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Rediscovered woodblock prints come into the light

March 8, 2018
By Susan Kasten

Norma Bassett Hall

Norma Bassett Hall, Cottage in Skye. Color block print on Japan paper. Wichita Art Museum, Gift of Mosby Lincoln Foundation    

Art historian Joby Patterson spent a dozen years of detective work uncovering the colorful prints, drawings, and story of American woodblock artist Norma Bassett Hall. Visitors to Beloit’s Wright Museum of Art will have the chance to see an exhibition of art by Hall, a talented female artist whose work was lost to history for 50 years. The exhibit opens March 22.

Hall, who lived from 1888 to 1957, achieved fleeting fame in the 1920s, even exhibiting her work at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. By the 1950s, however, Modernism had stolen attention away from the Arts and Crafts movement, and artists like Hall, trained in that style, fell out of favor.

After encountering one of Hall’s prints of an Oregon seascape, Patterson, who is a collector, scholar, and teacher from Oregon, spent years tracking clues about Hall’s life and work. She researched Hall’s letters, talked to the artist’s friends and relatives, and followed her footsteps through Oregon, Kansas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Europe, all places where Hall had lived and worked with her husband, Arthur William Hall, also a printmaker. The couple met while studying at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Patterson’s persistent research eventually led to the publication of Norma Bassett Hall: Catalogue Raisonné of Block Prints and Serigraphs (Pomegranate Communications, 2014), which showcases Hall’s prints and traces the artist’s adventurous and creative life.

She also uncovered a sizeable number of Hall’s color prints, mostly held by friends and relatives, which she curated for this exhibit.

After Hall died, her work—most of it in the artist’s private collection—sat untouched in her studio for several years. Eventually, the collection was distributed to family and friends, who carefully stored the artwork in their closets and dresser drawers, where they were out of the public’s sight for decades.

Time has allowed a fresh reflection on the art of the early 20th century, Patterson says. “A new perspective and interest has emerged, and Norma and her work are now getting the recognition they deserve,” she says.

Beloit’s Wright Museum of Art will exhibit 65 works by Hall, including 10 serigraphs, a couple of drawings and photographs, a cherry wood block, and many vibrantly colored woodblock prints. The exhibit called “Chipping the Block, Painting the Silk: The Color Prints of Norma Bassett Hall” opens in the museum’s Hollensteiner Gallery on Thursday, March 22, with a reception from 5 to 7 p.m.

Patterson will be on hand at the opening to talk about Hall’s art and her life and to sign books that will be available at the opening. She is scheduled to speak at 6 p.m. The exhibition remains open through May 20.