Phyllis Sloane, Painter and Printmaker
1982 cleveland arts prize for Visual Arts
During the six decades of Phyllis Sloane’s distinguished career in visual arts, she experimented with many variations of painting and printmaking. Every piece was a study in design, shape and color. There is a harmony, precision and balance to her work that makes our incoherent world feel less chaotic and a great deal more beautiful.
Sloane, who was born in Massachusetts, discovered her calling in fifth grade at Onaway School in Shaker Heights, Ohio. She won a poster competition and marveled that something she so enjoyed making could have a prize attached. She majored in industrial design at the Carnegie Institute of Techology (B.A., 1943) and went on to co-found PDA, an industrial design firm based in Cleveland. She credits her career direction to her father, Nathan Lester, a machinery inventor who "taught [her] the joys of pursuing a creative life.” He also taught her about refining ideas, and how to trust the process of discovery.
Sloane abandoned her first career when she started her family in 1949. But she never abandoned her art. She remained an active member of a life-drawing group that provided the subject matter for the next three decades of her paintings.
Her career might have continued in that mode, had she not received an unusual gift in 1959. Jack and Marj Woodside gave her a broken-down Potter proof press (it was literally in pieces) that she rebuilt and taught herself to use. As she explored various techniques (wood and linoleum cuts, then cork cuts), she also developed thematic series that conveyed her many moods. In one delightful cork print series, About Face, she included portraits of Tonight Show guests, her cat and her own straight-faced self. She also worked prolifically in silkscreen prints and experimented with lithography.
By the time Sloane was recognized by the Cleveland Arts Prize in 1982, she had established her national reputation for both painting and printmaking. She had also discovered the light and majesty of Santa Fe, where she kept a second studio. Her palette grew brighter and her scope broader.
“I was very intimidated at first by the vastness of the New Mexico landscape,” she later admitted. “I had to start by doing small works.” Eventually, she allowed the work to grow. Back in Cleveland, she began creating panoramic cityscapes. One 1986 work, a rooftop view from her Shaker Heights apartment, began as a 45- x 69-inch painting and soon sprawled to a triptych measuring 45 x 207 inches.
Sloane credited her sense of composition to her extensive training in design. She had an instinctive knack for breaking up space, setting up balance and capturing the tension between positive and negative space. She also had a painting technique that Plain Dealer art critic Steven Litt described as “so hard, so sharp, so precise, that [the paintings] seem to have been cut with a razor, not a brush.”
Akron Beacon Journal critic Dorothy Shinn aptly summed up Sloane’s multiple talents: “The more we see of Phyllis Sloane, the more we are struck with a sense of line and shape that is pitch-perfect, and a way of placing them on paper or canvas that always looks fresh, clean, effortless and absolutely dead on.”
Sloane displayed a sense of playfulness in much of her work. She planted surprises in her still lifes; for example, you’ll see a self-portrait doubling as a coaster on a table; an envelope addressed to herself; her own reflection in a glass. Often she placed her human subjects as objects on a canvas in partial view, off-center or nearly gobbled up by the surrounding vegetation.
If her work has been described as accessible, it was also widely accessed. Sloane's work was featured in more than two-dozen one-woman shows and exhibited in more than 70 others at venues that include the Cleveland Museum of Art, where it made its first appearance in the prestigious May Show in 1943. Her work hangs in many galleries and corporate collections around the U.S.
In 1983, the Print Club of Cleveland joined the list of organizations that had commissioned her work. She was featured in several publications, including the 1996 Daniel Butts catalogue, The Art of Phyllis Sloane.
In her 80s, Sloane continued to stretch as an artist. She enjoyed working with heat-transfer prints and tried her hand at color etchings—a laborious process that yielded magnificent results. And she remained in a life-drawing group, for those drawings informed the rest of her work. She continued to produce prints, working more than ever, by her calculation.
Starting in 2003, she began doing that work exclusively in Santa Fe. The decision to choose a single residence was always in the cards, but the much-touted artist’s paradise has a more compelling lure by then: It was also the home—or second home—of her children and grandchildren.
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