Trailheads presents information and details about the exhibits, events and programs hosted by the historic sites and museums on PHMC's Pennsylvania Trails of History.

In honor of the 50th Art of the State exhibition, open through September 10, 2017, at The State Museum of Pennsylvania, we’re exploring art at other historic sites and museums along PHMC’s Pennsylvania Trails of History. As visual storytellers, our sites employ a multidisciplinary approach to documenting and sharing Pennsylvania heritage. Artworks frequently play a role in the study and interpretation of history, and they compose an important part of our object collections. Many of our objects can be seen as both utilitarian and artistic (quilts and Pennsylvania German fraktur come to mind). In this article, we highlight a few artworks that may be less familiar to visitors.


Art and World Events

Drake Well Museum collections focus primarily on objects and documents related to the history of the oil industry, including nine paintings donated by Standard Oil of New Jersey (SONJ). In the early 1940s SONJ’s publicity department moved to thwart negative public reaction to the company’s ties to German industry by promoting Standard Oil’s role in the U.S. war effort. The project was called Oil in War, and it resulted in 125 paintings, watercolors and drawings depicting SONJ’s operations in the U.S., Canada and Venezuela and the wartime use of its products. Between 1946 and 1951 the exhibition traveled to 130 venues in the U.S. and Canada. In providing information about this collection, Drake Well site administrator Melissa Mann noted, “At the end of the project, SONJ gifted the artwork to various organizations. . . . We’ve had all nine [of those given to Drake Well] on temporary exhibit for the past year and we featured them in our latest Oilfield Journal.”


Peter Hurd, Geologists at Work, 1946, watercolor. Drake Well Museum

Peter Hurd, Geologists at Work, 1946, watercolor. Drake Well Museum

The company turned to a variety of artists for Oil in War, including the painter Peter Hurd (1904-84). Hurd was from New Mexico and graduated from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. He then studied with illustrator N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945) at his home and studio in Chadds Ford, Delaware County; worked as Wyeth’s assistant for several years; married Wyeth’s eldest daughter, artist Henriette Wyeth (1907-97); and later moved back to New Mexico. He spent much of World War II as a combat correspondent for Life magazine, creating hundreds of sketches from front lines all over the world. As part of the Standard Oil project, Hurd painted Geologists at Work, one of the nine SONJ paintings in Drake Well’s collection, in which a sweeping and richly colored landscape dwarfs the surveying team in the foreground.


Collecting and Caring for Art

As noted in this issue’s Sharing the Common Wealth (“Joseph Plavcan’s Wild Rice“), the Erie Maritime Museum collects and displays works by Erie artists such as Joseph Plavcan. The museum also holds art that documents local history and landscapes. Changing special exhibits provide an opportunity to show artistic interpretations and depictions of the area and its heritage. Although the U.S. Brig Niagara‘s pivotal role in the War of 1812 is a primary theme, the museum also tells the story of the USS Michigan/Wolverine, the first iron-hulled warship in the U.S. Navy. From its commissioning in 1844 as USS Michigan, through its renaming as USS Wolverine in 1905, until it was scrapped in 1949, the ship called Erie home. The museum collection includes a c. 1937 wood engraving by artist Charles E. Pont (1898-1971) depicting USS Michigan as it appeared during the period 1876–92. According to the museum’s Linda Bolla, the dates were determined by comparing the engraving to photos taken of the ship at various points in its history.

Bolla also provided some information on the artist. Pont, born near the Swiss-French border and adopted by a German-American couple while only a few months old, was affiliated with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Arts Project (1935-43), producing 26 murals and numerous woodprints, lithographs and engravings. His image of USS Michigan was exhibited at the WPA’s 1937 Federal Art Gallery. The museum’s engraving does not bear a WPA stamp and is believed to be an artist’s proof; it had been retained by Pont and was acquired by the museum from his estate.


Charles E. Pont, USS Michigan, c. 1937, wood engraving. Erie Maritime Museum

Charles E. Pont, USS Michigan, c. 1937, wood engraving. Erie Maritime Museum

Ephrata Cloister recently added a pair of early 19th-century portraits to the visitor center exhibit gallery. Although much of the gallery is focused on the celibate brothers and sisters who lived at Ephrata, the portraits help to tell the story of the Householders, the local residents who worshipped with the brothers and sisters but maintained their own homes, farms and businesses rather than living in the communal buildings. The portraits are of Solomon Gorgas (1764-1838) and his wife Catherine Fahnestock Gorgas (1774-1853). Ephrata curator Kerry Mohn told me that “the Gorgas and Fahnestock families were important and influential Householders who helped establish the German Seventh Day Baptist Church in 1814.” The members of the church continued to preserve and use the communal buildings into the 20th century.

The portraits were donated by the George Gorgas Twitchell family. It is conjectured that they may have been painted by noted Lancaster portraitist Jacob Eichholtz (1776-1842). According to Mohn, “No signature has been found on the paintings, but we know that Eichholtz painted Catherine’s brother and his wife and two first cousins and their wives.”


Changing Exhibits

Through Fall 2017 the Anthracite Heritage Museum is showing Anthracite Recollections: Crafting Reflections of the Past, featuring 21 pieces from the museum’s collection that have never been previously exhibited. Curator John Fielding describes the show as an exploration of “how individuals’ experiences and memories can provoke the creation of art to tell stories from the past.” He notes that the artists highlighted in the exhibit range from outsider artists such as James Popso (1922–98) to formally trained painter Priscilla Longshore Garrett (1907-92). “Like historians, these artists, through their creativity, preserved the past and enriched our heritage of anthracite coal mining,” Fielding said. The featured artworks include paintings, lithographs and anthracite coal sculptures.


Priscilla Longshore Garrett, View Looking North from Main Street, Scranton, 1946, oil on canvas. Anthracite Heritage Museum

Priscilla Longshore Garrett, View Looking North from Main Street, Scranton, 1946, oil on canvas. Anthracite Heritage Museum

Through the end of 2017, pieces from the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s collection of wildlife art will be on display in the changing exhibit gallery at the Pennsylvania Lumber Museum. Working Together for Wildlife was originally organized by The State Museum of Pennsylvania and has been adapted for the Lumber Museum, which features the 2007-17 winners of the Game Commission’s annual art contest (which began in 1982). The original paintings submitted for the contest and featured in the exhibit are used to produce prints and patches that support the Game Commission’s wildlife conservation efforts.


Amy Killpatrick Fox is a museum educator in PHMC’s Bureau of Historic Sites and Museums. She writes a weekly blog also called Trailheads.