William L. Garver, Jr. in Tulsa in 1982
William Lincoln Garver, Jr.
18 January 1911 – 28 October 1996
William L. Garver was a prolific twentieth century artist whose goal was to record “My America.” His desire was to complete a visually enticing yet straight-forward record of both industrial and natural landscapes of the regions he knew in Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Texas, and Colorado. He sought to leave behind an artistic legacy of important scenes that were rapidly disappearing from the American scene. Images of steam locomotives, railway stations, grain elevators, oil fields and derricks, industrial sites, agricultural machines, farms, and grasslands figure prominently in his work. He was captured by the romance of the steam railway. William insisted on drawing on location and was often seen sitting on a canvas stool, bench, or concrete slab so he could capture “My America.”
His style is similar to many of the great works commissioned by the American government during the Great Depression. His works are an accurate yet stylized representation of a particular time and place in American history.
Sketching in the Park, March 1939
William taught himself many of the techniques evident in his work by intensely studying examples of other artists. His admiration for Frank Brangwny (British, 1943-1967), and of John Singer Sargent (American, 1925-1965) and John Henry Twachtman (American, 1853-1902) were evident in his early works. William’s later works reflected an impressionistic influence.
William Garver Jr. was born on 18 January 1911 in Independence Missouri. He was the oldest of five children, (Elizabeth, Helen, Shirley, and Robert.) At an early age William Jr. developed an avid interest in reading about artists and philosophers. Poetry and history of the world were also early interests, and would stay with him throughout his life. William would fill many notebooks with long transcriptions from histories, memoirs, and philosophical tracts. During William’s attendance at Springfield High School in Springfield, Missouri, he studied with Birger Sandzen, a Swedish artist who was an instructor at Stephens College in nearby Columbia. Following graduation from High School, he attended Drury College to take art courses.
In 1929-1930 William pursued his artistic dream to study at the Kansas City Art Institute. A maternal relative, Marjorie Adams, then living in San Antonio, Texas gave his parents the funds for William’s education. As the funding was depleted while he was at the Kansas City Art Institute, William could afford only bread and peanut butter, and existed on those staples for several months. After one year of study in Kansas City, William was forced by financial difficulty to return to Tulsa, where his mother and father had relocated the family. It was never quite clear exactly who made this decision, William or his father and mother. He then attended the fall term at Tulsa University. Later in life he expressed great gratitude for Marjorie Adams’s support of him at this juncture. He later named his daughter “Marjorie” after Marjorie Adams.
Family Weekend Sketching, 1950
The Great Depression was now well under way. As the oldest son in the family, it was expected he would help support them. But in any case, the financial resources to continue study at the Art Institute were not available. He would later express great regret that he had been unable to study longer at the Kansas City Institute. Apparently William’s selection of art as a vocation did not meet with the approval of his father and mother; they felt William was “wasting his time” and that he should pursue a more “practical” profession. In one of the family’s earlier moves, much of William’s early work was discarded by his parents.
William worked several jobs in the early 1930s. For a while he was a laborer with the Works Projects Administration (WPA), wielding a shovel in the digging of a recreational lake near Mohawk Park in Tulsa. He later said that at that time only one man per family was allowed to work for WPA and that the income he earned provided important support for his entire family. William also worked for a while in 1930 setting up window displays for Brown-Duncan Department Store — one of the main department stores in downtown Tulsa. William set up displays in the front windows during the night, and slept during the day.
In 1936 William was able to find work as a Production Illustrator at Bethlehem Steel company in Tulsa. He was a detail draftsman in the design engineering department. He was in this position when the United States began mobilizing for war in 1940-41 and was given a Class II draft status, meaning that his work was deemed essential for the war effort. A letter of 16 May 1941 from the Manufacturing Division of Bethlehem Supply Company to the Number 2 Tulsa County Draft Board explained:
“Mr. Garver is employed as a detail draftsman in our design engineer department which is a very essential unit of our plant, as it supplies all of the drawings used by the plant to make its products. [“production equipment essential to extraction of oil”] He has had about 5 years experience in engineering drafting and as at this time there is an extreme shortage of draftsmen with the necessary training and experience to do the type of work he is doing at this time, his replacement would be extremely difficult if not impossible in the near future. His call to military service would seriously affect the operation of this company. We suggest that he be class II as we believe he can serve his country best at his civilian position.”
In 1943 William began work with National Supply Company, another major supplier of oil production equipment for the Oklahoma-Texas oil industry. He worked as a draftsman in the National Supply Company’s engineering department until 1957. The steadiness of hand required by his drafting work strengthened the free-hand ability he used in his art.
William, Mother and Robert during WWII
In 1932 William met Frank von der Lancken (1872-1950), a Brooklyn born and nationally recognized artist who had directed the School of Arts and Crafts at the Chautauqua Institution in the 1920s and 1930s. The Arts and Crafts movement was an important artistic aspect of that era. The von der Lancken family had moved to Tulsa and Frank, together with his wife Giulia, had become known as “the first family of art in Tulsa.” Frank invited young William into his circle of artists in the Tulsa area, and William later looked back on this period as great learning. Frank von der Lancken would occasionally invite professional models and groups of artists to his house, where the participants would encourage and critique one another’s artistic representation of the model. William created several portraits during this period, something he would not attempt frequently during his later artistic life. The soirées at the von der Lanckens were also characterized by discussion about politics, history, and literature. William later looked back on this period as one of the most satisfying of his life.
