A view of the sunken garden, ca. 1913
“For all his seeming forthrightness and the single-mindedness of much of what appeared in The Craftman, Stickley was more complicated and opaque than we believe.” –Jonathan Clancy
When I read the above statement in Jonathan Clancy’s Circa 1917 opening essay, it stayed with me (in a past era, when essays like this were exclusively on paper, I would have marked it with my yellow highlighter). With this line, Clancy captures an essential conundrum in the Stickley story, which must be grappled with by anyone attempting to tell it.
In my job, I am immersed in an all-Stickley environment. Writing and speaking about Gustav Stickley is a routine part of my work, and yet, despite the availability of primary materials related to his life—his magazine, catalogs, business records, photographs—it is difficult to describe him as a person. I am accustomed to characterizing him as a designer, entrepreneur, publisher, visionary, or as a husband, father, and grandfather, and while these labels convey meaning, Gustav Stickley’s personality has always felt elusive—just out of reach. Still, as Clancy’s exhibition skillfully demonstrates, though a central opacity runs through the existing record of Stickley’s life, that record remains rich and ripe for fresh study. These riches are especially evident when the objects, photographs, maps, and texts are assembled in one place and methodically mined for connections and meaning, as they have been in Circa 1917.
Circa 1917 is, ostensibly, about Craftsman Farms; however, because Stickley shaped every aspect of the property, at its core, as Clancy makes clear, the exhibition is about him. In carefully pulling at every thread we know about the property—from the land he purchased to the drawer pulls in the White Cottage—the exhibition reveals the complex tapestry that was Craftsman Farms, and ultimately, and thrillingly, it is revealing of Stickley himself circa 1917—his philosophical and aesthetic vision, the environment he designed for public consumption, and the home he created for himself, for his family, and for their guests. Exploring this complex tapestry has rewarded me with new perspectives on Gustav Stickley—fodder for thought—and challenges to assumptions I made long ago.
One of the things the exhibition does best is present the fullness of Craftsman Farms as a 650-acre property—with its own pre-Stickley history—as an Arts and Crafts oasis, and as a family home. It avoids tidy narrative in favor of complexity and sheer quantity, and indeed, it attempts to show more than it tells, as it presents a fresh view of the property and of Stickley himself. Over many months, as I have watched the exhibition come together, and clicked through its sections and subsections, it has reminded me of a multi-layered digital map designed to provide all possible angles of Craftsman Farms—north, south, east, west, from above, on the ground, inside, outside. As Stickley himself might have cautioned his guests about Craftsman Farms, you can’t see it all in one visit. I hope you’ll bookmark the pages of the exhibition and return to them. One of the most compelling aspects of virtual exhibitions is their dynamic nature. We fully expect and hope that information in the exhibition will change as we come to know more.
In closing, I want to thank Jonathan Clancy for undertaking this monumental project. I have been delighted to be a bystander in its creation and evolution. Circa 1917 is the rare exhibition that is as groundbreaking as it is ambitious. New discoveries have rolled in regularly, like waves on the ocean, and now that this project is ready to share with the public, I am confident they will continue. As a document Circa 1917 is certain to enhance and test our understanding of Craftsman Farms and Gustav Stickley for years to come.
This exhibition, as Clancy’s opening essay details, was enriched through the generosity and cooperation of several individuals, and though the seeds of this exhibition were likely planted in his brain years ago, in my memory its launching point was the museum’s acquisition, in early 2021, of a handsome screen that was original to Stickley’s Log House interior. I want to express our deepest gratitude to the Leeds Art Foundation and to the people who made that acquisition possible: Barbara Fuldner, Thomas Bird, Cindy and Tim McGinn and Ted Lytwyn.
Thank you to the museum’s Board of Trustees, led by President Barbara Weiskittel, for their steady and forward-thinking leadership. Thank you to the Curatorial and Collections Committees for their support of and enthusiasm for this exhibition. Thank you to our volunteers for their continuing dedication to the museum and to the museum’s staff for their resourcefulness and resilience. And finally, thank you to the museum’s friends around the world, and especially our Members, who inspire all of our work.