Ethel Magafan

1916, Chicago, Illinois ‒ 1993, Woodstock, New York

(Ethel Magafan Currie)

A painter in both realist and abstract styles, Ethel Magafan gained special attention in Nebraska for the excellence of the mural, Threshing, which she created for the post office building in Auburn in the 1930s. It was part of a federal art program during a time of harsh economic depression following the stock market crash of 1929. After Threshing, Ethel completed several additional murals for this program, and then in the mid 1940s, freed from government-funded mural guidelines, she painted many highly colored abstract landscapes which are her signature works. “She never painted landscapes of the East Coast. Her paintings reflect her preference for the rugged mountains of the West over the softer, tree covered mountains of the Catskill region where she spent the last decades of her life.” (Currie)

Ethel Magafan and her twin sister, Jenne, were born in Chicago to parents Julia Bronik and Petros Magafan. When the girls were very young, the family moved to Denver, Colorado for their father’s health. He died in 1932 when Ethel and Jenne were 16, leading to not only sadness but also financial stress. However, he remained an ongoing influence on his daughters because he proudly supported their artistic talents. He also stirred their love of the American West saying that many of the landscape views reminded him of his homeland in Greece.

As students at East Denver High School, the twins received special attention for their art abilities from their art teacher, Helen Perry, who herself had been a student at The Art Institute of Chicago. She arranged for them to have lessons with Frank Mechau, a landscape and genre painter, who was active with mural commissions. He had been raised in Colorado Springs and then studied and painted in New York City and Paris where he experimented with avant-garde styles. However, deciding he was more of a traditional than modernist artist, he returned to his roots in 1932 “with an extreme desire to get back to nature and life in Colorado.” (Bach 17)

Subsequently his focus on local place with simplicity of form and color influenced his students, and many “became inspired through camaraderie with their teacher….Mechau is credited with introducing a Western school of regionalism, inspired by the ‘American Scene,’ which was drawn from the ideal of creating art that represented a different character from region to region in a realistic manner.” (Puschendorf, Book Review) It was this tradition that had a long-term influence on both Ethel and Jenne.

Their first lessons were at the Mechau School of Modern Art, which he operated in 1934 and 1935 in downtown Denver. Miss Perry paid their tuition, $54 for each for 18 weeks. Cile M. Bach, biographer of Frank Mechau, wrote of the School: “The student roster included three of Miss Perry’s most gifted students ‒ twin sisters Jenne and Ethel Magafan and Edward Chavez, who were to study and work with Mechau for several years.” (Bach 20) Chavez, a high school classmate of the twins, would later become Jenne’s husband.

Lessons with Mechau for the threesome continued at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, where they also studied with Peppino Mangravite and Boardman Robinson. To begin study at the Center, Jenne paid for her and Ethel’s tuition with $90 she had received from the Carter Memorial Art Scholarship. However, the money covered only two months of classes, so Mechau, to ensure their enrollment, hired them as paid assistants.

Mechau completed a mural, Horses at Night, for the Denver Public Library in 1936, which was widely praised and brought him enough commission opportunities that he continued Ethel, Jenne, and Edward as paid assistants. Much of the activity was in Mechau’s studio in Redstone, Colorado, west of Denver in the Rocky Mountain range. Chavez wrote of those days: “I can never forget the days in the Redstone Schoolhouse Atelier working on one or another of Frank’s various Treasury Department murals in those wonderfully magical Redstone winters; and later in the evening, before a roaring fireplace, after we shared a meal with the Mechau family….The effects of this relationship are still directly an important part of my work and an influence in my life.” (Bach 68)

For these assistants, this not only was camaraderie with an artist they admired but an education in mural painting. Confident of their abilities, Mechau encouraged Ethel, Jenne, and Edward to enter competitions that were opening up with the federal art program to create murals for newly constructed post offices. In 1938, Ethel then in her early 20s won the competition for the mural in Auburn, Nebraska, the “youngest artist in America to receive such an honor.” (David Cook Galleries)

Like Mechau, Ethel had gone through a rigorous competitive process administered by the U.S. Government Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP), which had overseen the construction of 300 post office buildings in communities across the United States. TRAP administrators then held artist design competitions for murals with specifications that they should be realist in style and have themes relating to the history and culture of each community. Artists signed contracts only after they had completed a series of exacting steps beginning with submitting drawings to a local jury and ending with decisions by a TRAP jury. The artist received one third of his or her fee when the contract was signed; the second third with approval of the full-scale preparatory sketch; and the final payment upon approval of a photograph of the finished mural. ”The average commission across the United States seems to have been about $725. The fee was expected to cover all expenses for travel, research, materials and the final labor of mounting the mural on the post office wall.” (Anderson 26)

To start, Ethel visited the town of Auburn to learn about the people, their history, their suggestions for the mural theme, and to tour the post office with the postmaster. She submitted two pencil sketch scenes for consideration, one of threshing wheat and the other of the local landscape. The wheat scene was chosen and, with the title of Threshing, it was on the post office wall in June 1938. Ethel was paid $620 for the mural. Of the finished work, it was written: “The influence of the American Scene is evident in this mural. The subject was familiar to the community, since threshing was the time when farm families came together with their neighbors after the wheat harvest.” (Puschendorf 40) The mural also received special attention in 2012 when it appeared as the cover illustration of the Nebraska State Historical Society’s publication Nebraska’s Post Office Murals by Robert Puschendorf.

