Lenore Thomas Straus and The Deep Roots of a Matriarchal Art Lineage
Imagine an intricately designed life size tapestry that has been woven together over the course of generations with vibrant threads worked by the strong dedicated hands of female artists; each a master weaver adding in her own unique touch, style, color, and fabrication to create the ever evolving pattern. Can you picture it?
This is the tapestry of Musea exhibited in homage to its history which is deeply rooted in a Creative Matriarchal Art Lineage that is steeped in a sustenance so rich it has been able to spark a global art movement serving thousands of female students and artists for more than twenty-five years. Centered within the beginnings of this Matriarchal lineage is artist Lenore Thomas Straus. This article is intended to offer a spotlight into the life and work of one of Musea’s Root Art Matriarchs.
Lenore Thomas Straus was a large-scale sculptor who created many private and community works throughout the course of her career. She was born in Chicago in 1909 and she began receiving commissions as young as in her early twenties. This is very important to emphasize because it was not easy to get paid work as a female artist – much less a female sculptor – at that time, and to fashion an entire career that could support a living as an artist.
While she studied at the prestigious Chicago Art Institute, which in and of itself was another major accomplishment given the constraints placed upon female artists of that era, she was also largely self taught. Much of her early work was created under various New Deal programs initiated by Eleanor Rosevelt including the honor of being chosen as one of the only female artists to help create the Goethe playground statues in Langston Terrace, the first federally funded housing project in Washington D.C. She did this alongside a group of well known Public Administration Works artists such as Hugh Collins and Joseph Goethe. These public works projects also included multiple terracotta murals for various post offices and several bas relief panels for many civic buildings.
Children playing atop Lenore’s sculpture ‘Frog’ in Langston Terrace, circa 1940s.
While Lenore’s work has been displayed in many prominent galleries throughout the country, she also achieved the status of international artist, another area within the world of fine art where additional hurdles had to be cleared by women. Her work was exhibited in Mexico City in 1933, and can even be found in very remote regions of Norway.
One of the major principles of Lenore’s work that has had an enduring influence within Musea, and is included in the teachings of Intentional Creativity, is art as a form of activism. Much of Lenore’s work fits within the style of Social Realism defined as: “realism that carries a clearly discernible social or political comment”. Her passion for social justice activism is a clearly evident theme that flows throughout her body of work. The Greenbelt Museum in Greenbelt Maryland, where she had created several important sculptures for the town in the 1930s, recently hosted an exhibit highlighting the pieces she developed during the New Deal public works stage of her career. Two of these pieces were described in the blog of a Greenbelt Resident, Meagan Searing Young, as the following, “Thomas Straus chose the Preamble to the United States Constitution as the theme for Greenbelt’s Center School and Community Building because as she said in an interview, she didn’t believe that children knew enough about American history. She created clay mock ups and submitted them to her supervisors at the Special Skills Division within the RA for approval. In the same interview referenced above, she said that she was determined that her work have social significance. She said that the mock up for the Establish Justice panel was the only one of her designs which was rejected. The fact that she wanted to put this particular scene on the front of a school building in the midst of deeply segregated Prince George’s County is a testament to her courage and the strength of her convictions. Thomas Straus’ mock up for Establish Justice was a sharp statement against the violence and lack of justice she witnessed against Black Americans”.
Ultimately she had to resubmit a different proposal which was approved that “highlighted the daily lives of hardworking people.” It’s pictured below.
Establish Justice bas-relief by Lenore Thomas Straus
In another bas relief, Provide For The Common Defense, as also mentioned in the blog by Meagan Searing Young, Lenore has depicted what she described during an interview she gave in 1975 as “robot-like soldiers invading a peaceful country” with the family in the scene symbolizing resistance to war.
