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OPINION | REX NELSON: Freunds of Eureka Springs

by Rex Nelson | December 18, 2021 at 3:23 a.m.


When I spent several days earlier this year in Eureka Springs researching a series of columns on the arts, two names kept coming up--Louis and Elsie Freund.

The married couple helped make Eureka Springs a city of the arts, and their influence is still felt in the town that has the highest per capita number of artists and writers in the state.

Louis was born in September 1905 in Clinton, Mo. His father died when he was young, and his mother, an uncle and a cousin inspired him to be an artist. He attended the University of Missouri from 1923-25 and Washington University in St. Louis from 1925-29.

In 1929, Louis received a scholarship for a year of foreign study. He headed to Paris and studied at Academie Colarossi, an art school founded in 1870, and Academie de la Grande Chaumiere, which was founded in 1904.

Elsie was born on a Taney County, Mo., game preserve in January 1912. Her father was the superintendent of the preserve. By age 5, she said she wanted to be an artist. She went to school in a one-room schoolhouse. The game preserve owner's daughter often brought her books and art supplies.

Elsie lived with a family in Kansas as a teenager so she could attend high school. Her parents later moved to Branson, Mo., and Elsie graduated from high school there in 1929.

"She taught for one year in a one-room schoolhouse," writes Alan Du Bois for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "She was participating in a program designed to get teachers back into rural schools and was obligated to teach in exchange for her high school education. She was working to earn enough money to enroll in the Kansas City Art Institute.

"After one year there, she returned to the resort town of Branson and opened a gift shop, where she made trophies by molding live fish in plaster of paris and using the mold to cast a plaster model of the fish, which she later painted. She also made jewelry out of walnut shells."

Louis worked as a professional artist in New York City after returning from Paris. He later found work with the arts section of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration and traveled through the Ozarks recording the mountain culture that was quickly disappearing. Louis painted murals for banks and post offices at Heber Springs, Eureka Springs, Pocahontas, Rogers and Harrison in addition to work in Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas.

"He's said to have sent 100 paintings to Washington, D.C.," Du Bois writes. "He was also a draftsman, easel painter and printmaker. His work followed five broad themes: European landscape, American genre, protest against war, regional landscape and Christian subject matter. His style sought for emotional impact in the use of dramatic heavy outlines, somber colors and compositions with strong diagonal axis."

Louis and Elsie met in 1936. The couple dated for three years. In 1938, Louis went to Hendrix College in Conway, where he served as resident artist until 1941 and head of the art department until 1946. Louis saved enough money to buy a boarding house in Eureka Springs that had been owned from 1909-11 by temperance advocate Carry Nation. Known as Hatchet Hall, the house was about to be razed when Louis purchased it.

The couple was married at Hatchet Hall in July 1939. They turned it into the summer Art School of the Ozarks, which they operated from 1940-51. Louis was a conscientious objector during World War II and was assigned to paint murals for the government. The murals were designed to help illiterate military recruits learn what they should be doing.

"Their influence helped to create the art community for which Eureka Springs is still known," Du Bois writes. "They had no children but had the distinction of being godparents for close friends. Both artists provided inspiration and encouragement to their students and entertained guests frequently. Their biggest accomplishment was as role models for married couples living creative lives through a time of adversity.

"Since the Freund school operated only during the summer, Elsie was able to study, taking her first ceramics class at the Wichita Art Association. This is where she began to develop a unique jewelry-making process that combined clay, glass and--at the suggestion of a Florida shop owner--silver. ... In 1957, the national craft outlet America House in New York accepted her jewelry, which was advertised in The New York Times and New Yorker. After seven years, Elsie grew weary of filling repeat orders and discontinued the line in 1964."

A harsh winter had inspired Louis to apply for a job at Stetson University in Florida years earlier. He became a teacher there in 1949 and was chairman of the art department from 1951-59. He was Stetson's artist in residence from 1959-67.

The couple returned to Eureka Springs each summer. Their arrival at the end of each school year was an important event for those artists who lived in the resort town full time.

After Louis retired from Stetson in 1967, he established the Eureka Springs Art Gallery.

"Elsie remained in the shadow of her husband's work," Du Bois writes. "Her paintings didn't attract as much attention as her jewelry, which was recognized late in her life and is represented in more than a dozen prestigious museums in the United States as well as museums in Europe."

The couple moved to Little Rock's Parkway Village retirement community in 1995. Louis died in December 1999. Elsie died in June 2001. Both are buried in Eureka Springs, the town where they inspired so many fellow artists.


Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.


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