With such a positive response to Threshing, Ethel received other commissions totaling seven spanning nearly 40 years: Prairie Fire, Madill, Oklahoma Post Office, 1941; Horse Corral, Denver Post Office, 1942; Mountains in Snow with Jenne, Social Security Building, Washington, D.C., 1949; and Grant in the Wilderness, Fredericksburg National Military Park, Chancellorsville, Virginia, 1979. “She focused her subjects mainly on local agriculture and industry but continued to subtly push against the limitations of neutral subject matter. During the segregated period of the history of the South, she completed a mural for the Wynne Post Office in Arkansas that depicted Black workers in a noble light.” (Sullivan Goss) Ethel also did considerable easel painting using egg tempera and a palette knife. Her subjects varied including realist, abstract, and surreal landscapes and she showed a particular fondness for horses. “In 1942, she completed the mural Andrew Jackson and the Battle of New Orleans, which is still on view in Washington, D.C. in the former Recorder of Deeds building.” (Currie)

During World War II, the sisters would frequently drive across the country together in their station wagon to research and complete mural assignments. “Because of the mandatory rationing of provisions and such treasured commodities as rubber tires during the war years, Ethel and Jenne had to save as many gas coupons as possible and rely on re-treaded tires in order to secure their work” (Sullivan Goss)

The sisters generally lived together, except for brief periods apart doing murals. Ethel lived with Jenne in Colorado Springs until 1941, and then in Los Angeles from 1941 to 1945 except for a time in Wyoming in 1942 and 1943. During this period, Ethel’s paintings were somewhat abstract with western titles such as Indian Dance, Crossing the Panhandle, and Brahma Bulls. (Kovinick 200) “After World War II, many people in the US were on the move and on the advice of older artist friends in Los Angeles, Arnold Blanche and Fletcher Martin, Ethel and Jenne were advised that if they were serious about being professional artists, they needed to live near New York City. The charming artists’ colony of Woodstock, New York, they were told, was perfectly located only 100 miles from the vital art scene of New York City. So they permanently relocated to Woodstock, New York in 1945.” (Currie)

For the first time, they lived apart because they had artist husbands: Edward Chavez for Jenne, and Bruce Currie for Ethel who married in 1946. Anita Smith, historian of the colony, wrote that they were “among those painters who, after the war, came here to inject fresh impetus into our valley.” (280)

Between 1951 and 1952, the twins and their husbands were away from Woodstock on a year-long trip. Edward had a Fulbright Scholarship to Italy, and Ethel had a Fulbright Scholarship to Greece. “The two couples lived separately and visited one another only once or twice during that year.” (Currie) Upon their return in 1952, Jenne died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage, a loss that Ethel mourned deeply. She said that the death of her sister “was a tragedy from which I never fully recovered. (Sullivan Goss) She later named her daughter and only child, Jenne. Shortly after the death of Jenne, Ethel began making yearly trips to Colorado. The landscape paintings following her sister’s death became quite abstract, “seeking out the feelings of a scene rather than an exact representation.” (Sullivan Goss)

Ethel and her husband “lived out the remainder of their lives in Woodstock. They lived on a paved road only one and a half miles from the village of Woodstock up a gentle hill. The couple kept very strict working hours, each having their own separate studio on the premises.” (Currie) When their daughter Jenne was born in 1956, Ethel continued to paint around the schedule of a growing child.

Ethel Magafan Currie died April 24, 1993 at age 76 in Woodstock, New York after a series of strokes. Unlike her sister, Ethel lived long enough to enjoy national recognition including election to the National Academy of Design where she received the Academy’s first Hallgarten Prize and its Altman Prize. She was also elected second Vice President of the Academy. In 1971, the United States Department of Interior requested that she travel and draw sketches throughout the Western U.S. These sketches were later exhibited at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. and then sent on a national tour by the Smithsonian Institution. Also the nation’s most prestigious museums acquired her work including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art; and the Smithsonian Institution’s American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. “Ethel was a continuous member of two prestigious 57th Street galleries in Manhattan from the 1960s into the 1990s: first the Jacques Seligmann Galleries and then Midtown Gallery (later renamed Midtown Payson Gallery), of which she was a member until her death in 1993.” (Currie)

Ethel Magafan is not represented in the Museum of Nebraska Art collection.

Sources:, Sep. 2016
Anderson, Elizabeth, “Depression Legacy: Nebraska’s Post Office Art,” Nebraska History, Quarterly, Spring 1990, Nebraska State Historical Society, Web, Sep. 2016, David Cook Galleries, Denver, Colorado; Biography of Edward Chavez, September, 2016, Sullivan Goss, Santa Barbara, California; Biography of Ethel Magafan, September, 2016
Bach, Cile M., Frank Mechau-Artist of Colorado, pp. 17, 20, 68, 119-120, Print
Currie, Jenne Magafan, Email to Lonnie Dunbier, December 16, 2016. Jenne Magafan Currie is the daughter of Ethel Magafan and Bruce Currie.
The New York Times, newspaper: 04/29/1993, “Ethel Magafan Dead: Landscape Painter 76,”
Falk, Peter Hastings, Editor, Who Was Who in American Art, Volume II, Print
Kovinick, Phil and Marian Yoshiki-Kovinick, An Encyclopedia of Women Artists of the American West, pp. 199-200, Print
“Mural Listing by Artist,” Nebraska History Quarterly, Spring 1990, Nebraska State Historical Society, Web, Sep. 2016
Puschendorf, L. Robert, Nebraska’s Post Office Murals, pp. 40-43, Print
Puschendorf, L. Robert, Book review, Nebraska History Quarterly, Spring, 2017, Print
Smith, Anita M., Woodstock History and Hearsay, p. 280, Print
Steiner, Raymond J., “The Magafan & Currie Clan at The Woodstock Artists and Association Museum,” Art Times, online review Summer, 2006, Web, Sep. 2016
Trenton, Patricia, Independent Spirits, pp. 230-233, Print

Researched, written, and copyright by Lonnie Pierson Dunbier
Museum of Nebraska Art Project:
Their Place, Their Time: Women Artists in Nebraska, 1825-1945