J.J. Lankes (Wells Years 1932–1939)

Of all the individuals who have left an impression on Wells College over the years, surely one of the most singular was Julius John Lankes, who taught in the Department of Fine Arts from 1932 to 1939. Judging by his independent personality, Lankes would have to be seen as an unlikely choice for a job in a structured environment, especially an academic one. However, in 1932 he, like many other artists in America, had to take opportunity where he found it. Although acknowledged as a master of the woodcut, and acclaimed as the illustrator of important period books, Lankes had never realized more than a modest return from his work. Even his elaborately illustrated A Woodcut Manual, issued by Henry Holt Co. in 1932, had only moderate sales, despite laudatory reviews.

As the Great Depression entered its trough, Lankes, no stranger to financial straits, was struggling to provide for his family. Then the unexpected happened. Robert Frost, whose New Hampshire (1923) and West-Running Brook (1928) Lankes had illustrated, insisted that he apply for a one-year professorship in the Fine Arts at Wells College, a position funded by the Carnegie Foundation. Lankes was reluctant at first. He had never attended college, much less thought of teaching in one. Indeed, his education had been a random affair. After graduating with a diploma in engineering in his native Buffalo, and subsequently working a number of menial jobs, he had followed his instincts and taken a correspondence course in drawing. More formal art training followed, notably at the Museum of Fine Arts School in Boston. But even then he did not find his true métier until he became aware of the renewed interest in the woodcut, inspired in large measure by the neo-mediaeval style of William Morris and in turn by the Arts and Crafts movement. Beginning in 1917, Lankes quickly and deftly developed a distinctive limning technique and artistic style, both of which were largely self-taught.
After working in a tiny studio in Gardenville, New York for some years, he moved to Hilton Village, Virginia in 1925. Though far removed from major publishing markets, he was able to realize a sufficient livelihood from illustrating commissions, while at the same time exploiting the wealth of topics offered by the languid world of Tidewater Virginia. However, by 1932 he was more than willing to seek out regular employment. With Frost’s endorsement, he was hired to fill the Wells position. In fact, Frost already had a good friend at Wells: Robert P. T. Coffin – Rhodes scholar, poet, historian and professor of English. Coffin and Lankes quickly formed a close bond.

Lankes’ misgivings about entering the classroom stemmed from more than his lack of academic credentials. He was temperamentally shy and reserved, preferring to be alone rather than to interact with groups. The life of the solitary artisan suited him well, and he had serious misgivings about being able to deal effectively with classes of young women. Nevertheless, encouraged by Frost, who insisted that the new appointment was a recognition of Lankes’ artistic achievement, his teaching seems to have gotten off to a good start. He began his first class by insisting that the students learn to draw from nature. The assignment was to produce a faithful rendition of a leaf (he had placed one on each desk). Once this was achieved, he promised, more liberties could be taken. Although it was claimed that some students were still trying to draw a perfect leaf at Christmas time, both they and their instructor seemed to have benefitted from the class.
Wells’ location offered Lankes certain advantages that Virginia did not. For one, he was close enough to Frost to make occasional visits. Early in 1933 Frost helped organize an exhibition of Lankes’ work at Amherst. Lankes in turn arranged for Frost to deliver a lecture at Wells in 1935. Lankes also used his geographical advantage for visits with Sherwood Anderson, both in New York City and at Wells. Anderson visited the campus in 1937 and 1939 and lectured to a class on the second visit.

Perhaps the most significant benefit that Lankes realized, however, was the wealth of subjects offered by the College, the town of Aurora and the surrounding rural area. In the seven years that he served on the Faculty (the one-year position had been extended), he executed more than three dozen designs based on local subjects. These range from treatments of College buildings such as Glen Park, the Dean’s Cottage & Macmillan Hall to shocks of corn on the Zabriskie family’s farm; from a bookplate for the Wells Collegiate Association to a poster advertising Frost’s lecture; from Christmas greetings to designs for the dust jackets of three Coffin titles. His rendering of Macmillan Hall is arguably one his most accomplished works, the various planes of the building standing out with the subtle shading effects for which Lankes was famous and the texture of these surfaces evoking a fine delineation of the brick. He also captured many of his subjects at their seasonal best, whether in the haze of Indian summer in his rendition of Zabriskie’s corn field or the Main building cloaked in snow at the beginning of Christmas holidays.

Today, one views these impressive evocations and inevitably forms an opinion about the artist who created them. In so doing, it is natural to infer what kind of man he was, and what his personal feelings were for the subjects he depicted. One should not carry these inferences too far, however, because the scenes featured in his work suggest an artist happily impressed by his subjects and pleased with his situation. To gauge the true nature of Lankes’ feelings one needs to balance these perceptions with the written record of those years. In many of Lankes’ letters he complains about climate, remoteness, provincialism and even Faculty colleagues who, he senses, resent his presence in a hallowed academic setting. Although he confessed that he “bellyache[d] as a matter of duty,” Frost frequently attempted to counter his grousing, telling him that his teaching was receiving praise and reminding him of the differences between academic people and those who lives are centered in the larger world.

Another intimate source of information on Lankes is Robert P. T. Coffin. In 1940, the year after Lankes left Wells, Coffin was asked to contribute an article on a topic of his choosing to the Wells College Chronicle. [Wells College Chronicle 44, 5 (June 1940) : 8-10.] Titling the piece “A Genius This Late,” Coffin made Lankes his subject, identifying him as one the of authentic geniuses he had known (he also named Frost). He parsed the concept of genius and demonstrated how difficult it is for such a person to fit into a world made for “regular” people. A genius, according to Coffin’s definition, can be intolerant, ruthless, obsessive and “scornful of much that has been created before.” (8) As a fierce champion of originality and a defender of his or her unique vision, this exceptional being has little time for those who tolerate various points of view (read: college professors). Conversely, the genius has an unwavering dedication to any personal endeavor; in Lankes’ case, “he never took much pleasure except in his work. Everything else disappointed him.” (9) Such a person, Coffin summarized, is very difficult to live with, but having the privilege of doing so is clearly worth the effort. After praising at length Lankes’ skills as a limner of woodblocks, Coffin ended by appealing to the memories of his readers: “Perhaps many of you remember J.J. Lankes. . . his woodcuts will probably be remembered along with those of William Blake. And your great grandchildren will know, maybe, that he was at Wells College when the rest of us who taught there in the twentieth century will have been forgotten.”

Thus far, this vaunted prophecy has failed to materialize; however, the heritage of Lankes at Wells is by no means forgotten. In fact, in recent years it seems to have taken on a renewed vitality. The College holdings of Lankes’ work have grown; his designs adorn various College publications; a recent volume published on his life and work was issued in limited edition by the Wells College Press. Still, his most relevant legacy remains the Wells-related works themselves. Recalling what many would call a more innocent time, they evoke a segment of the now distant past that, thanks to a cantankerous yet sensitive genius, remains forever vital.

Welford Dunaway Taylor
The James A. Bostwick Chair of English at The University of Richmond Author of Robert Frost and J.J. Lankes: Riders on Pegasus, Southern Odyssey: Selected Writings by Sherwood Anderson, and The Woodcut Art of J.J. Lankes

Richmond, Virginia June 2003

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