Sharing the Common Wealth showcases objects, artifacts, documents, structures and buildings from the collections of PHMC.


Wild Rice by Joseph Plavcan. Erie Maritime Museum

A species of wild rice, Zizania aquatica, grows on the shores of Presque Isle, the hooked peninsula that juts off the coast of the city of Erie into the Great Lake of the same name. The plant is also the titular subject of this acrylic-on-board painting of Pennsylvania’s only surf beach by legendary Erie artist Joseph Plavcan (1908-81).

Plavcan is the link in a succession of internationally successful artists who emerged from Erie in the 20th century. Shortly after his birth in Braddock, Allegheny County, the infant Plavcan moved with his parents to Erie. In his teens at the city’s Academy High School, he was influenced by a newly arrived art instructor, George Ericson (1893-1936), who was educated at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) in Philadelphia and later became famous as an illustrator, most notably of covers for The Saturday Evening Post, working under the name Eugene Iverd. With Ericson’s encouragement, Plavcan himself attended PAFA in 1926 and then received a Cresson scholarship in 1928 to study abroad in Europe. After graduation and his return to Erie, he began a long career teaching at Erie Technical High School from 1932 to 1970, training and influencing generations of artists, including one of the founders of the Op Art movement, Richard Anuszkiewicz (b. 1930); painter, printmaker and sculptor John Silk Deckard (1938-94); and sports illustrator George S. Gaadt (b. 1941).

Plavcan was a prolific painter who experimented with a variety of styles and media throughout his career and was particularly noted for his use of vibrant colors. Many of his landscapes and scenes depicted locations in the city of Erie. In Wild Rice he presents thin realistic plants – one casting a purple shadow – against a stylized beach scene of solid colors and primitive sunbathing figures. The painting reflects elements of Plavcan’s later period, as described by the Erie Art Museum on its website: “Bold, flat areas of color dominate … with subtly nuanced shades enlivening what may at first appear to be a simple, paint-by-numbers approach.”

Wild Rice is in the collection of the Erie Maritime Museum and is one of 14 Plavcan paintings of Erie waterfront scenes that were donated to the museum by local attorney Richard A. Levick. The paintings are frequently exhibited on rotation at the museum.


Kyle R. Weaver is the editor of Pennsylvania Heritage.