either in F.M.'s home or in one of the store windows of the village. F.M. would drop by regularly to show a painting or to leave a gift of apples from the tree in his backyard, or just to pass on personal news. Often this would be dutifully reported in the paper, too, even praising the apples!

Hunting scene
As his artistic reputation grew, F.M. traveled to other cities in New York to show or deliver his works. He spent time hunting and fishing for sport and for tournaments, sometimes contributing his paintings as prizes for competitions. Most of his works were of the lands and waterways near his home. Although not as good a shot as his father, he painted birds and game as faithfully as he did portraits.

Due to his portraiture skill, he became acquainted with prominent people of Geneva and Ithaca and even the superintendent of the Rome school for the deaf in his later years. Painting portraits of them were far more painstaking than landscapes: each whisker, furrow and wrinkle would be reproduced so that the portraits would be praised in the newspapers as "unfailingly perfect." He was often invited to social events and was noted to have a "pleasing address" and his wife "aristocratic looking."

However, it is clear that F.M. and his wife were truly culturally Deaf in that they associated with other Deaf people and visited them at faraway places in the countryside. He bought a "fast horse" and they would ride their carriage often; sometimes his wife would ride out alone as far as Pennsylvania. Whenever Rev. Thomas Gallaudet came to Geneva to preach, F.M. and his wife would have him as a guest in their home, and they were regular attenders at Deaf church services.
Geneva village looking toward lake
Life was not always peaceful in Geneva. F.M. was annoyed by trespassers on his terraced yard cutting across to the lakeshore, even as he would himself go there to access his boat docked there. Sometimes he would be pelted with rocks thrown by village rowdies whenever he went to do business. While walking the paths of the  town parks, sometimes people on bicycles would hit his entourage. At one point they were walking with a female companion, when she was knocked down and had to be carried home, badly bruised with a sore neck. F.M. became so exasperated that he told the newspaper that he would "break the next wheel that runs him down."

Being deaf had its advantages and disadvantages in this small town where he was highly regarded in the role of "local deaf-mute artist". On four occasions he was nearly hit by trains and only his keen sense of vibration saved him. His paintings were considered extra fine because the artist had no distractions to keep him from reproducing faithfully all details, and this became part of his legend.

A hobby was boating, and F.M. captained at least two--one an ice boat that would careen speedily over the ice with his friends trusting to his skill. He may have built one of them, if one can interpret a cryptic Gazette entry about his selling one boat to "buy a paper shell and thus increase his physique."

Detail of portrait
Indeed, his training by Prof. Knudsen would be the foundation of his skill. F.M. worked from photographs, snippets of hair and occasionally items of clothing provided by grieving relatives wanting him to paint portraits of their deceased children or spouses. It did not matter how small the photographs were; he had a knack for working from memory if he knew them, or from an intuitive understanding of likenesses from their families. 

An obsessive eye for detail worked for his life portraits. These would be of his family members or older notables who had the patience to sit very long. It was exacting work, apparently, because by the time F.M. was a grandfather, he did only landscapes.

Biblical scenes were not done as often as his portraits and landscapes, but he did these brilliantly as he did the rest of his work: with an obsessive eye for detail. The story of Ahab of the Bible chapter Kings 21 was a favorite topic of his--he painted King Ahab visited by an angel and another of Elijah meeting Ahab in the garden. He also painted Elijah alone, and perhaps more Biblical scenes that are now lost in history.

Similarly, the painting Ahab and Jezebel Reproved by Elijah was lost in history for years. A mention of this large painting was found in the Rochester School for the Deaf publication Rochester Advocate, but there was no mention of it after 1885 with the limited digital editions then. No one on the campus today could recall seeing it; and the Geneva museum two years ago had no information other than it was "shown in the village stores" and of course, praised highly by the newspaper.

Tuttle exhibit    Dyer Gallery, NTID
Due to interest generated by my last blog about F.M. Tuttle, the Dyer Gallery of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf in Rochester hosted an exhibition of his paintings this winter. Tuttle artwork was borrowed from the Geneva museum and Tuttle's living descendants, and then this writer was invited to give a talk about him.

Although it had been a while since researching F.M., I found more material available about him this year  thanks to additional digitization of publications by the Geneva Historical Society and the Rochester School for the Deaf. A last-minute visit to the RSD Archives office coordinated by Mrs. Mary Mowl brought new information. The painting Elijah was indeed at the school in 1885 despite not enough funds raised to buy it. An entry in the RSD publication Rochester Advocate written 29 years after Tuttle's death showed that the painting at that time was hanging in the superintendent's office!

Hoo boy! I had surmised maybe the limited funds collected could have bought one of Tuttle's smaller paintings, perhaps a landscape instead of Elijah, but here was proof that it existed on campus at one time! The 1939 Advocate also had a description: Elijah has his arm pointed at Ahab and Jezebel who are standing before a chariot with rearing horses behind them.

