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Conger Metcalf

Fortunately for all users of Coe’s Stewart Library, Conger Metcalf created a collection of beautiful art that will nourish library visitors for as long as the college survives.  But Metcalf’s first love was initially a more ephemeral art--music.  When he received his degree from Coe in 1936, it was a Bachelor of Music.  His father was a gospel singer and his mother a pianist at the Sunshine Mission, and music was important to his entire family, including three brothers who also attended Coe.  Both the music and the spirit of Christian mission and concern for the poor can be traced throughout Metcalf’s career.  Metcalf insisted that “the greatest teachers I ever had were at Coe,” and the first to be named would be his piano instructor, Grace Swab.  Metcalf never lost his love for the piano: “I love to play the piano–it’s like talking.”  But Metcalf also suffered from a paralyzing stage fright when forced to perform in public, and so his friend and teacher, Grace Swab, advised him to concentrate on developing his skills as a draughtsman and painter.

Metcalf did study art with Marvin Cone and Grant Wood at Stone City. But concerning any possible influence of Wood, Conger said, "The dear man, he taught me nothing.  Just nothing.  Zero."  Perhaps part of the problem was Wood’s regionalism.  Although Metcalf always thought of himself as an Iowan, he once remarked in an interview that “I never saw anything I wanted to paint there.”  Fortunately for Metcalf, there was Boston, his adopted home after graduating from Coe.  His brother was enjoying a career as a radio singer, and Metcalf began his Boston career as a student at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. 

Metcalf did return to Coe in the 1939-40 academic year to teach painting, drawing, and art history while Marvin Cone was enjoying a one-year sabbatical.  Shortly before his death, Cone wrote the following analysis of Metcalf’s work:

His drawings and paintings reveal a penetrating and selective vision which transforms objective reality into lyrical and imaginative material, but always with great respect for pictorial structure.  Rare skill in selective draftsmanship records universal gestures, attitudes, and the illuminating expressiveness of the human face.  We see a mind always open to new and exciting impressions and a heart with warm interest in humanity.

Although Metcalf would frequently return to Iowa for short visits, most of his life would be spent in Boston.  In addition to short teaching stints at the Boston Museum School and the Dexter School in Brookline, he was on the faculty of Boston University’s School of Fine and Applied Arts from 1956 to 1976.

The collection of his work at Coe began when President Joseph McCabe attended one of Conger Metcalf's shows at the old Cedar Rapids Public Library.  Metcalf told McCabe to choose a work, which he would then donate to Coe.  Marvin Cone was also at that opening, and together he and McCabe chose the painting Miki Reading for the college's collection. 

Metcalf and McCabe later came to an agreement: Metcalf would set aside his greatest work of the year, and McCabe would find a donor to purchase it for Coe College. In this way Miki Reading became the start of a collection of almost 50 works, now housed in and around the two galleries in Stewart Memorial Library.  These galleries on the second floor, the Metcalf and Pashgian Galleries, are named for Metcalf and for Reva and John Pashgian of Pasadena, California. The Pashgians' son donated the floor rug in the adjacent Perrine Gallery as well the Portuguese hand-loomed rya-style rugs used in the two smaller galleries.  The Perrine Gallery, which connects to both of the smaller galleries, houses Coe's Grant Wood collection.

Unlike Cone and Wood, the other painters who have notable collections of their paintings in Coe’s library, Metcalf’s favorite medium was not a traditional painting surface but rather cameo paper, a soft paper with a surface of fine clay.   In his eulogy for Metcalf, given in Sinclair Auditorium in April of 1998, John Brown, Coe’s Chancellor and friend of the artist, recalled the impressions of a journalist watching Metcalf work with this difficult medium (a challenge exacerbated by his arthritic hands): “When I see you doing this, I feel like I have been watching Matisse draw.”  Metcalf’s wit was evident in his quick rely: “I wish I had seen Matisse draw.”

In terms of both style and substance, Metcalf’s life and art was transformed when, as a soldier during World War II, he traveled through Italy, particularly the cities of Naples and Florence.   He would make twenty more trip to Florence.   The impact of Italy goes far beyond a fascination with frames available for purchases (he once bought over 400 frames in Florence during a two-year period).  Italy and its people permeate his paintings:  the use of earth colors, the landscapes, the shadows, the still lifes, the colors (sienna and burnt oranges and antique blues), the exquisite modeling of human anatomy,  the portraits of indigent children, the small drawings around human figures (almost like Italian graffiti).  According to Kathryn Schultz of the Cambridge Art Association, writing about Metcalf following his 80th birthday, “His manners, speech, dress, the food he invariably offers from a [tiny] kitchen . . . all suggest a backward step into a 17th century Venetia Court.  The furnishings of his home, a collection of objects and furniture acquired over this lifetime of ‘knowing how to see,’ are backdrops for his paintings.’”

In a twenty-year period from 1973 to 1992, Coe hosted ten Metcalf exhibitions, including the retrospective show that was a collaboration between the college and the Athenaeum in Boston.  When Metcalf would visit Coe, he would bring with him an entourage of friends.  As his friend John Brown describes it, “When Conger came it was like Elizabeth I on a Royal Progress in the 16th Century, except Conger stopped at your home to GIVE presents: cologne, perfume, Belgian truffles, flowers, ties, bolts of cloth, paintings, corn chowder recipes, Iowa chops.”  Perhaps Metcalf was correct: he was an Iowan after all.

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