The art of Dolly Fiterman

Imagine a birthday party where you get to open 249 presents. That’s what it was like for art history students at the University of St. Thomas when they removed bubble wrap from each piece in a large collection of modern art donated to the university last year by noted Twin Cities art collector Dolly Fiterman.

The students, enrolled in the graduate seminar “The Craft of Researching Modern Art,” selected and curated 26 of the pieces for the “Insights Into Modern Art” exhibition now on display at the university.

Graduate students in Dr. Craig Eliason's "The Craft of Researching Modern Art" seminar unwrap some of the 249 works of modern art donated to St. Thomas by Dolly Fiterman.

Graduate students in Dr. Craig Eliason’s “The Craft of Researching Modern Art” seminar unwrap some of the 249 works of modern art donated to St. Thomas by Dolly Fiterman.

The exhibition features works in a range of media by 18 famous and not-as-famous artists; it can be seen through May 26 in the lobby gallery of the O’Shaughnessy Educational Center on the university’s St. Paul campus.

An exhibition reception and panel discussion, free and open to the public, will be held at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, April 27, in the auditorium of O’Shaughnessy Educational Center. For more information call (651) 962-5560 or visit this website.

Students in the seminar, led by Dr. Craig Eliason, associate professor of art history at St. Thomas, experienced the full spectrum of mounting an exhibition as part of the department’s program for engaging students through art. They learned to safely handle valuable art, research and write about the artists, prepare descriptive wall labels, develop an exhibition catalog, and finally to mount and display the works.

Art history graduate student Brady King prepares artwork from the Dolly Fiterman collection for display in the O'Shaughnessy Educational Center lobby gallery.

Art history graduate student Brady King prepares artwork from the Dolly Fiterman collection for display in the O’Shaughnessy Educational Center lobby gallery.

Three of Eliason’s students will discuss what they learned about the artists and their art at the April 27 panel discussion:

  • Abby Hall will discuss “Opposites Attract: The Reciprocity of Influence Between Mark Rothko and Milton Avery.”
  • Kate Tucker will discuss “Feminist Artistic Lineage: Frida Kahlo Through Miriam Schapiro’s Eyes.”
  • Marquette Bateman-Ek will discuss “James Rosenquist: Print Symbols of His Disastrous Decade.”

The modern-art collection Fiterman donated to St. Thomas contains works from the 1950s to the 1990s, with the greatest number from the 1970s and 1980s. Media include lithograph, woodblock print, bronze sculpture, silkscreen, collage, woodcut, engraving, oil stick on paper, and pen and ink on paper.

Best-known nationally or internationally among the artists in the exhibition are Milton Avery (woodblock print), Miriam Schapiro (mixed media), Ilya Bolotowsky (screen print on plexiglass), A. R. Penck (engraving), Nancy Graves (lithograph), Karel Appel (lithograph), James Rosenquist (etching) and Allan D’Archangelo (silkscreen and mixed media).

The best-known local artists represented are Ta-Coumba Aiken (acrylic on canvas), Aribert Munzner (acrylic on paperboard), Diane Katsiaficas (textile), Eugene Larkin (woodcut) and Harriet Bart (bronze sculpture).

Fiterman grew up in Bejou, a small town about 40 miles north of Detroit Lakes. In high school she was a cheerleader, wrote poetry, was Minnesota’s first Wild Rice Queen and won a statewide drama award.  She attended a business college in St. Cloud but transferred to the University of Minnesota to study speech and radio broadcasting.  In addition to working as a secretary and selling clothing at Dayton’s, she acted at local theaters and spent a year modeling in New York. After returning to Minnesota, she met and married her husband, Edward Fiterman.

Art History graduate students mount works of modern art in the lobby gallery of O'Shaughnessy Educational Center. From the left are Lauren Greer, Olga Ivanova  and Brady King.

Art History graduate students mount works of modern art in the lobby gallery of O’Shaughnessy Educational Center. From the left are Lauren Greer, Olga Ivanova and Brady King.

In the 1950s she began to take sculpture and painting classes and to collect works by post-war artists. In 1977 she opened the Dolly Fiterman Fine Arts gallery in downtown Minneapolis; a decade later she moved the gallery to an elegant, former library building she restored on University Avenue in southeast Minneapolis.