Provide For the Common Defense, bas-relief by Lenore Thomas Straus
For the purpose of offering a picture entailing the full scope of her career, we will flash forward to later in her life before returning to the Greenbelt sculptures. Lenore married Robert Ware Strauss in the early 1940s and maintained her studio as a working artist in their Accokeek, Maryland home. (Again sidestepping the traditional path of the time for women to forego their careers in lieu of the work of their husbands). Also being an ardent student of Buddhism, after they moved to Maine in 1968 she became the pupil of zen teacher Walter Nowick at the well known Morgan Bay Zendo in Surry, Maine where several of her sculptures remain on the grounds to this day. One could also naturally assume that her practice of Zen Buddhism may have influenced her own artwork and or her art making process. In addition, there are parallels between some Buddhist concepts and the basic principles of Intentional Creativity teachings such as creating with mindfulness, and being conscious of the ability to maintain a perspective of the observing witness while immersed within the observation process.
Sculpture presumed to be by Lenore on the Zendo grounds
Lenore continued her distinguished career in Maine where she taught as an artist-in-residence at the esteemed Haystack Mountain School of Crafts where only a few years prior to her death in 1988 she ‘dove into a whole new medium of hand crafted paper.’ Shortly after she walked on into the universe, the school created a scholarship in her name which is still being provided to this day. (Her name is displayed on their website under their list of Scholarships).
We return now to another very popular work on the grounds of Greenbelt, Maryland to the sculpture entitled “Mother and Child” depicting a mother’s love and affection. It feels very important to highlight this particular piece for the purpose of this article. In retrospect, it could be interpreted as taking on a new symbolism containing an almost prophetic quality when placing it within the context of Musea’s Matriarchal Art Lineage which Lenore ultimately helped to birth into the world.
Now this brings us to the discussion of the legacy of Intentional Creativity as it lives within Musea because it was sculpted from Lenore’s relationship with artist Sue Hoya Sellars. Sue, who was Lenore’s ‘youngest and longest-standing’ art apprentice would later grow up to become art teacher, mentor, and co-mother to Musea’s founder Shiloh Sophia.
In 1953, Lenore met Sue Hoya Sellars at the age of thirteen and recognized her as an exceptional artist. Sue studied with Lenore for many years although her own primary media was painting and, due to Sue’s life situation, Lenore would even become Sue’s legal guardian. Later in her life, Sue would go on to pass her teachings to Shiloh Sophia after meeting Shiloh’s mother, Caron Mcloud. It is at this juncture where the threads of creativity between artist and apprentice intersect with the relationship woven by mother and daughter to form patterns shaped by profoundly enduring love, great beauty, heritage, and inspirational visionary artistry.
While there is currently not an exhibit of Lenore’s work on the Musea site, you can find both of the books she wrote and published (again an uncommon accomplishment for her time) at the Museum: Stone Dust and Tender Stone.
You can also watch the video recording of Shiloh interviewing Grace Steenburg from Denmark, a Color of Woman Graduate, who was so inspired by Lenore’s legacy that she traveled to a very remote part of Norway (the place of Lenore’s ancestry) just to be able to connect with some of the statues still located there. During the interview Shiloh further talks about the importance of ‘the return to honoring ancestry to find the thread of connection for voyaging forward,’ and how this relates to Intentional Creativity.
In closing…we can ask ourselves if an artist ever understands during their own lifetime the full impact their art has on a community, a society, or even the world. We can guess that perhaps Lenore was able to see some of the influences of her body of work. But we can also wonder if that it may have been incomprehensible for her to conceive of the the ripple effects her teachings would have as they were casted through her apprentice, Sue Hoya Sellars, which were then received and alchemized by Sue’s own apprentice and beloved art daughter Curator Shiloh Sophia. The thousands of Intentional Creativity students that have been and continue to be taught by Shiloh, as supported by the legacy of Sue and Lenore Thomas Straus, have greatly benefited from her very generous sharing of the unfolding weaving of this incredible Matriarchal Art Lineage. In return, now each student has also contributed her very own thread to the tapestry and will forever be part of this growing legendary work.
Jessica holds an M.A. in Counseling Psychology with a specialization in Expressive Arts Therapy. She is an Intentional Creativity Teacher and Coach, and is a member of the Musea Co-Curators Discovery Team as the magazine Lead.