Unrecognized artist gets his due

There would have been a 20th century, even without Viktor Schreckengost. It just wouldn't have been as much fun to look at.

Remember tearing down the street on a banana seat bike? Or pedaling around the driveway in that pint-size fire engine, the one with a real bell? Or how about the look on Dad's face when he saw that riding mower for the first time?

Mr. Schreckengost designed all those cool things - and many others.

But it's just now, in his 90s - that Schreckengost is finally getting his due. The Cleveland Museum of Art, just a few miles from Schreckengost's home, is honoring him with a retrospective show through Feb. 4 that combines his fine art and work as an industrial designer.

The exhibition includes paintings, ceramic sculptures, dinnerware, bikes and toys, an electric fan, costume and set designs, and photographs of larger machines Schreckengost designed - such as the first cab-over-engine truck.

"No one has put together that they were all designed by one person," says Henry Adams, the museum's curator of American painting. But when pieces from Schreckengost's long career are brought together, similarities emerge.

"One is the extraordinary clarity with which he gets to the essence of a problem - whether it's designing a new product or representing an animal," Mr. Adams says.

For example, "with an anteater, he makes it look like a vacuum cleaner, which is what an anteater is. There's also a wonderful sense of humor and a positive feeling about life that runs through everything in the show."

The son of a potter, Schreckengost grew up in Sebring, Ohio, a town built around several china factories. He worked at the potteries from a young age and soon showed an artistic flair.

Schreckengost went to the Cleveland School of Art - now called the Cleveland Institute of Art - where he was president of his class.

In 1930, while working for a Cleveland pottery company, Schreckengost took an order from a woman who wanted a punch bowl with a New York theme. Schreckengost responded with one his most celebrated creations, the "Jazz Bowl."

A simple, deep curve, the bowl is decorated with a design in black and vibrant blue that uses bold shapes to give the impression of a night on the town in New York. Schreckengost later discovered that it was Eleanor Roosevelt who had ordered the bowl. She loved it and ordered two more.

Schreckengost loves jazz - he once played saxophone and clarinet - and found inspiration in the music and the black American culture from which it sprang.

A large segment of Schreckengost's paintings and ceramic pieces from the 1930s depict black subjects - including big bands, dancers, and a sculpture of Mother Earth as a radiant, nude black woman with tiny babies of all ethnic backgrounds climbing on her.

The pieces were daring for a white artist of the time, although some of the subjects' pronounced features might strike modern viewers as stereotyped.

"I hope they don't depict any belittling of any kind," Schreckengost says. They were done out of admiration, he says.

His modern dinnerware of the 1930s transformed the way the American pottery industry - which had previously copied stodgy European designs - decorated plates and cups.

Always, he was guided by simple questions. What is the object for? Who will use it? Can the object be mass produced at low cost?

Schreckengost made his designs fun.

"I didn't understand why wealthy people were the only ones who could have good design," Schreckengost says. "I thought if we could make millions of something, everybody could afford it. It didn't cost any more to make it right than to make junk."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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