Outside the Lines

For 150 years, the Philadelphia Sketch Club has been the catalyst for an exceptional body of work that continues to grow. We spotlight the Main Line artists integral to the PSC’s remarkable longevity.

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Villanova’s Donald Meyer has a studio in Devon and is director of exhibitions at Woodmere Art Museum in Philadelphia. He’s also a past PSC vice president from 1999 to 2009. The museum’s Kindred Spirits: Woodmere and the Philadelphia Sketch Club is a hub exhibit of the anniversary celebration, running until Jan. 2, 2011.

“The perfect place to see modern art was in Philadelphia,” Meyer says. “We had the art schools; we had the collections. These were the people in the 1920s who had the money to buy precious things. Philadelphia is really the mecca of Modernism, and the whole reason I wanted to be a [PSC] member is because of all these others who were members.”

And there’s always the renowned Main Line collector Dr. Albert C. Barnes and his opinion of the PSC. As it turns out, there are no records or recollections of Barnes’ association with the club. “He had his own little fiefdom in Merion,” says Meyer. “Our world would’ve been an enemy to his.”

There were no enemies to be found at a recent meeting of the Professional Artists Group, a club within the PSC that meets monthly to socialize while a fellow member speaks and exhibits work. The night’s event featured Philadelphia’s Bill Scott, a color-based abstract painter, printmaker and art historian who was raised in Haverford and teaches at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Evoking architectural and floral imagery, his best pieces continue to fetch $14,000-$40,000 each.

Among the PSC members there were Wynnewood’s Tony Auth, editorial cartoonist at the Philadelphia Inquirer for the past 39 years, and his wife, Eliza, an oil painter who depicts realistic landscapes and portraits. They’re first-year members.

“We share much of our work as artists, no matter what medium,” says Tony, who also writes and illustrates children’s books. “It’s just fascinating to learn about things we don’t know. We both benefit personally and professionally. Whatever the medium, this place has quite a tradition for joining all the muses around town.”

Ardmore’s Joe Sweeney, an outdoor landscape painter—what the French call plein air—is another recent club member. “There were a lot of Main Line members in the beginning, and now again,” says Sweeney, who’s taught outdoor classes as an adjunct at the PAFA since 1993.

Narberth painter Alexandra Tyng is famed architect Louis Kahn’s daughter. But she didn’t even know her father was once a PSC member when she joined. When Kahn died in 1974, she was just 20.

“He was always an influence, but I also made it a point to make a path on my own,” says Tyng, who paints representational oil landscapes and portraits in settings. “We did not have the same last name, so that made it easier. For a long time, no one in the art world knew the connection, and so I truly was able to make it on my own.”

In May, Tyng’s portrait of her father was hung in the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution. “I was really happy, and they were happy, too,” she says.

A grand master of the modern-day PSC has to be painter Bill Campbell. He turned 95 in September, celebrating in October with a birthday party and exhibit at the Plastic Club, which accepts men these days. “I had a party and exhibit for my 90th birthday,” he says. “I thought that would be it. Five years later, I’m still around.”

Though he currently lives in a four-story brownstone stuffed with art in the shadows of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Campbell was a founder of the Main Point, the storied Bryn Mawr coffeehouse and cabaret, which closed in 1981. The popular venue hosted singer/songwriters like Bruce Springsteen, along with plays and art shows. Campbell used to sketch the performers, giving his work away.

Campbell’s first visit to the PSC was in 1935. By the winter of 1939-40, as World War II raged on, he joined. Today, he’s the longest-tenured member in club history. “My memory goes back to 1935, so that’s half the life of the club,” he says.

Campbell still marvels at the range of artists, ironworkers, stained-glass craftsmen and architects that were always on-hand, pointing out that there was much more diversity among the ranks back then. He trained as a realist but, by high school in 1930, developed an interest in the Impressionists and early Modernists. “New stuff when I was a kid,” he says.

Beginning in 1935, after a New England summer session with the PSC’s Horter, Campbell took up abstract painting. “It was 1940 before I had any sketch worth working on,” he says. “By 1945, I had a half-dozen that developed into paintings.”

Campbell painted both realistic scenes—usually outdoor landscapes—and abstract studio works until about a decade ago, when he turned solely to abstracts. A few bouts with skin cancer had confined him to indoor work.

These days, Campbell has been donating his work, and that of others, to Woodmere. “I didn’t know if I had tons of stuff for the trash or whether there was some interest,” he says. “They told me it was all priceless, and not to throw anything away—but all of this made my life. There’s a richness to being involved in any of the arts that nothing else can equal. At 95, I have lots of handicaps, but thank goodness I still have a memory.”

To learn more, visit sketchclub.org.