Zenaide Luhr

1915, Omaha, Nebraska ‒ 2002, Omaha, Nebraska

(Leone Zenaide Luhr)

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Known for her multi-media modernist art, for her many years of teaching in the public schools, and for a highly creative and active lifestyle, Zenaide Luhr made a large imprint on the arts culture of her hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. She was especially known for woodcuts, but also did painting, sculpture, and jewelry making. She had a 30-year career teaching in the Omaha Public Schools including stints at Technical High School and Omaha Central High School, where in 1955 she succeeded Mary Angood as Chair of the Art Department. Zenaide said her own artwork was much influenced by what she learned working with students in classrooms.

One of her students, Jon Nelson, was appreciative of Zenaide because of her strong recommendations, which in 1953 led to his securing a full scholarship to the Kansas City Art Institute. Nelson had also studied under Mary Angood. Admiring both women as teachers, he was disciplined by the formality, rules, and techniques of Mary Angood, but enjoyed the more relaxed approach of Zenaide Luhr. Comparing these women, Jon said: “Miss Angood was starchy; Miss Luhr was more wash and wear.”

With a reputation of being ‘down to earth’ and approachable for students, Zenaide also took special care not to pressure her students to excel in art. She said: “there wasn’t much point in trying to encourage or discourage anybody to be or not be an artist. You either want to or you don’t want to.” (Harper)

Of her long career, Zenaide said: “I don’t have the slightest idea how I became an artist; it’s something I’ve done all my life.” This comment and many others about her background are from an interview organized by Charmayne Harper for a 1995 Dana College (Blair, Nebraska) exhibition of six Nebraska artists titled Elders of Our Clan. Zenaide said that her art education was a tapping into things she has learned all her life from a variety of sources.  “…I had art in grade school, in high school and I studied art education at the university, but a lot of that I don’t use in my art.” In fact she credited much of her education and creativity to being in the classroom. “Teaching art helped me develop as an artist. In deciding what to have the kids do, in developing and applying a curriculum, I had to try all those things myself.” (Harper)

And what she tried included collage, drawing, and painting of landscapes, portraits, animals, and genre. She told a newspaper interviewer that in her artwork, the elements most important to her were the play of dark and light value areas so they “contrasted with each other to form a good composition which encompasses the whole picture plane.” (April 28, 1963) She also did much jewelry making in silver and gold, and with characteristic humor told the story of melting gold fillings from her teeth and shaping them into a ring.

However, Zenaide’s specialty became wood and linoleum cuts, which she preferred because the processes required much less equipment than etching and lithographs, and she could do them at home. Each year, Luhr chose a theme for her woodcut series, and choices included landscapes, barns, birds, and plants. Making prints was an interest she had from her grade-school art classes, but was pursued much later when a friend taught her the technical aspects of the processes. Of one of her woodcuts, she told the humorous story that it was “a picture of some old buildings, now owned by Joslyn Art Museum. The work was printed using a board that happened to have three knotholes in it. Since Luhr couldn’t avoid having three circles show up on her print, she named the work It Came to Pass in the Month of Three Moons.” (Carter) Another woodcut, Our Heritage, is an African American girl modeled from one of Luhr’s Central High students.

Zenaide also had other interests including gourmet cooking, and building collections of cookbooks, of graphics by internationally-known artists, and of pre-Columbian Mexican beads. Her love of travel took her throughout the United States and abroad including to Mongolia, the Gobi desert, Tashkent (Usbekistan), Japan, and South America where she gave lectures on the Mayan Ruins. In Nebraska, she traveled statewide conducting workshops including Stromsburg, Valentine, and Scottsbluff in 1979.

Zenaide had been born in Omaha in 1915 with the name of Leone Zenaide Luhr, but as a young woman, she chose to drop the L or Leone and just go by Zenaide as her first name. Her parents were from Iowa, Della May (Wetmore) Luhr and Joseph Everett Luhr, an electrical contractor. Zenaide had a sister, Lyliss, two years younger. The family lived at 4724 North 47th Street. Growing up between World War I and World War II, she attended North High School and by the mid 1930s, which was the depth of the Great Depression, she was a student at the University of Omaha, where she earned a B.A. degree in 1941, and Master of Science in 1948. She was also a student at the home studio of impressionist painter, Augustus Dunbier. During 1958 and 1959, Zenaide was one of 20 teachers selected to attend Yale University on a John Hay Whitney Fellowship, which meant a year’s leave of absence from teaching to study art history and graphic arts. As part of the Fellowship, she received a stipend equal to her school salary plus tuition and transportation costs back and forth to New Haven, Connecticut. Winning this award brought her name recognition beyond Omaha as indicated by the selection of her work as part of the first art exhibition at the Macy’s store in Kansas City in January 1960.

Exhibitions with professional art groups included Artists Equity Association, Associated Artists of Omaha, and Nebraska Art Teachers Association. She had solo exhibitions at Joslyn Art Museum in 1958 and 1962, and also Joslyn Midwest Artists Associations shows. Other shows were at College of Saint Mary, Omaha; Dana College, Blair, Nebraska in 1964; Denver Art Museum, Colorado; Mulvane Art Museum, Topeka, Kansas; Nebraska Wesleyan University, Lincoln in1960; Nelson Gallery in Kansas City, and Portland Museum of Art, Maine. She won Purchase Awards from First Federal Savings and Loan Company, Omaha; and Joslyn Art Museum.

Public collections include Museum of Nebraska Art, Kearney; Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha; St. Olaf’s College, Northfield, Minnesota; and Nebraska Wesleyan University, Lincoln. Omaha’s N.P. Dodge Real Estate Company acquired work by Zenaide Luhr for its private collection.

Living to age 87, Zenaide Luhr was active as an artist into her last decade. She was an exhibiting member of the Artists’ Cooperative Gallery in the Old Market area of downtown Omaha. In 1995, at age 80, she was preparing for one of the Gallery shows and said: “I have a number of prints that haven’t sold and I’ve started to overprint them, or put oil pastels over them, or do collage with them. I think they’re really interesting.” (Harper)

The Museum of Nebraska Art has two works by Zenaide Luhr.

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Ancestry.com, Sep. 2015

Carter, Stan, See Museum of Nebraska Art files

Harper, Charmayne, See Museum of Nebraska Art files

Kingman, Eugene and Norman Geske, Exhibition Catalogue, Joslyn Art Museum and the Sheldon Memorial Art Galleries, 1967, p. 82, Print

Museum of Nebraska Art files: Sun, newspaper: 1/8/1981, Stan Carter, “People”; Charmayne Harper, “Zenaide Luhr,” Elders of Our Clan: Seasoned Artists of Nebraska 70+, The Forum-Center for the Liberal Arts, Dana College, Blair, Nebraska, Exhibition booklet, Print

Nelson, Jon, Email to Lonnie Dunbier, Sep. 14, 2015. He was Assistant to the Director of Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery (now Sheldon Museum of Art) from 1966 to 1981, and from 1981 to 1991, Curator of the Great Plains Art Collection at the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, both Lincoln, Nebraska.

Omaha World-Herald, newspaper: 4/28/1963

Wallis, William, Prairie Symphony: The Story of Charles Leonard Thiessen, p. 163, Print

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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Zenaide Luhr, Untitled (chickens), collage: woodcut, n.d.