Could it still be on campus, perhaps in a storage area? Although I had visited the attic in one building, none of the stored pictures sounded like Elijah. Thanks to Mrs. Mowl, two men accompanied me to this attic where we searched through white-sheeted mounds for it. The third sheet-covered mound yielded a good possibility: it was a canvas, in color, and about the right size. Pulling it out and finding a nearby cabinet handle to hang it upon, we stood back and looked at it. Oh, my. It fit the description! There was Ahab, and there was Jezebel! And Elijah, too! And the horses! The colors were unexpectedly brilliant, rare because so many of Tuttle's paintings now on exhibit at Dyer were darkened with age. How? Why? In fact, so finely painted and brilliant were the colors, it would have been natural to mistake it for a modern canvas print, if not for the ripples in the painting.

Tracking its history, one can see why it is still bright: it had probably hung in the superintendent's office for 54 years, from 1885 till 1943, until the superintendent mentioned in the
Advocate retired. Its title was long  forgotten by 1939, and the superintendent that took over in 1943 probably ordered it put into storage during housecleaning of his office. There it sat forgotten, shifted around according to storage space needs, until it was found by its description this February. Probably its storage under sheets in an uninsulated, dry space for nearly 70 years helped to preserve its colors. 

Now with its history and its name rediscovered, this painting will be examined for preservation and perhaps put on permanent display where it can be appreciated for its piece of Deaf history, that of a culturally Deaf Victorian-era artist.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Deaf Artist was Popular in Geneva NY

While doing research on a different story, I came across this dusty entry in an 1885 newsletter archive:

"Yesterday afternoon, Mr. Acker called with a deaf-mute artist, Mr. (F.M.) Tuttle of Geneva. Mr. Tuttle has painted quite a number of large pictures. He has now a picture on exhibition at Rundell's art store. It is about five feet long by three, and is a work upon which he has expended a great deal of labor. The subject is Ahab and Jezebel reproved by the prophet Elijah. Mr. Tuttle values this painting at a thousand dollars."

Huh? My curiosity was aroused. What artist in 1885 could command a thousand dollars for a painting the size of a poster? According to this website, the equivalent of that price today is $21,800! Even the subject was interesting: --a Biblical scenario done with Renaissance fervor?  My research took a detour.

The first place I looked was the Internet, which yielded very little information except to confirm that a known deaf artist lived in Geneva, a small, picturesque village in the Finger Lakes region of New York. A search of art gallery sites turned up no painting of Tuttle's. Further search of museums turned up the Geneva Historical Society which happily had a small collection of Tuttle paintings, but this rotating exhibit was soon to be put into storage that next Monday.  So, one cold, sleeting and icy Friday, I took an hour-long auto trip to see it.

The curators of the museum were very kind in providing information and access to the exhibit. A second-floor room was devoted entirely to this local painter who specialized in portraits and landscapes, containing art from 8" x 14" to as large as 3' x 5'.  On closer examination, the paintings are nearly photograph-like in their attention to detail and total lack of brushstrokes; the paint was applied thinly and carefully layered upon inexpensive hardboard known as "academy board". The modern equivalent of this material is canvas paper.

He spent a great deal of time on fine detail: the fringe on a shawl, the lace of a cuff, even the embroidery on a smock. The blue veins can even be seen on this child's hand. Many of the paintings were unsigned.

Quote from the Geneva Gazette newspaper of Jan. 14, 1876:  "The artist has also painted the picture of (a) child, having only a lock of hair and a photo to guide him, and it is needless to remark that is all which is necessary for him to have to produce upon canvass an exact likeness of a person living or dead."

"The parents pronounce it perfect in pose, form and features, and their judgement ought to be conclusive on those points. A photograph, and vivid recollection of the living subject, were the only aids to the talented artist in producing this most striking likeness." Early in his career he painted Biblical scenes, later in life devoting his subject matter to landscapes and portraiture since these earned an income.

The Geneva newspapers were very much aware of their resident artist and spared no effort at praising and publicizing his works whenever they came up for sale. The scenery around Seneca Lake and Geneva were well-represented among his works and this provided Tuttle with an income to support his family for many years. He was a prolific painter, at one time producing 59 paintings, all on order, between December 1899 and February 1900.

Who was this deaf artist, and how did he get there? We all ask in our community, where did he go to school? Did he socialize with other deaf people, too? How did he learn his trade?

Francis Marion Tuttle was born in 1839 and became deaf in one version from a shotgun blast; but in another story he was said to be born deaf. He was called a mute which indicates he became deaf before learning to speak. As a child he attended the New York Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb (now known as the New York School for the Deaf in White Plains) where he learned art, but it probably was not promoted as a career. He completed three years in the High Class and earned a diploma of the "highest grade." For formal instruction in art, he probably was one of the two students that were urged to take private lessons taught by an artist in the city.

