N. Cecilia Kettunen: Finding Place in Modernism


Jan 14 2008 - Aug 01 2008

Fall 2007 Senior ExhibitionThis exhibition of Ishpeming-native N. Cecilia Kettunen (1896-1992) represents a large portion of the 220 works of art donated by Kettunen to the museum’s permanent collection in 1988. This presentation of paintings, works on paper, sketches, photographs and ephemera are part of a larger research project currently underway by The DeVos Art Museum on the life and work of the artist.

Kettunen was born to Finnish immigrant parents, the third of seven children of Madleena Pintamo Kettunen and Andrew Kettunen, who worked as a master tailor in Houghton-area before settling in Ishpeming. After graduating from Ishpeming High School in 1912, Kettunen moved to Chicago to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where she received a BA in Art Education in 1917. For the next 40 years she moved around the country, teaching art and returning to study art at Yale University, the Art Students League in New York City and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she received an MFA in 1945. Her teaching career took her to Bluffton, Ohio, where she established a fine arts program at Bluffton College. Kettunen also served as the head of art departments at colleges in Peru, Nebraska, and Virginia, Minnesota before returning to the Upper Peninsula, where she was the Art Supervisor for the Houghton school system until she retired in 1960.

Kettunen was very active in exhibiting her art and entering painting and mural competitions. Her work was published in conjunction with numerous Beaux Arts Competitions; many of her paintings were exhibited at the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Art Institute of Chicago, and Kettunen was one of the featured artists in a Ford Foundation-sponsored traveling exhibition of Upper Peninsula artists. While studying with the muralist Peppino Mangravite at the Art Institute of Chicago, Kettunen was selected to assist with a mural of Abraham Lincoln in the museum.

Though her life as an artist and educator often took Kettunen far from the Upper Peninsula, her family maintained a cottage on Lake George in Three Lakes, Michigan. The cottage functioned as a studio for Kettunen and she often spent weeks or months there at a time (in summer and winter) drawing and painting. After retiring from the Houghton school system, Kettunen went back to Bluffton, Ohio and spent the last few years of her life in a nursing home there. In 1988 she contacted Northern Michigan University to offer a donation of her work that remained in the cottage at Three Lakes and all of the pieces on display here were brought to the Museum and added to the permanent collection. In 1992, former DeVos Art Museum Director Wayne Francis curated an exhibition of Kettunen’s portraits and landscapes which is thought to be her first major exhibition in the Upper Peninsula.

The pieces selected for this exhibition highlight the stylistic breadth and depth of Kettunen during a career that spanned over 70 years. The title of the exhibition, “Finding Place in Modernism”, refers to how certain artistic movements associated with Modernism may have influenced an artist working during the height of that period. Kettunen was highly educated in the practice and history of art, and her dedication to art making and art education allowed for a lifestyle of travel and mobility. However, much of the work Kettunen produced seems to be inspired by the place she grew up and often came back to visit. The question this exhibition and the larger research project associated with it hopes to address is how stylistic impulses, combined with geographical location, influence artistic production.

Since this is part of an ongoing project, the gallery space will change and evolve between now and August 1, when the exhibition closes. The central point of the research project is the timeline, which is presented in the galley space directly on the wall. The timeline will be added to over the course of the exhibition as research continues. Information on the timeline will include the location of Kettunen over the course of her life, any known exhibitions, competitions entered and schools taught at. The timeline will also include images of Kettunen’s work based on when she made the pieces, so that the viewer can see where Kettunen was geographically located and what she was involved in professionally as she experimented with different approaches to painting and drawing.

Special thanks to John Hubbard, Geoff Willcox, Emily Lanctot and Christopher Moore for their assistance with the exhibition and ongoing research project. Support for this exhibition generously provided by The Friends of the DeVos Art Museum.