Nan Sheets: Artist Scrapbook

Facebook Thumbnail

Artist and The Elms former gallery owner Nan Sheets (Circa 1965)
Maine: Oil on linen 24 x 36 - By Nan Sheets
Tuna Boats: Oil on linen - By Nan Sheets
The Elms Art Gallery (Circa 1930)
JRB Art at the Elms gallery (2010). Located in the Historic Paseo Arts District at 2810 North Walker - Oklahoma City

The Artist Who Made It Happen

By Joy Reed Belt

The recent gift of Nan Sheets’ scrapbook, compiled from 1930 to 1936 by a dear friend, prompted me to think about her influence in the evolution of the visual arts in Oklahoma City.  Nan Sheets, one of the best known early Oklahoma artists, was born in 1885 in Illinois, the youngest of five children.  By all reports, she inherited her mother’s talent for painting and her father’s free and independent spirit.  Nan graduated from Valparaiso University with a degree in Pharmacy. She immediately obtained work in a neighboring town, but soon moved to Salt Lake City where she studied art in the mornings and worked in the afternoon and evening as the head prescription clerk in one of Salt Lake’s largest pharmacies.

In 1916 Nan married Dr. Fred Sheets, an Oklahoman whom she met in college, and moved to Oklahoma City.  She immediately enrolled and studied painting for several years at both the Academy of Fine Arts and the Broadmoor Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. In 1920, she and Dr. Sheets built a resident studio and gallery they named The Elms at 2810 North Walker in Oklahoma City.  Her fall exhibits, which consisted of an opening night and a two week open house showing her work, the canvasses she brought back from her travels and those she had persuaded American artists of recognized prominence to send her to sell, immediately became a premier Oklahoma City attraction.

Sheets frequently traveled to arts colonies and places of great scenic beauty throughout the United States. She spent months at a time abroad as a student and as an organizer and leader of tours for artists and arts enthusiasts.  The summer of 1930 was a turning point in Nan Sheets’ career.  Buoyed by having received national critical acclaim for her own paintings and encouraged by the pent-up demand for beautiful things from land rush participants and their descendants who were building beautiful homes in what is now Heritage Hills, Nan Sheets decided to convert her studio at The Elms into an art gallery in which she would show the works of celebrated American and European masters. The Elms and the Colonial Art Gallery and Frame Shop were the first commercial galleries in Oklahoma City.

In 1935, Nan Sheets took charge of the federal government’s WPA art project for Oklahoma. One of the most enduring projects that Sheets undertook as part of the WPA programming efforts was the establishment of a public, nonprofit art museum in Oklahoma City.  While the government was willing to pay for salaries, equipment and supplies, it would not pay the rent or utilities.  Sheets immediately called on Stanley Draper, Sr., the manager of the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, and solicited his help in locating a building. He found her a room in what was the Commerce Exchange Building.  Under her direction, the program soon outgrew the space, and relocated to a building on Second Street next to the Wirt-Franklin Building, before moving to a floor in the newly completed Municipal Auditorium.

Since the government could only supply a small amount of art for exhibition and the museum didn’t have a collection or money for acquisitions, Sheets, with the assistance of the Oklahoma City Art League and the Junior League, borrowed and displayed art that had been collected by some of Oklahoma City’s most prominent families, including the Hightowers, the Butrams and the Shartels. The Federal Art Project closed in 1942, but Sheets, convinced that Oklahoma City needed a permanent art museum, raised the money, including $250,000 from John and Eleanor Kirkpatrick, to build an art center at the Fairgrounds. For the next 29 years, Sheets worked as the Museum’s Director.

That institution is now our wonderful Oklahoma City Museum of Art. The move from the Fairgrounds to downtown in 2002 was led by the late Carolyn Hill, a woman whose vision, energy and commitment to the arts was not unlike that of Nan Sheets.

The Paseo, Oklahoma City’s first shopping center, is currently home to 20 galleries, restaurants, retail establishments, and about 60 artists in residence. The Paseo Arts District thrives just two blocks up the street from The Elms.  There are art galleries opening in commercial districts throughout the city. One of the most recent is the Dobson Gallery in Nichols Hills.

In addition to the Art League, there are many nonprofit, art-focused organizations, including the Oklahoma Visual Arts Coalition (OVAC), Individual Artists of Oklahoma (IAO), the Arts Council of Oklahoma City, City Arts, the Paseo Arts Association, Allied Arts, Artspace at Untitled and the Oklahoma State Arts Council. These organizations promote the arts and assist young, mid-career and established artists in very concrete and meaningful ways.  In addition to The Oklahoma City Art Museum and The National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, we have the Fred Jones, Jr. Museum at the University of Oklahoma, as well as the Betty Price Gallery at the Oklahoma State Capital which exhibits works from the Oklahoma State Art Collection.  Some of the best arts festivals in the country can be found in the greater Oklahoma City area.

The pulsating arts energy and enthusiasm that one currently feels in our state is exemplified by the increasing number of young people who are moving back to Oklahoma after graduating from various celebrated universities and arts institutes, or from living in Portland, Seattle, L.A., or New York. Many of them express their surprise in finding out that our art scene is more accessible than, and just as cool as, those in other cities.  One only has to check the art listings in The Oklahoman and The Gazette to realize the extent, quality and quantity of art offerings. In future columns I will take you to some of those events and hopefully provide insights that will heighten your enjoyment of the available arts opportunities in Oklahoma.

Joy Reed Belt is the owner and director of JRB Art at The Elms gallery, located in Oklahoma City’s historic Paseo Arts District, which features a diverse roster of nationally recognized artists.

Post Viewed 3,959 Times.