Treasures from the Vault: Evelynne the Etcher

Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, Curator of Prints & Drawings

Evelynne Bernloehr Mess considered herself foremost a printmaker, unlike her more famous husband, George Jo Mess, and many of the other painters in Brown County, Indiana, who worked primarily in oil.  Today, if you want to learn how to make an etching, you can take classes at print shops, most universities, or watch videos on YouTube.  Back in the early 1920s, however, for Evelynne to become so skilled at etching and aquatint is a testament to her persistence. 

Born in Indianapolis, Evelynne was captivated by the medium at an early age.  She studied at the John Herron Art Institute, but there was no class in etching available.  Instead, she was determined to teach herself.  Evelynne was part of a print group formed by Herron students in 1924 to learn more about etching and engraving.  At one meeting Frederick Polley, the city’s only professional printmaker at the time, presented a basic etching demonstration.  Evelynne owned a copy of the still highly regarded book, The Art of Etching (1924) by the Scottish etcher, E.S. Lumsden.  

Likewise, access to professional tools, paper, and presses for etching were limited in Indianapolis.  A neighbor, who was a dentist, took some of his old tools and modified them into etching needles for her.  After a series of phone calls to printing firms in the area, she found a friend of her father who would allow her to use his unused printing press.  Finally, in 1928, she was able to make her first etching. 

A turning point for Evelynne was when she and her husband George attended the Fontainebleau School of Fine Art in France in the summer of 1929.  There she was finally able to formally study etching under a printmaker of high repute, Achile Ouvré.  The experience confirmed her love of the medium and revealed that her self-directed trials had provided a good foundation. 

Realizing how his highly precise, detailed drawings could easily translate into a print, Evelynne convinced George to learn etching in 1934.  She taught him the fundamentals and he immediately took to it, enjoying the experimentation with acids to achieve different effects.  George’s printmaking career soared and his artistic success often eclipsed Evelynne’s work, a not uncommon result in artist couples.  Because he worked full-time as a commercial artist, she provided him with ongoing technical assistance for his etchings.  Sadly her personal, creative output declined during this period. 

In 1944, Indianapolis artist Wayman Adams invited his longtime friends Evelynne and George to teach painting and etching for three summers.  Adams had founded Old Mill Art School in Elizabethtown, New York.  Adirondack Trail (pictured below) was a demonstration print by Evelynne and reveals her masterful handling of line and her ability to create a rich array of tonalities.  Evelynne commented, “I etched eighteen tones (shades of light gray to black) preparatory to hand printing the final proof.”[1]  Adirondack Trail was exhibited at the National Academy of Design and the Society of American Etchers.  An impression is in the collection of the Library of Congress.  

An etching of the Adirondack trail, this piece includes 19 tones of grey to create the grey/brown/black/green/white palette. It shows a grove of trees, with darkness falling in the background as you get closer into the wood. In the foreground, wooden planks span a fast moving stream to help the unseen hiker cross to the other side.
Evelynne Bernloehr Mess, American, 1903-2003. Adirondack Trail. Etching and aquatint, 1945. Gift of the Artist, 1950.33. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

After 1950, Evelynne suffered from lung problems caused by prolonged inhalation of nitric acid fumes used in etching.  She discontinued printmaking for 20 years and turned to painting. 

George passed away in 1962.  Fulfilling a lifetime dream Evelynne had shared with her husband, she opened a school in Brown County called Oxbow Acres, perhaps inspired by Wayman Adams’ school.  While the classes covered a range of subjects, it isn’t surprising that a special emphasis was placed on printmaking.  It remained open from 1967 until 1980.

Stop in and see works by Evelynne and George Jo Mess in the exhibition The Ideal Sketching Ground: Prints by the Artists of Brown County (April 20, 2019 – August 4, 2019) at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art. 

[1] June DuBois, Indiana Artists George Jo and Evelynne Bernloehr Mess: A Story of Devotion (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1985), p. 64.

One Reply to “Treasures from the Vault: Evelynne the Etcher”

Leave a Reply

error: Right click disabled for copyright protection.
%d bloggers like this: