Eden Juron Pearlman, director of the Evanston History Center, presented "Walter Burt Adams: An Evanston Original" at the Levy Lecture on May 14.
Eden Juron Pearlman, Executive Director of the Evanston History Center, drew a capacity crowd at the May 14 Levy Lecture where she showcased and discussed the artwork of Walter Burt Adams, a well-regarded local painter who specialized in street scenes of Evanston. The popular lecture series is sponsored by the Levy Senior Center Foundation.
The slide presentation was chock full of color photographs of many of the artist’s works, originals that hang in the Evanston History Center, the Levy Senior Center, and in the homes of members of the Levy family.
The late Joe Levy, Jr., a generous philanthropist, main benefactor of the Levy Senior Center and successful businessman, knew Walter Burt Adams and was a fan of his work. Mr. Levy collected many of the artist’s paintings over several decades and donated several to the Levy Senior Center Foundation.
Ms. Juron Pearlman’s background is as an art historian, but while preparing for this lecture she became a “history detective” as she, along with her colleagues at the Evanston History Center, tried to suss out the exact location of each street scene, and to compare those scenes with what the locations look like today. At one point they even referred to the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps for Evanston maps to successfully validate one or two specific locations.
Knowing details of Mr. Adams’s background helped them figure out some of the details. It is known that he was born in Wisconsin in 1903 and moved with his family to Evanston in 1931 so that his brother could enroll in Northwestern University.
Mr. Adams did not own a car. He was a fan of trains. He operated a business, Palette Art Store, at 1615 Maple Ave., and after a few years moved it to 943 Chicago Avenue close to Lee Street.
He painted for the Works Progress Administration (WPA). He painted outside many mornings and worked in the store most afternoons.
Mr. Adams saw beauty in street lights, inanimate objects and in observing ordinary people and their activities. He was frugal and did not like to work with models because “they complained and were expensive,” instead drawing inspiration from all that was happening around him.
Mr. Adams appreciated the regionalism style popular in the 1930s, which embraced a sense of nostalgia and of days past. Later paintings are more realistic, almost photographic in quality.
Several of Mr. Adams’ favorite subjects he returned to again and again, painting them frequently over time. “Fountain Square” is one of his best-known works and captures a period of time in Evanston to rival any snapshot. Ms. Juron Pearlman pointed out that the original bird from the fountain and depicted in Mr. Adams’ painting may be seen at the History Center.
Mr. Adams created a clever system for signing his paintings. He stacked his full name, Walter Burt Adams, in block letters, each name on a separate plane. On the left side he drew hash marks to indicate the specific decade the painting was finished, and on the right side he drew marks to indicate the year. He made his own frames out of wood and included additional information on the backs of many of his paintings, such as the location of the scene and who was with him if it was a trip. Some of his paintings depict lovely vacation “postcards” of mountains or the sea.
Mr. Adams had a wry sense of humor and was a well-known curmudgeon. Ms. Juron Pearlman said that when Mr. Levy first met Mr. Adams, it was to purchase a 1945 painting of the old steam plant on Northwestern’s campus, titled “Steam in the Sky.”
Initially, Mr. Adams refused to sell the painting to Mr. Levy because he (Mr. Levy) did not know anything about the art.
Undeterred, Mr. Levy went home and read up about painting techniques, color theory and artistic genres, and a few days later returned to Mr. Adams’ store with a detailed rationale about what he liked about the painting. Mr. Adams reportedly smirked and said that he was a fraud, but appreciated the effort and sold Mr. Levy the painting. It was the first of many purchases. Presumably subsequent purchases did not require similar intense preparation.