Tag Archives: Ralph Shead

Gone to Texas

The conclusion of this painting’s 700 mile 20 year round trip is a fitting end to this series of my work and I feel like my summer projects have been finally completed.

A quick backstory on the painting’s subject in case you are catching up on this at the end: The cotylorhynchus is an early Permian synapsid that was first described by OU’s own J. Willis Stovall in 1937. The species name for the specimen found just north of Norman is Romeri for Alfred Romer (1894-1973), the founder and first president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology which now grants the Romer Prize to predoctoral students for work excellence of scientific value and oral presentation at SVP’s annual meeting.

View of small Cotylorhynchus plaque in Museum(Copyright Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History)
View of small Cotylorhynchus plaque in Museum(Copyright Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History)
Dr. Romer beside Cotylorhynchus Romerii at Stovall Mueum, circa 1970. Stovall Museum (Copyright Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History)
Cotylorhynchus on display at Sam Noble Museum of Natural History, photo by author

Shead’s 1938 painting is the first attempt at depicting the animal in life and while there are many issues with the interpretations by today’s standards, it stands as a testament to his skill as an artist and the importance of paleoart, even in the 1930s. The painting itself lived in the Stovall Museum until the time came to move into the new building in the late 90s early 2000.  There are a few different accounts to where it was found initially, leaning up behind a vacant building, next to the trash receptacle, or similar, but either way it was slated to be discarded. Either room or just it’s own out of date representations of science may have doomed it, but thankfully a cheerful passerby inquired about taking it and it was saved. 

I don’t know the names of any of the parties involved at this point, but at least 2 different stories corroborate what happened next: The painting made it’s way to the finder’s brother who was attending A&M down in College Station, Tx and hung in his apartment until he graduated whereupon he presented it to the Biodiversity Research and Teaching Lab. There the “Komodo Dragons” quickly became a staff favorite.

 

Now, something about this painting if you haven’t made it out by this point is it’s size. The thing is nearly ten and a half feet long and over four feet tall. This wasn’t just swept away under an arm like a folded newspaper. To relocate this thing anywhere required work, and a great deal of it.

Thankfully the powers that be at the research lab agreed to gift the painting back to the Sam Noble where it now nearly completes some semblance of a “set” of what Shead paintings I have been able to track down. A pickup date was scheduled that coincided with a need to transfer some textiles from another collection on the A&M campus to Sam Noble and we were to initially head down sometime between the 28th and the 30th of August.

Poseidon, not being a fan of art or terrestrial fauna, had other plans. Hurricane Harvey, in addition to the immense devastation along the Texas coast, postponed the painting’s return trip. We eventually rescheduled for September 25th and 26th.

Texas A&M is about 357 miles from the University of Oklahoma and after picking up the rental van and removing what seats we could,  we loaded it with all our packing and strapping and were finally headed south around 10:30 am. 

The next morning we met the Biodiversity Heritage folks and prepared to claim the prize. As if making up for the delay, luck smiled on us in the form of a masonite backing on the painting which made if far easier to secure in the van. Some framing, lashing, and a few knots and it was ready to return to it’s ancestral home.

We picked up the textiles across campus and left College Station nearly exactly 24 hours after we have left Norman. We caught a break in the rain bands when we unloaded the cargo and it is now safely in “the bubble” where it will rest in a type of quarantine for a few weeks before getting it’s frame worked on and joining the other wayward Shead paintings.

Not only is the Cotylorhynchus Norman’s native son, but it is the only painting of Shead’s that we have a photograph of him painting. I don’t think I could ever thank the wonderful folks at A&M enough for agreeing gift it to us. To think that it could be displayed with the photograph of the artist at work gives me an incredible sense of satisfaction with how this whole thing has played out.

Shead at work on Cotylorhynchus painting (Copyright Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History)

Seeing just this sampling of Ralph Shead’s work, now nearly all collected back under one roof, is amazing just from the art and the historical perspective. If these enormous works can ever be displayed together in the same room  it would certainly be testament to the power of paleoart and paleoartist–past and present –to still inspire awe in the visitor.

R.B. Shead: Art Director

If you have been following along, you will recognize the crescendo of  this Shead story has taken over my posts and summer research. It is hard to think of anything else I could add to what I’ve discovered so far save just adding to his already herculean numbers of completed pieces of art. Following the magazine covers that were part of his enormous portfolio and utilizing the interlibrary loan services at my library I secured a few copies of the Specialty Salesman Magazine. 

They aren’t readily available and is one of those magazines whose volume numbers roll over in the middle of the calendar year. Luckily I was able to get a copy of November 1925 as it explained the change in editorial and layout (in great detail), and the new direction that the magazine was headed. This is fortunate because one of the pages featured a set of portraits of the magazine staff including their titles.  Not only was Ralph Shead a contributing illustrator to the magazine he was the magazine’s art director. This explains the several covers that were part of the portfolio as well as the few pieces of art that weren’t his.

Specialty Salesman’s Staff November 1926
R.B. Shead, Art Director

So far the earliest I have seen is the November 1925 edition, but one of the portfolio covers shows  the change from 1924 to 1925. Perhaps he was working for the museum even earlier. I am still trying to track down as many copies of the magazines as I can to at least figure out when he started publishing illustrations there. This isn’t a particularly easy task as the magazines are large format (about 12×14 inches) and average 150 pages each. Some of the earliest ones I have seen swell to nearly 250. This means they take up a lot of space on library shelves and are likely not to be requested much. This is one of those instances where the physical copies of the magazines are essential to determining who produced the art. As great as microfilm is for text it is just as bad when it comes to images. We’ve preserved hard black and white letters for 500 years, but there was no apparent reason to care about that the images were. Simple pictures and visual aids are of no importance. (This is where we need a dedicated sarcasm font). For instance, in microfilm you would never be able to make out the works on the wall or on Shead’s easel in this image. Working with the physical copy you can clearly see one of the originals from the previous post hanging on the wall.

