Dorothy Dehner American, 1901-1994

Esther A. Day was born in 1912 in Columbus, Ohio, the youngest child and only daughter of Daniel and Katherine Day, respectively a Methodist minister and the daughter of the lighthouse keeper on Great Captain Island in Greenwich, Connecticut. Day described her parents as “hippies,” owing to their relatively eccentric dress and liberal ideologies, which contributed to her father’s dismissal from the Methodist Conference before her birth. Day’s earliest years were spent on a farm outside Hopewell, Virginia, which sits at the fork between the James and Appomattox Rivers. The city’s population boomed after the DuPont Company opened a dynamite factory there, and Day’s father resumed preaching in 1915 on a “freelance” basis to the souls of rural Virginia. As a child, Day witnessed the frenetic performances of evangelical preachers like Billy Sunday and Aimee McPherson when traveling “on the circuit” with her family. Drawing with crayons in between church pews as a child—intended to keep her quiet during services—fostered an early interest in art. The Days moved frequently within Virginia, and they settled by 1920 in Alexandria. Her engagement in the arts grew through proximity to Washington D.C.’s museums, particularly the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Phillips Collection, Freer Gallery of Art, and Smithsonian Institution.

Day was the valedictorian of her high school class and earned a scholarship to Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, from which she graduated in 1934. Upon graduation, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts offered Day a scholarship but she knew that New York City had a more vibrant arts community. Living in New York for six years before departing for various traveling fellowships, Day worked a number of jobs—waitress, medical illustrator, packager of spices, contract lithographer, among others—while devoting herself to art studies at several local institutions. Day was perpetually enrolled at the Art Students League, where she took in classes with a smattering of teachers, including life classes with Leon Kroll, William von Schlegell, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Jean Charlot, and Vaclav Vytlacil and printmaking classes with Harry Sternberg and Will Barnet. In addition to the League, she sought out instruction at two other schools. In her first year in New York, she enrolled in classes at the independent studio of the Latvian-born artist Maurice Sterne and recently emigrated German expressionist George Grosz. After one year with Sterne-Grosz, she switched to the Florence Cane School of Art, remaining there from 1935 to 1937. Day’s teachers at the Cane School were Jean Charlot and Emilio Amero, both in their own ways greatly influenced by Mexican history and the country’s homegrown modernism. From them, she learned a wide-ranging set of skills, which included a host of printmaking techniques. Almost immediately, she put her lessons into practical use as the supervisor of a workshop run by the Works Progress Administration that printed remedial reading books for New York City’s public schools using a color offset lithography press.

After much searching, Day’s world came together in the fall of 1938 when she found Vaclav Vytlacil’s class at the League. She not only discovered an inspiring teacher, but she also entered the vibrant community of young artists who congregated around “Vyt,” as they called him, and his mentor Hans Hofmann, who was at that point teaching downtown on Eighth Street. Since arriving in New York in 1934, Day had been searching for a network of “serious art students” and been disappointed, particularly with the caliber of students at Sterne-Grosz’s school where most were “wealthy women with a sprinkling of doctors and retired businessmen.” Among her closest colleagues from Vytlacil’s class were the painter Bessie Boris (1917-1993), Leo Garel, and Don Duncan. As Day said, they became “inseparable friends,” socializing at each other’s studios, imbibing and cooking dinner together, discussing poetry and one another’s paintings, shuttling back and forth between the Vytlacil’s classroom at the League and Hofmann’s studio on Eighth Street, and going to various summer art colonies.

All of these activities culminated in several early professional achievements for Day. She had three major exhibitions in 1940: a “duo” show with Mark Baum (1903-1997) at Perls Gallery in New York City and solo shows at her alma mater and at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Her style at this point was decidedly realist and regionalist with a twinge of surrealism. Day admired the brooding and enigmatic canvases of Giorgio de Chirico, and she created her own surrealistic situations inspired by the world she was most familiar—rural America. Winning two traveling fellowships, the first from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the second from the Julius Rosenwald Fund, she left New York City just as Hayter was reestablishing Atelier 17 in America. Hearing about the printmaking workshop during her second year as a Rosenwald fellow, she returned to New York in 1942 to attend Hayter’s course. Having some experience already in printmaking, she was ready to dive into Hayter’s teachings and use engraving as way to discover more about herself personally and as an artist. The Glass Cabinet is perhaps a self-portrait of Day peering in through a window at a dollhouse filled with unusual objects such a s a pitcher and plate. On the wall, there are linear drawings of a fish, a compass, and a four-fingered hand—strangely foreshadowing Day’s fascination with ancient petroglyphs she would see in the American west only a few years later.

She found herself drawn to the sculptural quality of engraving and, throughout the next decade, increasingly gravitated toward carving woodcuts and eventually creating three dimensional wooden sculptures. Day even taught a woodcut course at Atelier 17 upon her return to Atelier 17 after a stint as assistant professor at the University of Wyoming at Laramie. It is very likely that Day’s woodcut Atelier 17 commemorates this class, perhaps serving as a promotional poster. Atelier 17 also satisfied Day’s lifelong desire to be part of an energetic and engaged network of artists, and she formed cross-generational relationships with many members of the workshop whose prints she generously distributed across the country during various visiting fellowships and teaching positions in Kentucky, Missouri, Wyoming, and elsewhere. Day returned to Atelier 17 on several occasions between these “out-of-town” gigs, revealing the value she placed on the studio’s aesthetic experimentation and sense of community.

We thank Christina Weyl for this biographical information.