By: Alexandra Schrader-Dobris, Bicentennial Intern, Class of 2021, History and Sociology, Bloomington
Artistic expression at Indiana University fosters creativity among faculty and students. Many male artists experience praise for this creativity, however we neglect to honor women’s artistic legacies.
My interest in art history inspires me to recognize reformer and art administrator, May Wright Sewall, and IU Bloomington professor and artist, Dr. Alma Eikerman, in an effort to uncover their untold stories.
Sewall was a founder of the Indianapolis Propyaleum, an institution that continues to promote educational opportunities for women in the sciences and in the arts today. In addition, she helped found the Art Association of Indianapolis, which is now the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
Eikerman is best known as a distinguished professor at IU who taught metalworking and jewelry design classes.
As a successful and skillful artist, her philosophy suggests that the “true function of jewelry is to decorate, to ornament, and thus command the attention and admiration. The ornament in this sense must reveal form that is worthy and expressive of its time.”
Sewall was born May 27, 1844 in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin. Her father encouraged her education, which was unusual for the time period. It is plausible that his encouragement was a central factor in her decisions to pursue higher education and to teach. After completing primary and secondary school she went to Northwestern Female College which was the Harvard equivalent for females at the time.
Upon the completion of college Sewall taught for several years with her second husband (there is not sufficient information regarding her first husband), Theodore Sewall, in Michigan and Indianapolis.
In 1866, she was awarded a laureate of science and received a Master of Arts degree in 1871. Then, in 1883 she founded the Art Association of Indianapolis, which later became the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
She served in several officer positions for the association, including president. Although, I have not found evidence that Sewall was an artist herself, she was an art enthusiast and promoted art within her community.
Her contributions as a feminist and suffragist are numerous. Among other accomplishments she founded the Indianapolis Woman’s Club in 1875, founded the Girls Classical School in 1882, and was a committee member of the National Woman Suffrage Association from 1882-1890.
At the 40th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, she is formed national and international women’s councils to discuss suffrage.
Women did not get the right to vote until August 18, 1920, and unfortunately Sewall died July 22, 1920, a month before equal suffrage. Although Sewall was unable to experience the freedom to vote, her dedication and hard work will continue to benefit generations of women.
Finally, she is known for creating the Indianapolis Propylaeum, an educational center for women, which allows them to acquire and cultivate literary, scientific, musical, and artistic skills.
Beyond her commitment to feminist causes, Sewall invested in helping others and promoting peace. For example, toward the end of her life in 1915 she was among 60 delegates who joined Henry Ford’s Peace Ship, on an attempt to halt the war in Europe prior to WWI.
She had an immense, fascinating, and rich history in which she had a profound impact on the lives of many Hoosiers and people around the world.
After traveling to IUPUI, the Indiana Historical Society, and the Indianapolis Museum, I realize that although there are many sources of documentation regarding Sewall’s accomplishments, it was hard to find tangible copies.
During her lifetime, the Indianapolis Star mentions Sewall’s educational and activist ventures, which can be found electronically, on newspapers.com. Furthermore, there are over 500 digitized copies of letters of correspondence between Sewall and prominent historical figures such as Clara Barton and Booth Tarkington at the Indianapolis Public Library.
Nonetheless, the Herron School of Art + Design Archives did not have physical copies of primary documents.
The Indiana Historical Society which had two small folders, including several letters which were near illegible, a passport which only had her husband’s name on it and she was mentioned as “wife,” and a document inviting her to join the Board of World’s Fair Managers of Indiana.
To continue my efforts investigating Sewall’s history, I went to Crown Hill Cemetery in search of her grave. It took me all of two seconds to find Booth Tarkington and James Whitcomb Riley’s impressive grave sites and over two hours to find May Wright Sewall’s plain, nondescript grave.
When I contacted the funeral home, they had never heard of Sewall. In the end, I gave the funeral home her husband’s name and they were able to locate her husband’s name grave. I was then finally able to locate her grave site.
Booth Tarkington once said, “in company with General Harrison and Mr. Riley [James Whitcomb] Sewall would necessarily have been chosen as one of the three most prominent citizens of Indiana.”
If that is the case why do so few people today know who she was, let alone what she has contributed to Indiana? She was a phenomenal reformer, suffragist, leader, and patron of the arts, who accomplished so much in her life time and yet she is not properly honored or celebrated.
This is why it is essential to tell Sewall’s story on behalf of the bicentennial.
The second woman I researched was Alma Eikerman, a former art professor at IU Bloomington. In comparison to Sewall, I have made more progress and there is a substantial collection at the Bloomington archives which includes documents and resources commemorating Eikerman.
Born in 1908 in Pratt, Kansas, Alma Eikerman grew up on a small farm during the Great Depression. Despite financial struggles her family, like Sewall’s, encouraged her to pursue an education. She earned her bachelor’s degree in studio art at Kansas State University in 1934. In 1942, she went on to receive her master’s degree at Columbia University.
To fund her education, she taught jewelry design Wichita State University. Then in 1947, she joined the IU Bloomington faculty.
She was an active member in various clubs and metalwork organizations such as, the College Art Association, Indiana Artist Craftsmen, and World’s Craft Council. In 1950, Eikerman went on sabbatical to work on metallurgy. She apprenticed with internationally renowned silversmith, Karl Gustav Hansen and master craftsman Henrick Boesen in Denmark.
While in Denmark she studied hollowware/hollowware vessels (tea pots and serving dishes) and brought this technique to the metalsmithing and jewelry program at IU, where she won the Handy and Harmon Silversmithing Award. She inspired many of her students to become successful artists and joined them at numerous silversmithing conferences.
Eikerman received grants from the Carnegie Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts. In 1976 IU awarded her the distinguished professor award, and in 1981 she received a distinguished teaching award from IU College of Arts and Sciences Graduate School Alumni Association.
Later, in 1986, she was awarded an honorary Doctorate in Fine Arts, from Miami University and was asked to speak at their commencement ceremony.
Besides all of her notable awards and research abroad, Eikerman worked for the Red Cross while traveling the world and served in Italy during WWII. Moreover, in 1970 she founded the Society of North American Goldsmiths. By 1993 she was awarded the American Craft Council’s Gold Medal and the Indiana Governor’s Art Award in 1993.
Her artwork was featured in over 200 exhibitions and priced between hundreds to thousands of dollars. Eikerman’s work has been displayed at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York City and in the “Objects USA” Smithsonian exhibit in Washington D.C.
This exhibit traveled to 25 U.S. countries and 11 European countries. In addition to her countless exhibitions, as a personal project in 1980, Eikerman drew designs for a house in Bloomington. The house featured white walls, red carpeting, and cathedral ceilings.
At this stage in my research I have concluded that both May Wright Sewall and Alma Eikerman share their love and appreciation for the arts.
However, without Sewall’s efforts as a reformer, champion of women’s rights, and a founder of the Art Association of Indianapolis, women like Alma Eikerman would not have been able to cultivate their own artistic abilities and share their knowledge with students in the IU Bloomington community.
This has been a valuable experience and rewarding process. I am grateful I have had the privilege to research the lives of these phenomenal women and to share their stories with IU students, faculty, and the public.