I am working on getting a clearer scan of that page to see if I can match any more of the extant pieces with the Art Department’s studio. I am hoping against hope that the one he is working on in this photo is one of the originals, but I fear I may have already used up my allotment of luck for this project.

Before I show the few matching pieces that I have found I want to share a little about the magazine itself. As its title suggests it is a magazine for men and women who sell. Sell what, exactly? And to whom? The mid twenties saw a rise in the traveling salesman and this magazine was a trade magazine of sorts to those enterprising enough to go door to door. Even if you’ve never been visited by a brush or vacuum cleaner salesman, you know there kind. This is exactly what Daffy Duck was doing representing the various head offices in Walla Walla, Washington. It wasn’t just a television trope.

Among the short stories illustrated by Shead and a handful of others there were scores of advertising pages providing dealer direct stock of men and women’s clothing, fountain pens, pocket watches, and even fire extinguishers. It is basically a magazine full of all the things that are relegated to the backs of most magazines today.

With nearly 9 more years to round out the 20s I do not know when or if I will be able to complete the decade an further to see when Shead’s final piece appeared, but there is more than enough here to attest to the profound productivity during his time in Indiana. In the 14 issues that I have catalogued Shead produced 84 illustrations and the all their covers.

For every one of the originals that are still in the portfolio there are several that exist as illustrations only. Some are part of the same stories, others are dispersed throughout countless other stories.

Shead’s illustration surrounding this poem “The Gallant Salesman” also shows that his animal scenes were just as good as any of those featuring people. It would be almost a decade before his subjects took him back to Norman to the campus museum and into prehistory.

As a final though on Shead’s work and to tie it all back around to his work at the Stovall museum and where I first encountered him, there is a marvelous collection of images that are all part of the same  project. Throughout this project besides breaking through some of the obscurity of the man and his work, I have been able to see his watercolor study, the plaster Marquette (which it turns out are not his), and a beautiful black and white photo of the finished diorama as it ran in The Oklahoman in 1952. 

Leptomeryx plaster models by Shead to be used in the Oligocene case in the museum. Copyright Sam Noble Oklahoma Natural History Museum
Leptomeryx plaster models by Shead to be used in the Oligocene case in the museum. Copyright Sam Noble Oklahoma Natural History Museum

 

Original Oklahoman Caption: “”big game hunter Frank buck has nothing on Dr. J. Willis Stovall, director of the museum at the University of Oklahoma, with the possible exception of Buck’s “Big’em back alive” slogan.” Photo Courtesy Oklahoma Historical Society

R.B. Shead: Pre-Museum Years

Several days after visiting with Ralph’s great nephew, Bill, he called me to say he had found a small watercolor study for one of the old museum dioramas and a few charcoal studies that Ralph had done as a student and others that were originals submitted as accompanying illustrations for short stories.

I was finally able to go back with my camera and take better photos of the paintings as well as look at these new finds. Those “few” sketched turned out to be an enormous century-old portfolio filled with over 100 pieces of art that Ralph had done either for story illustrations, studies, or magazine cover layouts. I was in awe.

The magazine covers were layout for The Specialty Salesman: The National Inspirational Monthly for Men and Women who Sell. The earliest cover layout was the January 1924 issue. I have no idea if these are the same ones that include the illustrations, but I have three years worth (12 months collectively bound) requested through interlibrary loan to find out.

Other covers included a music journal and an advertising flyer for the ad service that Ralph was working for in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

The nudes and studies are not dated but could be from his time as a student at the University of Oklahoma. The earliest dated piece is from 1916 which was Ralph’s senior year at OU. The architectural details (Cherokee Gothic) reveal that it is somewhere on campus.

R.B. Shead 1916

Most of the illustrations, when dated, are 1925 and 1926. These make up the bulk of the portfolio, which, incidentally survived the house burning down in 1937. Flipping through these huge (18×24 inches) original illustrations was something that doesn’t happen every day, and all could have easily been lost 80 years ago.  In addition to just being great artwork, the instructions for the engraver and printer were included on many including the finished sizes for printing, the largest being a mere 8.25 inches.

There a a few pastels and watercolors among the monotones as well.

One of the watercolors ties back into Shead’s museum work. It is a watercolor sketch for one of the many dioramas he painted for the Stovall Museum at the University of Oklahoma starting around 1933. Shead created these Leptomeryx plaster models for reference.

Leptomeryx plaster models by Shead to be used in the Oligocene case in the museum. Copyright Sam Noble Oklahoma Natural History Museum
Leptomeryx plaster models by Shead to be used in the Oligocene case in the museum. Copyright Sam Noble Oklahoma Natural History Museum

Finally, in the back of the giant portfolio was a “regular” sized sketchbook. The remaining sketch pages were all landscape studies from the 1940s complete with the color descriptions for painting– things like “pinkish bluff” and “light purplish bluff.” Many of these are recognizable areas for anyone who frequents the Southwest. Most specifically the Sandia Mountains of New Mexico. 

The Sandia Mountain sketch is dated September 1948 which means this enormous portfolio spans at least 32 years of work including Shead’s time as an OU  art student, his work as a professional advertising and illustration artist, his return back to Norman and his unfathomable amount of artwork at the museum, and, likely, the personal landscapes that adorn the walls of his home. Such a corpus of work, in addition to the fact that nearly anything at the Stovall Museum with paint on it was his, proves that R.B. Shead is fantastically more than the few sentences dedicated to him in the “official” university histories.