Reading the words “Bless you, my dear child,” on the yellowing sheet of paper brought tears to my eyes. My tiny, energetic, high-school sculpture instructor, Caroline Risque Janis, had helped decide the course of my life.
The paper was my final report as a senior at John Burroughs School in St. Louis, Missouri. The year was 1951. Part of the report she wrote included these words of advice to me, “Let her remember that only by looking deep in her own heart will she find what is worth expressing in that language; let her remember too, that style does not spring from technical proficiency, but from the most direct and clear communication of her vision and the rigid elimination of all non-essential details and distractions.”
These very direct words, which I read again a few months ago, sparked in me a drive to learn more about this woman that I had worked with all through middle school and high school, yet knew very little about. My search uncovered the roots of her foundational ideas on teaching, women in the art world, and the creative process. I learned that she cared deeply about each student she sent out into the world. I found that for her era, her achievements were indeed significant, but regrettably, now all but forgotten.
The search process started, as it does these days, with Wikipedia. And, there she was: in a very formal sepia-colored photo, hard at work in a sculpture studio at E.G. Lewis’ People’s University Art Academy in St. Louis, Missouri. The year was probably 1909. I found a fascinating article, a number of photos of her work, and many references leading off in a variety of directions.
One of the photos was taken at the Art Academy, which stood a block away from the University City Lion’s Gates created by sculptor George Zolnay, who was pictured in the center of the rather dark photo. He had been teaching at the St. Louis Fine Arts Academy, and when Lewis invited the artist to his school, Caroline was one of the resident students he brought with him.
At that moment, University City contained a unique confluence of energetic minds, brought together by the entrepreneur E.G. Lewis. For a brief time, he headed up the now-almost-forgotten American Women’s League, which ran the Art Academy through his People’s University. There, three giants of the ceramics world worked together in one place: Taxile Doat, from France; Frederick Rhead, from England; and Adelaide Alsop Robineau, from the US East Coast. They all worked together for a brief two or three years, right there in St. Louis.
Robineau was breaking with all traditions in the clay world of that day by daring, as a woman, to insist upon being involved in every aspect of the hand-production world of pottery: throwing, glazing, and firing. She produced works of international acclaim that would take international prizes. Robineau’s final retrospective would culminate as the first (and perhaps only) woman potter to exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the 1920s.
And now, considering all these matters as an 85-year-old artist, I wish somehow to honor my former teacher with all her immense talents and her courage as a woman and an artist who flourished in spite of the patriarchal world of 100 years ago. My own current perspective is from that of a woman in 2020—a time when women see the White House in the realm of possibilities, and all else. One shudders to imagine what Janis must have faced in the first decade of the 20th-century, and then, in turn, faced down.
Beginning a New Pursuit
Janis’ young life was one of middle-class privilege. Educated alongside energetic, progressive, and artistic women at the turn of the 20th century when the suffragettes in England and the US stirred young minds, Janis’ talented hands and imaginative mind led her to art school.
In the book Women in the Arts, Kathleen Butterly Nigro gives a fascinating description of Janis’ young life as part of a group of six women artists (including the poet Sarah Teasdale) dubbed “the Potters,” a name that came from the monthly magazine they produced entirely by hand, The Potter’s Wheel. Janis, a talented writer as well as a sculptor, chose to pursue visual art.
With the strong role models of women artists around her, and after a brief period at the Art Students League in New York, Janis left St. Louis in the spring of 1911 to study in Paris, right on the cusp of World War I. It was a tense time, but also an inspirational one, with the literary ferment in Paris and the suffragette movement across the channel.
The list of sculptors she studied with in Paris is rather extraordinary; it includes Wayland Bartlett and Jean Antoine Injabert at Academie Colarossa, the only studio to admit women and allow them to draw from the male nude model. She went on to be awarded international prizes and have her work purchased for collections in Europe. She stated early in her career that when it came to her work, “it must stand or fall as the work of an artist, and not a woman artist.”