Fiterman represented U.S. and European artists, organized exhibitions and contributed generously to arts, educational, religious and civic organizations.

In an introduction to the exhibition catalog, Father Dennis Dease, president of St. Thomas, wrote that he first became acquainted with Fiterman in the early 1990s “when her name was synonymous in the Twin Cities for ‘world-class art collector.’

“Indeed, the gallery that she founded, Dolly Fiterman Fine Arts, has shone an international spotlight on art in the Twin Cities, and her big-hearted philanthropy had bolstered Minnesota’s arts community as well as educational, religious and civic organizations.”

At St. Thomas, she supported Mark Balma’s frescoes in Terrence Murphy Hall in Minneapolis, the restoration of the grotto on the south campus in St. Paul, and the Jay Phillips Center for Jewish-Christian Learning (now Interfaith Learning).

Dolly Fiterman.

Dolly Fiterman.

Among her first gifts of art to St. Thomas was a carved African Mende mask in 1994, which has been used since for a methods course required for all art history majors and graduate students. Three years later she donated a large oxidized-corten steel sculpture, John Raimondi’s “Cage,” which can be seen on Summit Avenue next to the O’Shaughnessy Science Hall. A model of that sculpture is part of the “Insights Into Modern Art” exhibition.

St. Thomas honored Fiterman with an honorary doctor of humane letters degree in 1997. Her degree citation quoted an art critic’s description of her: “what oil-field workers would call a gusher – a great, explosive, natural well of bubbling energy and impulsive enthusiasm.”

The university also showed its appreciation by offering her a place to live on campus in 2002 while her Minneapolis home was undergoing repairs.

Over the years Fiterman also lent St. Thomas several dozen large paintings that have been displayed in campus buildings. Those works, in addition to the collection of modern art donated a year ago, have been given to the university to create a core teaching collection.

“While she has been generous with a number of educational institutions, her interest in the teaching of visual arts through exposure to high-quality original artworks is strongly visible in her relationship with St. Thomas,” wrote Dr. Shelly Nordtorp-Madson, chief curator and clinical faculty member for the Art History Department.

“The works on display (in O’Shaughnessy Educational Center) are only a fraction of the total pieces of art within the collection,” Nordtorp-Madson wrote, “and plans are already in the works to develop other thematic exhibitions utilizing the art from Dolly Fiterman’s substantial gift. It also is hoped that these works of art can be more extensively exhibited as an educational collection, in a new fine arts center, which would provide even more opportunities for students to learn the skills of working with art.”

According to Dease, “Dolly helped us choose and purchase art for our own collection, and she gave the university nearly 400 works of her own; these include contemporary paintings, drawings and sculpture by some of the world’s best-recognized artists as well as a remarkable collection of African art.”

Dolly Fiterman received her honorary doctorate from St. Thomas in 1997.  Her citation described her as a "natural well of bubbling energy and impulsive enthusiasm."

Dolly Fiterman received her honorary doctorate from St. Thomas in 1997. Her citation described her as a “natural well of bubbling energy and impulsive enthusiasm.”

Fiterman’s contributions to St. Thomas follow two other recent donations to the university’s collection. In 2007, 2,000 carvings and artifacts in the American Museum of Asmat Art were given to St. Thomas by the American Crosier Fathers and Brothers and the Diocese of Agats. In 2008, Frank Gehry’s Winton Guest House was donated by Kirt Woodhouse and moved from Lake Minnetonka to the university’s conference center on the outskirts of Owatonna.

“Together, these collections have created new opportunities for students in art history classes at St. Thomas,” said Mark Stansbury-O’Donnell, the John Ireland Professor and chair of St. Thomas’ Art History Department.

“The donation of artworks from Dolly Fiterman has added valuable, beautiful and interesting works of contemporary art to the collections of the University of St. Thomas,” Eliason wrote in his catalog essay. “The ‘Insights Into Modern Art’ exhibition offers a chance for the public to see choice works from this collection. At the same time, it serves as a showcase of the pedagogy that this gift has enabled.”