Ethel Spears was born October 5, 1902 and raised in Chicago, IL. She attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and studied in the textile design department. She had her first solo exhibition at the School in 1923. She decided not to pursue a career in textile design and re-enrolled in the AIC School. Under the supervision of one of her teachers, John Norton, a noted Modernist, Spears did two mural commissions for the Tea Room of the Art Institute.
In the mid 1920s, she moved to Woodstock, NY to study under Alexander Archipenko. She left Woodstock and took up residence in New York City where she attended classes at the Art Students League. By 1930, Spears was back in Chicago after a brief stay in Paris. She was active in the 1930s as a WPA artist. She was registered in the Illinois Federal Art Project. In 1937, Spears became an instructor at the School of the Art Institute, Chicago. She remained there for 24 years. It was at the AIC School that she met Kathleen Blackshear, her life partner. Among the subjects at the AIC Spears taught was enameling. In 1953 she established a department for enameling.
Unfortunately the overcrowded conditions and poor ventilation in the enameling studios probably were responsible for Spears developing lead poisoning and lead to her death. As early as 1954, she began to seek information about her condition. She was formally diagnosed with lead poisoning in 1955. In 1961, the AIC School's insurance company denied further coverage for Spears's medical treatment. So, in 1961 Spears retired and moved to Navasota, Texas with Kathleen Blackshear (June 6, 1897-October 14, 1988). Spears continued to teach at her studio and exhibit her work in Navasota. However, she became thin and confused, sometimes wandering away from the home she shared with Blackshear. Eventually she was placed in the Grimes Memorial Convalescent Home.
Ethel Spears died on August 2, 1974 in Navasota, TX. She is buried in the Oakland Cemetery in Navasota, in the plot next to Kathleen Blackshear who continued to live in Navasota until her own death in 1988.
On-Line Exhibit of Ethel Spears Works
This is a .pdf file full of biographical information about Ethel Spears as well as many examples of her work done by the Thomas McCormick Gallery, Chicago, IL (1.42 mb file size)
© 2004 Nancy Lorance
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