Rediscovering Nina Belle Ward

Posted: May 1, 2015
Source: Katie Houston
Phone: 269-585-9297

Nina Belle Ward Street Scene 640x320

KALAMAZOO, MI - The Kalamazoo Institute of Arts (KIA) will open Rediscovering Nina Belle Ward Saturday, May 16. The exhibition pays tribute to the artist and teacher who was a local pioneer for art education in the early 20th century.

The first solo show of Ward's work since 1945 includes examples of portraiture, landscape, harbor scenes, and floral still life, and reunites work from Ward's relatives, private collectors, the KIA, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Born in 1885, Ms. Ward trained as a professional artist and received significant recognition before pursuing social reform as an arts educator. She taught art for 20 years at Kalamazoo High School, and played a key role in founding the KIA.

From 1911 to 1918, Ward's work was included in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., museum exhibitions. Her paintings, including Portrait of a Lady in Black and Elizabeth hung alongside work by Mary Cassatt, William Merritt Chase, and William Glackens.

She won several awards and garnered praise from critics, including one at the New York Times, who praised Ward's "understanding of the figure beneath the garments" and the refreshing "ease and simplicity of the execution" The following year, another Times article encouraged, "if Miss Ward should go a very little further she would be a painter of great distinction."

However, Ms. Ward made her way back to Kalamazoo and a career in teaching, says Karla Niehus, Associate Curator of Exhibitions. "She never chose to actively sell her work or seek commissions. Instead, she chose to nurture the talents of others, embracing the reformist principles of her era. She saw art education as a path to social change."

In that belief, Ward was emblematic of the rapid growth in public school art education in the early 1900s, and shared the belief that appreciation of art was critical to the moral well-being of all citizens, rich and poor.

Ward's skills were invaluable to Kalamazoo's fledgling museum and school. She contributed professional instruction to children and adults, first-hand experience exhibiting art, and knowledge of the art museum/art school model. Projects initiated by Ward continue today: teaching children's classes, and mounting an annual exhibition of work by local artists - a tradition that continues as the West Michigan Area Show (on view through August 9). She passed away from cancer in 1944.

"Nina Belle Ward's legacy here at the KIA is immeasurable," says Executive Director Belinda Tate. "She was a true visionary who helped Kalamazoo learn to love art, and who understood the power of art to inspire and transform people."

The exhibition and catalogue are supported by a gift from Professors Dana Ward and Julia Karet, with additional assistance from Rick Ryan. The corporate sponsor is Honigman.