Channeling a New Passion
When she returned to St. Louis, married, and had a child, she founded the art department at John Burroughs School in 1927. After she began teaching, she continued her own studio work, which included executing a larger than life-sized figure for the exterior of a church designed by the notable Modern architect and designer Charles Eames, and bronze portraits of the founders of a major department store in St. Louis.
At Burroughs, she channeled all of her experiences into a passion for teaching and a teaching philosophy, which she termed a schema. Co-created by Janis and painting instructor Mabel Meeker Edsall, this teaching philosophy served as the standard for the art department during her years there. It stated, in part: “Our aim is not to make professional artists (unless we find exceptional talent), but it is to find the means for free expression of the creative instinct by the student, and to develop his power of expression; to teach him to see, and to analyze and understand what he sees; to lead him to enjoy, and therefore to value, the works of the artist of all ages because he can see and understand them, and to provide an intelligent and sympathetic audience for the art and artists of his own time.”
Her schema also stated, “we place the emphasis on an artistic idea, and that good technique is only adequate expression of the conception. We give criticism only when asked for by the student, and never . . . destructive. We encourage originality, boldness, self-confidence, and experiment.”
When I entered Burroughs in seventh grade, my Big Sister was a senior named Joan Spencer (now Murphy). Joan was a talented artist, and I may have wanted to copy her, and so took sculpture classes. In fact, nine years later, Joan would return to Burroughs to take over Mrs. Janis’ classes upon her retirement.
Once I got my hands in clay, there was no going back. Mrs. Janis (as students addressed her then) was very supportive of my work, and of every student there. She treated our work with respect and gave us a multitude of encouragement and diverse experiences. She directed students to Winkle Terra Cotta, another wonder of St. Louis’ Mid-Century ceramics, and in my senior year, she held my hand through the steps of creating a life-sized portrait of a fellow student, and the subsequent casting, finishing, and mounting of the completed piece.
Washington University School of Fine Arts was my choice for art school in spite of Mrs. Janis’ urging me toward the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. I’ll be forever grateful for making that choice, because there I met my future husband, Ray Grimm, and got a good grounding in the arts. I’m still puzzled by the fact that despite being two miles away from University City—the center of the ceramics world in the early 20th century—not a single word was ever spoken of it at Washington University.
After Ray and I married, and he completed graduate school, we made a monumental move west on the Oregon Trail. We settled next to a 5000-acre forested park in Portland, Oregon (in fact, Forest Park!), and entered into a future rich in family, art, friends, and teaching. One of our daughters, as well as one of our granddaughters, became professional artists. Our granddaughter, Autumn Higgins, has a graduate degree in ceramics from Louisiana State University and spends a very large part of her week working on a potter’s wheel.
Ray founded Portland State University’s ceramics and hot glass departments, and I did studio work and some teaching part time while childrearing. We collaborated on many architectural projects around the region; the largest being two of a four-member team producing the Weather Machine for Pioneer Courthouse Square, or Portland’s Living Room as some call it. Exhibitions and sales of our work punctuated the years with very satisfactory responses from our supporters.
In the late ’80s and ’90s, my clay work reflected my absorption with images expressing the feminine in ancient spirituality, and a series of domestic-scale shrine figures of earth goddess figures and Black Madonnas came forth. Mythologic themes had thoroughly captured my attention.
Looking back, I realized that Caroline Risque Janis established a direction in my life that has had richer rewards than I could have ever imagined. “Let her also remember that only by looking deep in her own heart will she find what is worth expressing in that language.” Those words from Janis changed my art, and my life.
My gratitude to her knows no bounds.
the author Jere Meisel Grimm graduated from John Burroughs School, in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1951 after studying with Caroline Risque Janis for four years. She received her bachelor of fine arts from Washington University School of Art in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1954 with a major in sculpture. Her career in art spans decades and includes numerous exhibitions and teaching, as well as creating both large and small public and private commissioned works. She often worked on projects in partnership with her husband, Ray Grimm (1924-2012), in Portland, Oregon, where she and her family now reside. Grimm’s granddaughter Autumn Higgins’ work in ceramics has recently been published in Ceramics Monthly.