New Trier Art Teacher Lillian Fitch: A Study in When LESS Actually Does Mean MORE

by Sally Schneiders

A booklet comprised of striking block prints depicting scenes and events of North Shore history languishes in a folder, filed away out of view, at 411 Linden Street. The title reads: New Trier: A True History of this Township in Linoleum Cuts and the by-line at the page bottom reads: “Made by the students in the Art Department at New Trier High School under the direction of Lillian Fitch, May, 1932.”

Inside this booklet the bold, simply rendered images in black and white commemorate events and places such as the establishment of the Winnetka Community House, Old Christ Church, The Lady Elgin Disaster, Indian Trail Trees, Spirit of No Man’s Land, and Lake New Trier among 36 other equally arresting works of art. Each is inscribed with a series of four short phrases capturing the essence of the scene at hand.

The representations in the booklet, while unique, dramatic and compelling on their own, in their entirety provide a gripping narrative of our local heritage. Aside from an exhibition of the framed pieces of these cuts, in the library of New Trier’s Northfield Campus in 2004, these understated yet powerful prints have been largely ignored. They shouldn’t be.

What and who inspired Lillian Fitch, so that she in turn could take a class of 35 second-year art students and coax such a high caliber of pictorial meaning out of each? What influenced her to choose linoleum block cuts as the medium, and Notan method as the art technique?

Lillian Fitch dreamed of a block print project, in her words, “with the idea of telling the highlights of our local history in a way which we all enjoy. We have tried to find the facts concerning our past and have been helped immeasurably by the older members of the township.”

Her project outline called for field trips to various North Shore sites, and interviews with villagers who had connections with historical events. This project fell under the tenure of progressive education pioneer Dr. Carleton Washburne, and reflected his ideals in its emphasis on exploratory learning.

“Less is More.” Mies van der Rohe, a father of modernist architecture in the early 20th century, famously re-coined this phrase to define the modernist movement. Similarly, Lillian Fitch opted to produce prints using straightforward linoleum cut blocks, and to the blocks applied the art technique Notan, (pronounced “no tan”) as the means of expression.

Notan is a Japanese word describing the interaction between dark and light. Notan artwork explores the relationship of positive and negative spaces. Art educator Sharon Griffes characterizes Notan as a way of “breaking down a concept to its simplest form.” Printmaker, painter, photographer and influential arts educator Arthur Wesley Dow published a workbook for teachers and students entitled Understanding Line, Notan, and Color around 1900. This book may have factored into Ms. Fitch’s thinking.

By employing the Notan technique, Ms. Fitch minimized her students’ use of color and values, which conversely freed them from the constrictive pressure of “too much adornment.” Black and white—that was it. Ms. Fitch’s idea was to pare down to the bare essentials of a composition, after much experiential learning and distillation of a subject. That is exactly what the students did, and how they were able to create such beautiful pieces of work.

Lady Elgin linoleum cut

Student Eleanor Brooks’ rendering of the Lady Elgin disaster, with its sharp contrasts between rigid black and white shapes, billowing clouds, and the doomed ship mostly obscured by large waves, lays bare the inevitability of imminent sinking.

Student Sally Butler’s “Winnetka Community House” draws you in with its solid mass and sense of permanence as a gathering place in the village. You get the feeling Sally may have interviewed the Rev. J.W.F. Davies, founder of the Community House, himself for her depiction.

“Lake New Trier,” by Imogene Hodges, projects strength in the shape and angle of the swimmer diving into the deep pool, and grandeur with the juxtaposition of the pool, complete with waves, against the backdrop of a much larger Lake Michigan (see header image). There are so many more.

Come visit the Winnetka Historical Society reference library and see all of these beautiful representations of our history for yourself. Maybe some day New Trier will reprint the booklet. I would be the first in line to purchase. ■

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