Tuttle married a fellow student from the Institution, Eunice Barker, and later they had two sons, both hearing, but one died in his mid-teens.

After finishing school, they returned to Geneva to make his living as an artist, first living with his mother on South Main Street, then later moving to another house. He painted actively from about 1861 till his death.

Geneva Gazette, 1872: "Mr. Tuttle is a deaf mute, and it is possible that the wonderful fidelity of his pictures and singular ability to reproduce from memory may result in a measure from his power to concentrate his whole mind upon his work without being annoyed by talking or outside influence." Many paintings have been mentioned in the local papers, mostly as having been sold at a "handsome compensation." One was reported sold at $500, another at $1,000.
Tuttle was an outdoorsman, frequently hunting, fishing and catching prize specimens in the lakes around his home, so his paintings reflected the views that he saw. Many households in Geneva have these sketches since there were hundreds of them done during his lifetime. His surviving son, Hammond B. Tuttle, grew up to be a photographic artist and fisherman as well.

Tuttle was known to have traveled to Rochester to visit the Western New York Institute for Deaf Mutes (now Rochester School for the Deaf) where the superintendent was interested in buying one of his larger paintings "to illustrate to our students that great works can be accomplished by one less fortunate than themselves." By this I suppose the superintendent meant that his students had more ability to speak and use spelled English than the artist. Also, the Geneva newspapers always wrote about him in the third person; never directly quoting or interviewing him.

F. M. Tuttle died suddenly at age 72 at his home on Friday, December 30, 1911. He had a slight stroke some six weeks previously and recovered, but that morning he shoveled the walk in front of his house, had gone inside and an hour later was found dead, probably of heart disease caused by overexertion.

By today's standards, F.M. Tuttle would be better known and thanks to the internet and telcommunications advances of today, be more widely recognized outside his small hometown.
Images courtesy of the Geneva Historical Society

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Happiness is...Part 3

Derived from a project done in the 70's, these were the last six panels, so all are being presented here. Striped pants, mailbox-sized TTYs, ducktail haircuts and all! Those were the days before the ADA; before interpreters became more available; when it was a status symbol to speak on the telephone, and CI's were unheard of. How we have grown since...

Happiness is winning a dispute over a bill.

Misery is answering a newspaper job ad.

Happiness is being in on the latest gossip at work.

Misery is the clerk immediately asking your girlfriend what you said.

Happiness is a TTY at work.

Happiness is beating hell out of a set of bass drums.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Happiness is...Part 2

The second of a series of Deaf life in the 1970's. How things have changed...(and some haven't changed.)

Happiness is an interpreter doing all the jokes as well as the lecture.

Misery is wondering what the stockroom boys are hollering at you.

Happiness is a family that signs at the dinner table.

Misery is a company that doesn't know how to use their Teletype.

Happiness is....(thanks to Charles Schultz, cartoonist of Peanuts)

This was a project done in the 1970's, so you're going to notice some old attitudes, anachronisms and old-fashioned elements of Deaf life back then. These will be published in a series of four at a time. Enjoy!

Happiness is having no speech or English drill today.

Misery is having to say "my country tis of thee" for VIP visitors.

Happiness is being understood without writing it down.

Misery is having the secretary make your phone calls.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Photo: Panoramic Street view of the Rochester School for the Deaf Campus

The Perkins Building (Administration), ©2008 DPG

This Victorian building, built in 1870, originally housed the Home for Truant and Idle Children, a reform school. In 1877 it closed and the Rochester School for the Deaf (then named the Western New York Institute for Deaf Mutes) took over the lease, later to buy the property. Over the years it housed the school, its pupils, and its staff at different times while additional buildings went up on campus. The school grew in reputation both for excellence in education and for the warm atmosphere fostered by its staff. Today its alumni still have fond memories of this building and love to tell stories about it, including one about the founder's ghost that supposedly inhabits it to this day.

This photo was made from eight or more smaller photos using a Sony DSC-f717camera mounted on a tripod. I stood on the sidewalk across the street and moved the camera after each shot, ten feet at a time to the side. The photos were assembled in Photoshop and most parallax distortions were corrected. The lighting changed during the shoot, so this had to be adjusted too.

Then, just for the heck of it, I tested the capability of an Epson 7600 printer and printed a 24" by 6 foot long  picture. I was amazed, even after working many hours on its composition. Each brick and almost every leaf and fence post came out sharp, which is difficult to achieve in a single photograph. For a first-time effort, this turned out surprisingly well, but I learned some lessons in parallax and photo compositing that will be of benefit next time.

This is a new blog, for a different purpose

In addition to my Xanga blog, I had been studying Blogger for different possibilities, one of them being showing my photos or artistic efforts on occasion. Yeah, I know there is Flickr, Pbase and other artist/photo sites that might be better (and have sales capability) but this is not my purpose. This blog is just for exploration of this medium and for interaction with you, the reader and viewer. Your comments are welcome and I promise to respond!