This new museum shines spotlight on rediscovered Kansas artist Clara Hatton

November 8, 2022 3:33 am
Book binding, silver jewelry and ceramics created by Clara Hatton

Artist Clara Hatton’s expertise in book binding, silver jewelry, and ceramics are featured at the new Clara Hatton Center in Lindsborg. (Lori Brack)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our stateLori Brack is an author who has worked in programs and publications for the Salina Art Center, as a college and community writing instructor and as director of a foundation-funded artist development project in Salina. She lives in Lucas.

Clara Hatton is “arguably the most important forgotten Kansas artist of the 20th century,” and if you doubt it, Bill North is out to change your mind.

The daughter of Russell County farmers, Hatton was educated in Kansas, Michigan and England in ceramics, bookbinding, calligraphy and letterpress, engraving, weaving, and jewelry making. Today, her legacy is protected by the Clara Hatton Center, the newest art venue in downtown Lindsborg, and what appears to be the only museum in Kansas dedicated to a woman artist’s work.

Like the Hatton family stone homestead, now a habitat for fish under the water of Lake Wilson, achievements of women too often remain submerged until a scholar like North takes the time the pandemic offered to think and imagine. Before North established the Clara Hatton Center as director, he was senior curator at the Beach Museum of Art at Kansas State for 17 years, and executive director of the Salina Art Center for seven years. He is a specialist in the history of American prints of the 1930s and 1940s.

“In this one-room museum, everything that happens in a big museum will be here,” North said. 

Bill North, director of the Clara Hatton Center, talks to Kathy Richardson of Small World Gallery
Bill North, director of the Clara Hatton Center, talks about plans to display Hatton’s hand-printed Christmas cards during Lindsborg’s downtown holiday celebration with Kathy Richardson of Small World Gallery. (Lori Brack)

He plans a print study area, programming for all ages, artists in residence, and original exhibitions of art. Those will include works from Hatton, her contemporaries, and living artists whose creations overlap in themes, methods, and materials. North is enthusiastic about the two large storefront window bays at 105 N. Main St., where he envisions visible studios focused on books, printing, and calligraphy.

Hatton’s connection to Lindsborg includes a 1969 exhibition at the Birger Sandzen Memorial Gallery, and commissions she undertook to bind historic Lindsborg books such as the Greenough Family Bible. Last year, the Sandzen Gallery mounted a retrospective  in the winter after a spring and summer exhibition at Colorado State University celebrated Hatton’s importance as a professor from 1936 to 1966 and as founder of the university’s art and art history department. The visual arts gallery there bears her name.

Looking back is compelling. But why now, in the first decades of the 21st century, is Hatton’s work being revived?

One answer can be found in the center’s next exhibition, which opened Monday and runs through Jan. 29. The show begins to plumb “Clara Hatton and the British Arts and Crafts Movement,” a through-line to one of the most significant art movements of the 19th and 20th centuries.

“We have Clara’s letters to her family from Europe when she studied there in 1935 and ’36,” North said. This work and its values of the dignity of labor, craft, and creating things of beauty for everyday living come to light at a time when North believes “we’re reliving 1935 and ’36 in some ways culturally, socially, economically, even globally.”

Hatton sketch of the Russell County farmhouse where she grew up is paired with a print for a program.
Hatton’s sketch of the Russell County farmhouse where she grew up is paired with her print featured on The Land Institute’s 1988 Prairie Festival program. (Lori Brack)

In 1935, the rearmament of Germany began, and Hitler’s ultra-nationalist government pursued territorial expansion into the Rhineland, an area established as a buffer between Germany and France. The same year, the Nuremberg Laws denied citizenship to Jews and limited the work and social lives of Jewish residents of Germany.

In Britain, where Hatton was studying, the occupation wasn’t seen as a threat. She came away from her time there with British artist Emery Walker’s handle letters, a boxed set of hand-cut type for tooling leather book bindings.

A 1976 self-portrait by Clara Hatton
A 1976 self-portrait by Hatton hangs at the new center dedicated to her work. (Lori Brack)

Walker was an important Arts and Crafts engraver and photographer. His letters will be part of the exhibition, along with Hatton’s book bindings, wood and copper plate engravings, calligraphy, and letterpress. Many of the works of art were collected and preserved by Hatton’s niece Ora Hatton Shay of Austin, Texas. She has dedicated years to finding works by Hatton that were sold in a Salina auction after her death there in 1991.

Hatton’s early 20th century roots in Russell County included book clubs, music study and performances, and community life that promoted thinking about how to live well. North holds a similar ambition for rural yet rich cultural life in “this little world on a Main Street in the middle of Kansas.”

Hatton’s practical Kansas work ethic and her ability and achievements as a creative polymath have a home in a small museum not much larger than the one-room prairie schoolhouse where she taught as a teenager. 

“We really have to think about new and different ways to do things,” North said. “Clara’s on my shoulder all the time. I ask ‘What would Clara do?’ ”

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Lori Brack
Lori Brack

Lori Brack is the author of "A Case for the Dead Letter Detective" (2021) and "Museum Made of Breath" (2018). In 2010, her poetic script for "Farmer’s Dream," a work of performance art based in Kansas agricultural history and labor by Ernesto Pujol, was published as "A Fine Place to See the Sky." The script is a collaboration with her grandfather’s 1907-1918 Kansas farming journals. Brack worked in programs and publications for the Salina Art Center and as a college and community writing instructor. She is a member of the 2023 Critical Writing Initiative sponsored by the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission.