Monday, August 1, 2016

The "Historian as Detective" Meets Allie Tennant

Allie Tennant, 1942
What did I, as the author, enjoy most in writing this book about Allie Tennant and the visual arts in Dallas?
The answer is simple: the research.
It was fun to accomplish the research for this book because I was “the historian as detective,” as the late Robin Winks once entitled a classic book he wrote on the subject of historians and their research.
Allie Tennant left no personal papers or writings. As well, during her own lifetime she was a private person who consistently avoided being the center of attention. Having never married, she lived her entire adult life in the company of several bachelor brothers and had few close friends, although she led an active life in Dallas society and had many acquaintances.
Tennant was a tireless worker in many civic causes that promoted the visual arts while she also had a long career as a sculptor. She established a well-known public presence in Dallas during her lifetime because of these activities, but seldom talked about herself to others and left no written records explaining herself.
The lack archival materials on her part means she today is a person without a historical voice. She does not speak through any documentary sources to historians who want to write about her.
It is therefore flatly impossible to document her thoughts, opinions, or any of the personal reasons why Tennant did the things she accomplished in her career. Given this, no historian can pull back the curtain and look inside at her persona to determine what was in her mind as the motivations for her work or how she conceptualized the life she lived. Such things are absolutely beyond the pale for any academic history of her life.
Does this mean that Allie Tennant is not a proper candidate for a biography? And, if one is written about her, would such a biography be a priori deficient because it could never elucidate the human personage who engaged in her career, explain her personality for the reader in a meaningful way, or offer windows into the workings of her mind?

In my opinion, these are absolutely not impediments – especially for a biography written in the genre of academic history.
Academic historians are concerned with finding and explaining historical significance. Their central concern is: Why is the present the way it is today because of what happened in the past?
My research about Allie Tennant asks only that question, and nothing else. Such an orientation is the case for many, if not most, other academic biographies written about people important to Texas history, male and female.  
Because almost nothing has been written about Tennant since her passing in 1971, I found doing the research for this book -- in my effort to answer the question of significance – to have been an operation of historical recovery almost archeological in nature. I currycombed public records, read hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles about her, ferreted out much information about her from the files and historical collections of the organizations to which she belonged, and spent much time going through the archival collections of people with whom she corresponded.

I also conducted considerable research about the visual arts community in Dallas during her lifetime, especially the artists with whom she associated, the women's clubs in which she was active, and the organizations such as the Museum of Fine Arts which she supported. As noted in the preface and in the title of the book, I purposely devoted much space in the volume to discussing the evolution of that artistic community in order to provide a full context for Tennant's career and public life. This book is therefore as much about the growth of the visuals arts community during Tennant's career as it is about her because one cannot be isolated from the other.
All of this research permitted me to present for the first time anywhere the complete story of her public career while it afforded me the opportunity to explain her historical significance. She was historically important as an artist, an arts educator, a thirty-year trustee of the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, an active promoter of the visual arts in Dallas women’s clubs, and as a long-time supporter of the State Fair of Texas in addition to a variety of related civic causes. Most of this constitutes information new to the historical literature on the arts and culture in Texas.
In short, Allie Tennant played a significant role in shaping the visual arts community in Dallas and in helping to make the city a cultural center. These proved to be important historical contributions on her part.
Granted, because of my research, I did better come to understand the person who was Allie Tennant in a human sense, but such realizations constitute unsubstantiated opinions on my part which go beyond the impersonal documents I consulted. They are opinions rooted in conjecture only, not the “stock-in-trade” in which academic historians willingly deal. The assigning of historical significance and the presentation of conjecture are most certainly not hand-maidens in dual support of the historian’s work. The former is important for historians while the latter is consistently rejected by them.
These are ultimately distinctions of no matter to me because I found the detective work in reconstructing Allie Tennant’s public career alone to have been delight enough during this project. That research is what I most enjoyed about doing this book.   


Monday, May 23, 2016

Allie Tennant Book Recognized by CASETA

CASETA, the Center for the Advancement and Study of Early Texas Art, is the art history association for the state dealing with the Texas culture. It recognized the Allie Tennant book at its recent annual meeting with its  book award. The Texas A&M University Press also received an award for publishing the book. Above I am pictured with Thom Lemmons of the press, left, as we hold our awards.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Allie Tennant Profile on KUT Radio

Today KUT Radio in Austin is running a biographical piece on Allie Tennant as part of the celebration of Women's History month. This sketch is part of a series of radio spots dealing with outstanding women in the history of Texas sponsored by the Ruth Winegarten Foundation. These short radio biographies are designed to increase awareness about the role women have played in building the state as we know it today.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Finalists for the Ramirez Family Award of the Texas Institute of Letters

Allie Tennant and the Visual Arts in Dallas has been named as a finalist for the 2016 Ramirez Family Award presented each year by the Texas Institute of Letters. This award recognizes the best scholarly book published during the previous calendar year, in this case 2015. The three books named as finalists must meet at least one of two criteria: the volume must have content centered on some aspect of Texas or it must have been written by someone who has lived in Texas for at least two years. This award is endowed by Renato Ramirez. Mr. Ramirez and his family support this award as part of their continuing commitment to Texas letters. Mr. Ramirez himself is a master of the lively art of la declamaciĆ³n, the Spanish language oral poetry tradition of the Texas/Mexico border region.

The other two books named as the finalists for this award are Seeds of Empire: Cotton, Slavery, and the Transformation of the Texas Borderlands, 1800-1850 by Andrew Torget. It was published by the University of North Carolina Press. Dr. Torget is a faculty member in the history department at the University of North Texas. The other finalist is Competing Visions of Empire: Labor, Slavery, and the Origins of the British Atlantic Empires by Abigail Swingen. She is a member of the history department faculty at Texas Tech University. It was published by the Yale University Press. 

The award will be presented to one of the finalists during the Texas Institute of Letters spring banquet that will be held in Austin at the Bullock State History Museum on the evening of April 16.

To learn more about the books that share TIL finalist status with the Allie Tennant volume, please click below.

Click here for Press Page

Friday, March 4, 2016

Thursday, March 3, 2016

A Double Winner Today of the Liz Carpenter Award

Today I received the Liz Carpenter Award for Best Book on the History of Women at the Annual Meeting of the Texas State Historical Association. The Liz Carpenter Award is given annually for the outstanding scholarly book on the history of women in Texas published during the calendar year. Today's award dealt with books published during 2015.

This year two books shared the award. I was associated with both volumes that were co-awardees today. I was the sole author for one of them, Allie Tennant's biography, and for the other co-authored a chapter with Victoria Cummins in an anthology entitled, "Texas Women."

My co-winning book "Allie Victoria Tennant and the Visual Arts in Dallas" was published by the Texas A&M University Press. It is the first volume in a new publication series "Women in Texas History" underwritten by the Ruthe Winegarten Foundation for Texas Women's History.

My wife Victoria Cummins and I are also contributors to the book of essays that was the co-winter of the Liz Carpenter Award today. That volume is "Texas Women: Their Histories, Their Lives," edited by Elizabeth Hayes Turner, Stephanie Cole, and Rebecca Sharpless, published by the University of Georgia Press. Victoria Cummins and I wrote the chapter in this book dealing with Frances B. Fisk and the promotion of the visual arts in pre-World War Two Texas.

Click on the links below to read about these two books at their respective Press websites:

I have been involved in receiving the Liz Carpenter Award on two previous occasions before today. My biography of Emily Austin won the award in 2009. I also had an essay on the Runaway Scrape in the volume "Women and the Texas Revolution" edited by Mary L. Scheer, which won the Liz Carpenter Award in 2012.
Receiving the 2009 Liz Carpenter Award for "Emily Austin of Texas"
Elizabeth Turner and Hal Smith present me with the award.
Contributors to "Women and the Texas Revolution"
winner of the 2012 Liz Carpenter Award.
Sitting: l. to r..Mary Scheer and Jean Stuntz. Standing: l. to r.
Ron Christman (UNT Press Director), Angela Boswell,
me, and Lindy Eakin

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Waldine Tauch, Texas Sculptor

Waldine Tauch, 1936. She and Allie Tennant both worked on
Centennial Sculptures
This week I presented a paper at the fall meeting of the East Texas Historical Association. This presentation dealt with another female sculptor from the era of the Texas Centennial: Waldine Tauch. She knew Allie Victoria Tennant. Both of them worked on centennial projects as female sculptors. Tennant modeled two sculptures for the monuments program of the centennial: Jose Antonio Navarro and James Butler Bonham. Tauch executed the sculptor of Moses Austin that sits on the grounds of the San Antonio City Hall. My paper dealt with the efforts of Tauch to secure the commission to model a statue of the Pioneer Woman that today is located on the campus of Texas Woman's University in Denton, Texas. Tauch became involved in a very public controversy when the commission for this statue went to New York sculptor William Zorach. Waldine Tauch felt strongly this sculpture should be the work of a female artist and certainly not that of a male sculptor. She wanted badly to be person who sculpted it. Accordingly, she undertook a campaign designed to award her this commission. She contacted leading politicians, cultural figures, civic leaders, and educators across the state in her attempt to secure this contract, even to the point of attempting to enlist the support of J. Frank Dobie.  Tauch wrote a long memorial to the Centennial Commission outlining her views about the history of women in Texas and detailing why a female sculptor ought to receive this commission, pointing out in some detail why she should be the person selected to do it. This rather lengthy document represents an interesting expression of how one significant female artist of the 1930s saw the history of women in Texas. In the end, a male sculptor, William Zorach, received the commission. Tauch and her supporters thereupon embarked on a campaign of criticism and public complaint against his plans for the sculpture. They loudly objected because the model proposed by Zorach was highly stylized and abstract to the point, they said, it depicted a women without visible clothing – a statue of a nude women. This thus provoked a state-wide barrage of negative publicity and strident vituperation against the proposed Zorach statue planned for female college in Denton. The State of Texas accordingly pulled Zorach’s commission and gave it to a male sculptor from New York, who made the fully-clothed statue that still stands today on the TWU campus. This “nude women controversy” and Waldine Tauch’s role in it says for the historian much about how women were perceived in that era, and how one female sculptor attempted – albeit unsuccessfully – to express her viewpoints about the historical role of women in Texas and its history. This paper is based on research in the Coppini-Tauch Papers at the Briscoe Center at the University of Texas, the Evaline Sellors Papers at the Old Jail Art Center and Archives, and the Women’s Collection at TWU.