William began displaying his work in the early 1930’s. In 1931 he displayed several pastels and watercolors at the Tulsa State Fair, with his pieces winning a professional award for pastel and second place for watercolor. Every year between 1933 and 1936 he displayed his work at the Tulsa Art Association Annual Exhibitions, receiving honorable mention in 1934.
Much of William’s work during the early 1930s was done on cardboard or even brown wrapping paper because of dire economic necessity. When one local art critic asked William if such low-quality materials were worthy of his efforts, William replied that when his works sold, he would be able to purchase the desired, but more expensive materials.
Wedding Day 1941
On 30 August 1941 William married Lila Selzer, the youngest of seven children in farming family in northeastern Kansas. They loved each other dearly. William later said that Lila was the only woman he had ever loved. Lila had followed elder sisters, Frieda and Ruby, to Tulsa and was working for a railway company when she and William met. Lila encouraged William constantly in the development of his art. She devoted herself to the rearing of their two children, Marjorie and John. William and Lila bought a small house not far from a major rail line with gardens filled with roses and lilacs. When the family moved again in 1954, that new house too was close — within a block — of a major rail line. It too was soon surrounded by flower gardens. The family frequently went on weekend sketching trips in and around Tulsa in a 1940 Dodge car. Mohawk Park in Tulsa was a favorite sketching spot, and many of the arboreal scenes he created in oil came from that popular Tulsa park.
It was not unusual to find the Garver family waiting beside some rail line for a steam train to pass. William knew their schedules. Tulsa, Collinsville, Sand Springs, Broken Arrow, and family vacations to the Selzer family farm in Kansas, as well as occasional family vacations to Arkansas, Texas, Missouri, Colorado, and New York (to visit one of the von der Lanckens) provided William with ample opportunities to draw. He was ever with his charcoal pencils and drawing pad. Once during the Korean War while William had set up his easel beside a highway and was sketching a steel mill from the side of a road, the police came to investigate what this suspicious person was doing.
In 1939 William began taking fine art classes at the University of Tulsa. Generally, he took one course per year between 1939 and 1965. His objective was not to secure a degree, but to practice and improve his beloved art. From 1956 to 1964 William studied lithography at the University of Tulsa with Dr. Alexandre Hogue. During this period he developed many of the pencil sketches made in earlier years into lithographs, some of his finest work, quintessential studies of mid-century, mid-west industrial America. Currently the Smithsonian National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C. and Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa have some of his lithographs.
Sketching with granddaughter
William was laid off from his work at National Supply Company about Easter time, 1958. National Supply had merged with Armco the previous December and employees had been told that no one would be fired. William was then 47 years old. His age made companies reluctant to hire him, and it was very difficult for him to find work. From 1958 to 1961, for over three years, William searched constantly for work. In those years the color of his hair changed from black to pure white. For a while he worked as a guard at Gilcrease Museum. He also picked up odd jobs, roofing or painting houses or cleaning up vacant lots. His children helped him with this sort of work during the summers and later secured after-school and weekend jobs.
Lila’s income supported the family during those hard years. In 1958 she landed a job as a PBX switchboard operator with the Tulsa Public School System. That modest income plus associated health benefits, sustained the family through this difficult period. These were hard years. William and Lila, were extremely frugal. Meat other than hamburger was a rare treat. Clothes were frequently mended and socks were darned. Vegetables were canned from home gardens. As a farm-girl, Lila knew all about canning. Beans were a major source of protein. Throughout these difficult times, they constantly stressed the importance of an university education to their children. Years later they celebrated the success of their children when John received a Ph.D. and Marjorie a Master’s degree.
Throughout these tough times, William continued to draw, paint, and exhibit his work. In 1958, Gilcrease Museum held an exhibition of his lithographs. In 1962 Philbrook Art Center and Bartholic Gallery, both in Tulsa, exhibited his oils and lithographs. Art was his solace as well as his passion.
William Garver Oklahoma Steel Castings
In 1961 William found work as a chief draftsman at Oklahoma Steel Casting, where he worked until his retirement in 1976. He received only the legal minimum wage with wage increases corresponding only to legally mandated increases in that minimum, but was happy to have steady work. Repeated confrontation with the reality of unemployment in a market economy had made William very cautious. Perhaps he was too cautious by nature. In any case, after completing fifteen years service with Oklahoma Steel Casting, William received a fifteen year service pin and a letter from the plant General Manager praising his “conscientious efforts” “to make our company grow and prosper.” After retirement he and Lila moved to a retirement community in Houston, Texas where Marjorie and her family lived.
Like his beloved mentor Frank von der Lancken, William sold little of his work during his life time. He loved to show his work to friends who dropped by the house, and occasionally those friends would offer to purchase particular pieces. More often than not William declined these offers, preferring to keep his oeuvre in his possession to pass on to his children and grandchildren. In 1981, however, William did donate two of his lithographs (“Beauty of the Night” and “Antiques”, both 1958) to the Smithsonian Museum of American Art and a set of his lithographs to Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa.
William, Lila, Marjorie and John in 1948
William acquired a love for classical music. He never left the United States but traveled vicariously through books and the occasional gifts and letters sent him by his son John and by his sister, who married a British officer of that country’s diplomatic service and was posted for many years in such far away places as the Fiji Islands and Nayassaland as today’s Malawi was then called. William’s lifelong love for intellectual enlightenment was evidenced in his collection of books, records, and source materials. He devoted his life to family and work, but his true love, his passion, throughout his life, was his art. There was an unfinished charcoal drawing taped to his drafting table when he died.