Myra Biggerstaff

1905, Logansport, Indiana – 1999, Auburn, Nebraska

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Painter, woodblock printer, textile artist, and educator, Myra Biggerstaff cut a wide swath in the world of modernist art, but Auburn, Nebraska was the place which served as her physical and psychological anchor. As a youngster, she found special places there to sketch, returned to regain perspective at intervals when her career became highly active or her personal life chaotic, and it was where she retired and then was buried at age 94 in the local cemetery.

Myra was born the youngest child with three older brothers in Logansport, Indiana to Blanche (Scott) Biggerstaff, a country schoolteacher, and Oliver Benjamin Biggerstaff. Between 1910 and 1911, the family moved to Omaha, and then settled in Auburn, where her father was stationmaster. They lived at 1609 14th Street in a large, three-story house on a spacious lot with three guesthouses that became the family home, and later occupied by one of Myra’s brothers and his wife.

Of her childhood, Myra recalled that she loved sketching in the outdoors in Auburn, where she would go to the cemetery because of the many shade trees she could sit under. After graduating from Auburn High School, she taught one year at a country school near Auburn and, in the summers of 1924 and 1925, she attended summer school at Nebraska State Teachers College at Peru, now Peru State College. From 1924 to 1926, she was enrolled at Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kansas and, after earning a two-year teaching certificate, she taught elementary school in Coffeyville, Kansas and Wichita Falls, Texas. She also studied at The Art Institute of Chicago.

Myra returned to Bethany College in 1929 to work for three years as an assistant to Dr. Birger Sandzen, a teacher who had a lifelong influence on Myra and who was nationally famous for his linear, boldly colored impressionistic paintings and etchings. Although Myra regarded him as her mentor, she did not admire his teaching methods because he put marks on students’ work rather than just making suggestions. Referring to this habit, she said that from him: “I learned what not to do.” (Mahalek) In 1930, she put her own teaching skills to work with a job in Grant, Nebraska where she lived as a boarder with the Oliver and Dottie Thurber family.

Myra and Margaret Sandzen, daughter of Birger, became close friends and, in 1932, they traveled to Paris together and lived on the campus of the International University of Paris. Biggerstaff studied at the Académie Julian and École nationale supérieure des Arts Decoratifs; and with André Lhóte, who worked in Fauvist and Cubist styles. Judging by her subsequent paintings, he had a strong influence upon her work.

After her Paris studies, Biggerstaff went to Sweden to be with language professor, Roland Kvistberg, who was 10 years older than she was. They had become interested in each other at Bethany College, where he was on the faculty. They married in 1933 and lived in the old university town of Uppsala. Apparently this relationship, regarded as unconventional and impulsive, generated some scandal back in Nebraska. In 1934, she returned to the United States from Sweden on the ship Drottningholm, perhaps to check in with her Nebraska family and do some ‘explaining’ and reassuring. She may also have overseen her entry in the Five States Exhibition held that year at Joslyn Art Museum. She went back to Sweden, was caught there during World War II and unable to return to Auburn in 1940 when her father died.

However, for Myra, the time in Sweden was a boost personally and professionally. In 1934, the same year she went back to America, she and her husband moved to Stockholm where she was honored with two solo exhibitions: 1935 with the American Women’s Club at the Grand Hotel Royal and 1938 at Aleby’s Art Gallery. That same year, one of her watercolors was featured in the Stockholm Daily News with a full-page reproduction. In 1940, she received a full scholarship for two years to the Swedish Royal Academy’s graphic arts school where she studied etching with Harold Sallsberg.

Toward the end of her time in Sweden, Myra arranged a joint exhibition at a university gallery in Uppsala of Birger Sandzen’s drawings and of her own watercolors. In 1946, the last year Myra was in Sweden, she was listed in the much-respected reference book, Who’s Who in Swedish Art. Also in Sweden during the war, Myra and her husband took under their care a French girl named Monique, who was then 10 or 12 years old. This relationship began with Myra wanting to rescue a child from a war zone, and proved to be a long-term commitment and close relationship. Monique visited Auburn, and Myra did a portrait of her playing the piano at the family home.

Returning to the U.S. after the war, Myra had to rearrange parts of her life as her marriage had ended in 1946, listed as an ‘amiable’ divorce. However, a person who knew her well reported that she was bitter for a long time because her scholar-husband had been accusatory of her not being intellectual enough for him. She later confided that although they remained in contact, “even in her later years that criticism stung.” (Mahalek)

Recognition came soon after she settled in Auburn. In 1946 her work was included in a group exhibition at Joslyn Art Museum and, attending an event for this exhibition, she was introduced to Leonard Thiessen, an Omaha artist. They became life-long friends, and he later teased that he had made a point of meeting Myra because he wanted to practice his Swedish. In 1947, she had solo exhibitions at Joslyn Art Museum, Wichita Art Association Gallery, and Merrill Gallery in Lincoln. Her work was also in a multi-city group exhibition which traveled to Indianapolis, Kansas City, Lincoln, Omaha, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C. In 1948, the Witte Museum in San Antonio hosted a solo exhibition, followed in 1949 with another solo exhibition at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Having exhibited and met people in Texas, Biggerstaff took a two-year job at Trinity University in San Antonio from 1948 to 1950.

