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CMA Thinker

Artists’ Collections in the Archives: Digitizing Cleveland’s Artistic History

By Sara Kunkemueller, Digitization Intern, Ingalls Library and Museum Archives

This summer, I joined the Ingalls Library and Museum Archives as a digitization intern. My work involved several projects, from updating metadata to scanning books for the Internet Archive, but much of my time was dedicated to digitizing artists’ collections in the archives. The first materials I scanned were John Paul Miller’s sketchbooks.

Miller (1918–2013) was a renowned Cleveland jeweler. Having graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Art (CIA), he returned after Army service in World War II to join the school’s staff as a professor. At the same time, he began producing pieces for local jewelry store Potter & Mellen. Though Miller was trained in industrial design and spent his career focused on jewelry, he also harbored a deep love for watercolor and produced both photographs of his travels and a variety of video materials. During his tenure at the CIA, lasting more than 40 years, he taught all these subjects. Miller’s work has been acquired by numerous private collectors as well as by the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) and the Renwick Gallery, among others.

Miller is known for his use of granulation, a technique best recognized from archaeological jewelry. Through the granulation process, tiny beads of metal are affixed to a larger form without soldering. Miller employed granulation to create highly complicated surface textures and patterns. Focusing on both geometric abstractions and realistic animal and insect forms, Miller’s use of granulation lends his body of work an overall stylistic coherence, weaving a modernist aesthetic into natural surfaces. His sketchbooks are filled with repetitive drawings, where Miller plays with the form of the granulation pattern. Because Miller’s sketches are relatively close in size to his final products, there are many pieces in the CMA’s collection, in the archives’ May Show records, and in other art galleries that can be matched almost exactly to these pages.

Excerpts from sketchbook 21, undated, John Paul Miller Collection, Cleveland Museum of Art Archives
Gold and Enamel Pendant, Owl, c. 1955. John Paul Miller. Image 5562, Cleveland Museum of Art Archives. This artwork is known to be under copyright.

Miller’s sketchbooks augment his body of work with detailed notes on construction, including experimental notes made in the workshop. Several are filled with metal dust, and even small scraps of discarded gold, suggesting that they lived on his workbench and that designs were subject to revision during production. In one instance, Miller wrote out directions for a short film following the creation of one of his pieces, leaving behind a meticulous record of his process. Along with prices and other information, the inside covers frequently have a list of names or titles indicating which works of his were commissioned, created for a particular show, or produced in series. Within sketchbook 19, there is also a lengthy handwritten insurance appraisal detailing the minutiae of a piece’s construction, from materials to methods. All of this is relevant to future collectors and conservators of Miller’s work, but it also preserves his extensive knowledge of metalworking and could potentially serve as a teaching aid. Miller’s sketchbooks contain a wealth of information about his pieces, his teaching practices, and his personal and professional interests.

All 32 of Miller’s sketchbooks are currently available on the CMA Archives’ digital collections. Also available to view are detailed renderings of his rings and pendants, photographs from his trips to California and Antarctica, and images of his works from the May Show collection.

The remainder of my internship focused on the archives’ August F. Biehle Collection, composed primarily of sketch materials relating to various media and projects throughout Biehle’s prolific career. A son of German immigrant and decorative artist August Biehle Sr. (also represented in the digital archives), Biehle (1885–1979) was a Clevelander who contributed immensely to the city’s booming artistic character in the early 20th century. After completing his art education in Germany, Biehle returned to Cleveland just as it was reaching its peak of artistic innovation and began working at the Otis Lithograph Company. Over the course of his career, he produced incredible advertisements, murals, and paintings and became one of the most prominent Cleveland school artists.

Biehle was also a member of the city’s preeminent eclectic art organization, the Kokoon Arts Club. He brought with him both artistic talent and inspiration, having viewed an influential exhibition of Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), a German Expressionist group, in Munich in 1912. This informed Biehle’s own modernist works and, in turn, proved to be a stylistic influence for other club members. The archives’ collection has a number of Kokoon Club objects, including posters for club events, publication materials, and ticket designs for the club’s famous and lascivious balls. The Kokoon Club allowed Biehle to experiment with his formal artistic training, and the interaction between the club’s flourishing modernists encouraged him to delve into a variety of styles, including the developing Art Deco and Cubism movements.

Kokoon club bal-masque ticket #337 and ticket stub, 1938, August F. Biehle Collection, Cleveland Museum of Art Archives

Of particular note in the Biehle collection are sketch materials relating to murals he produced for several notorious buildings across the city, including the Kokoon Club, the Hofbräuhaus, and Herman Pirchner’s Alpine Village Theatre Restaurant. These mural sketches, often rendered loosely in gouache on paper or board, are striking not only because of their beauty but also because very few visual records of the murals remain. The Kokoon club, for example, featured several Biehle works on its walls during its heyday. However, after the club’s decline and disbandment in 1956, Biehle’s murals were demolished with the building. This is also true of his extensive work in Pirchner’s Alpine Village, notably Biehle’s depictions of fantastical scenes and classic moments from opera and theater. His influence extended to the Eldorado Club above the restaurant, where Pirchner hosted famous guests. In 1996, however, that structure was razed as well. While there are some photographic records containing Biehle’s demolished mural works, they are often focused on society events and the people who frequented the spaces rather than on the art itself. The sketch renderings of Biehle’s murals are some of the best remaining documentation of his presence throughout influential buildings in the city.

Sketch for mural — opera cycle, “Siegfried” written in margin, for Herman Pirchner’s Alpine Village Theatre Restaurant, c. 1942, August F. Biehle Collection, Cleveland Museum of Art Archives

Beyond Cleveland, Biehle represents a terrific encapsulation of the explosion of artistic innovation in the early 20th century. Stylistically adventurous, Biehle’s interests shifted over the course of his career. He was a talented decorative artist, having apprenticed under his father, and his lithographs were in direct conversation with other key advertisers of his age. Biehle’s commercial works include fantastic studies of his peers’ creations, such as several layouts for the Arrow Collar ads that made American artist Joseph Christian Leyendecker (1874–1951) famous, as well as several observational studies that show the depth of his formal training. Biehle’s prints were at the forefront of the shift from Art Nouveau to Art Deco. In the later parts of Biehle’s career, his paintings took on a striking Cubist style and were imbued with the dynamism of Futurism. His many talents make him an excellent example of the strength of Cleveland’s artistic scene at its height.

Biehle’s other work includes a variety of colorful painted landscapes inspired by Cubism. The CMA holds in its collection one such painting as well as works on paper by the artist. To see the Biehle collection online, please visit https://digitalarchives.clevelandart.org/digital/collection/p17142coll15.

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