Myra re-located to New York City for the next 30 years. In many ways, those years were glamorous, urbane, and positive. Among the positives was the ending of her long struggle with migraine headaches because she found a medical consultant who successfully treated her. She married William Holiday, whom she had met in a choral group. He was an air conditioning and heating engineer whose work included sophisticated climate control for historic documents at Lincoln Center and operation oversight of the Seagram Building. The couple shared a love of opera and, with a good operatic singing voice, he took lessons as a hobby and gave private performances. At their home, she was an avid gardener, especially of large flower gardens, and also raised Siamese cats. She enrolled at Columbia University, graduating in 1953 with a Master of Arts degree. To earn money, she painted portraits of children, did designs on fabrics, and taught art at a private school on Long Island.

Beginning 1954, she worked as a volunteer for three summers as costume designer for summer theatre at the Seagle Music Colony in Schroon Lake, New York and at the Music Colony in Plymouth, Massachusetts. From 1954 to 1960, she volunteered at the School for Arts and Crafts at New York’s Riverside Church. Her memberships in organizations that sponsored annual exhibitions included the National Association of Women Artists from 1952 to 1980 and Audubon Artists from 1952 to 1979. For marketing her work, she affiliated with the Little Studio on Madison Avenue, owned by Richard Kollmar, who operated this business from 1950 to 1960 as an exhibition venue for young artists.

A major turning point in career security and prestige for Myra occurred in 1960 when she was hired by the Fashion Institute of Technology, established in 1944 in Manhattan. Her employment lasted until 1972, beginning as Associate Professor and eventually serving as Chair of the Textile Design Department. In 1969, the Institute held a solo exhibition of her artwork. Of Myra’s working with fashion, a friend of hers commented: “I don’t think she considered textiles her strength or her primary interest, but as with other things, she figured it out.” (Mahalek)

In 1972, Myra retired to Long Island with her husband where they lived comfortably, having done very well financially from the sale of their New York City home. William Holiday died in 1981, and that same year Myra had a serious leg injury. Four years later, she sold the Long Island home, and returned to Auburn for the remaining 13 years of her life.

Sandy Mahalek, research volunteer for the Museum of Nebraska Art, spent time with Myra in Auburn when Myra was confined to a room in a nursing home toward the end of her life. Mahalek wrote that Myra was “attractive, and tiny, with hair pulled back in a ‘Murder She Wrote’ hair style….Her room was not that of an old lady room; it was happy/sad…jammed with book cases and on the wall had her tissue paper collages and also a death image of Abraham Lincoln….She was obviously lonely but with a lively mind; she read all the time; and was an avid Book of the Month Club member. She often sent favorite books to me and would call to discuss the books, sounding so young on the phone. She spoke of her love of gardening, and of staying in close touch with her Japanese stock investor to remind him: ‘Don’t invest in long term ‒ just short gains.’ She had such a strong desire to create, but her hands shook. She did ink drawing with an eye dropper, and also tissue paper collage.”

Myra was greatly admired over the years by many Nebraskans and, with her retirement to Auburn, she was treated as a returning celebrity. In 1988, the Museum of Nebraska Art held a solo exhibition of 88 of her oil, watercolor, and gouache paintings. Subjects included portraits, figures, animals, landscapes, marine scenes, still lifes, and interiors, while locations reflected her travels to Stockholm, New York City, Cape Ann, and Hyannis Port, as well as places in Nebraska including Auburn. One of the Hyannis paintings is of the President John F. Kennedy compound, and painted by Myra from the water when she was a tourist. It was acquired by the Kennedy family for the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Collection. In 1992, the Museum of Nebraska Art held a retrospective exhibition, and in 2007 Myra’s biography was one of only 12 included in the featured article “Nebraska Women Artists, 1880-1950” by Sharon L. Kennedy, published in the Fall issue of Nebraska History magazine.

Myra Biggerstaff’s work is included in the collections of Nebraska’s three largest art museums: Joslyn Art Museum (Omaha), Sheldon Museum of Art (Lincoln), and Museum of Nebraska Art (Kearney). She was involved with several art associations: American Artists Professional League, Artists Equity Association, Audubon Artists, International Institute of Arts and Letters, and Pastel Society of America.

Sources, Dec. 2014

Bucklin, Clarissa, Nebraska Art and Artists, p. 29, Print

Kennedy, Sharon L. (Gustafson), “Early Nebraska Women Artists, 1880-1950,” Nebraska History journal, Volume 88, Fall 2007

Mahalek, Sandy, Interview, 5/18/2015, Kearney, Nebraska. A member of the
Museum of Nebraska Art Library Committee, she is a researcher of artists in
the collection.

Martins, Josephine, Curator, “Women Artists from the MONA Collection: Collection  Catalogue, 2003”.

Museum of Nebraska Art files: (Becker, Marilyn, “Myra Biggerstaff: 50 Years of Accolades,” published in Manhattan Arts, January-February 1992; A Retrospective: Myra Biggerstaff, 1992 exhibition catalogue of Museum of Nebraska Art; Mahalek, Sandy, who wrote “Memories of Myra Biggerstaff” after visiting and corresponding with her; Martins, Josephine  “Women Artists from the Mona Collection”

Researched, written, and copyrighted by Lonnie Pierson Dunbier

Museum of Nebraska Art Project:

Their Place, Their Time: Women Artists in Nebraska, 1825-1945




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Myra Biggerstaff, Moonlit Harbor, oil