Wilna Hervey & Nan Mason: Two Woodstock Originals – Opens July 10, 2015
An exhibit of artwork by two of Woodstock’s favorite legendary figures – Wilna Hervy and Nan Mason – will be featured at the James Cox Gallery at Woodstock, beginning with an opening reception Friday, July 10, from 5 to 8 p.m.
Wilna and Nan, a Tribute to Two Woodstock Originals, will showcase watercolors and signature enamel paintings by the popular gay couple, who lived comfortably in Woodstock for almost 60 years. The exhibit will also include vintage photographs from Hervey’s days as a star of the Toonerville Trolley silent movies, charming professional portraits of the couple as young women and candid photos taken over the course of their 59 year partnership.
The tribute will continue later in the month when the gallery hosts a Full Moon celebration beginning at 9 p.m. on Friday, July 31, following a tradition that began in 1938 when Wilna and Nan hosted the first of these annual celebrations which were intended to revive the spirit of the Woodstock Maverick Festivals. The annual revelries continued, almost uninterrupted, for two decades .
It was on the set of the Toonerville Trolley that Wilna and Nan first met. Hervey played The Powerful Katrinka in the popular movie series, while Mason’s father Dan played her co-star The Skipper. The two became so close they considered themselves like sisters, eventually developing an enduring romantic relationship.
As young women, both Nan and Wilna had men in their lives. While studying in Manhattan with renowned Woodstock artist and teacher Winold Reiss, Wilna experienced her first serious romance with a Hungarian circus strongman and acrobat named Karoly Fulop. Nan’s plans to marry and start a family were dashed when her fiancé Arthur Ryan died of pneumonia before their wedding.
It was Winold Reiss who first introduced Wilna to Woodstock. When Reiss moved his art school to Woodstock in the summer of 1916 he also encouraged his talented pupils to attend the summer school of painting being offered by the Art Students League in the rapidly developing art colony. Here Wilna studied with Henry Lee McFee and met other artists like Charles Rosen and Eugene Speicher who would become close friends and important artistic influences. She also fell in love with the town and dreamed of eventually buying land and building a home in Woodstock.
In the meantime Wilna continued making films with Dan Mason at the Betzwood Studios near Philadelphia. Now that his daughter had joined him, Mason bought a house in nearby Audubon and, allaying Hervey’s fears of being left alone, invited his dear friend and “daughter” to move in too.
Though Wilna Hervey made a good living as an actress, she also came from a privileged background. The only daughter of William and Anna Hervey, she was raised in a mansion, waited on by servants and never wanted for material things, thanks to her indulgent parents. With their support and using her own resources Wilna purchased a parcel of land in Bearsville in 1920, eventually adding to her real estate holdings which spread over much of the surrounding area. A few years later Nan would join her and the two would spend the rest of their lives in Woodstock.
The town embraced them, both for their fun loving lifestyle and their devotion to art. Wilna introduced Nan to an array of important Woodstock artists while the two, fondly known as “The Big Girls” were famous for their parties. Both were large women, with Hervey standing six foot three inches tall and weighing over 350 pounds and Mason by no means dwarfed by her affable companion. However, the Depression hit Nan and Wilna hard. Known for their carefree disregard for money, the couple were not prepared for the dramatic loss of income that resulted when Wilna’s trust fund lost almost all of its value. They were forced to sell much of their Woodstock property (most of it mortgaged) including their beloved Treasure Farm where so many artists gathered to drink and party.
Undaunted, the two soldiered on. In addition to taking up house painting to earn extra money they launched an ambitious business venture which they ironically named “Gaylite Candles”. Their high end, no drip tapers were so meticulously crafted and in such demand that they were carried by several stores in Manhattan, including Hammacher Schlemmer. Production of the candles was physically too taxing for Wilna, who designed the packaging and arranged the shipping while Nan carried on the manufacturing end. However, after a grueling Christmas season Nan threw in the towel, selling the business to a tuberculosis sanitarium in upstate New York for $300.
As the depression ended, The Big Girls joined the revived post-war Woodstock party scene, though by this time Wilna was developing some serious health issues, including stomach ulcers. Ignoring her doctor’s advice to give up smoking and drinking Wilna would party on, lie down awhile to get a second wind, then rejoin the festivities.
Through all these years Wilna and Nan continued to pursue their art, both in Woodstock and at their winter retreat in the artistic community of Anna Marie Island in Florida. It was in the 1950’s that Wilna began to create the enamel on copper paintings for which she is best known and the genre that is being featured in the Cox Gallery exhibit. With a plan to brighten up the interior of the home she shared with Nan by making colorful enamel switch plates, Wilna enrolled in an adult education class at the Woodstock Guild of Craftsmen. She eventually created small enamel paintings of animals, children and flowers in the loose whimsical style that characterized most of her work.
The new creations were warmly received by her fellow artists, particularly Eugene Speicher who encouraged her to “Keep at it. You’ve discovered something different.” Nan too was drawn to the medium and began making her own enamels. Each artist’s approach was unique. Whereas Wilna’s reflected her carefree style and employed a light impressionistic palette, Mason’s leaned toward semi abstract urban motifs and bolder colors, employing silhouette designs influenced by the cubist movement.
All 40 works in the exhibit have been remounted, using modern frames, Cox explained. “In some ways I think viewers will see their art as highly sophisticated and elegantly presented for the first time.”
James Cox pointed out that the Full Moon event will also celebrate the 25th anniversary of the gallery he and his wife Mary Anna Goetz opened in the Red Barn (now the Hawthorne Gallery) in Woodstock the summer of 1990. “We have lots of reasons to party,” Cox noted, adding that the gallery is now located in Willow on a spacious five acre property that is perfect for enjoying a summer evening under the full moon. Modern day Maverick revelers will be asked to wear artful costumes and carry lanterns to enter and exit the property.
The exhibit at the Cox Gallery follows publication of a book about Hervey and Mason by Joseph P. Eckhardt entitled Living Large: Wilna Hervey and Nan Mason, published by Woodstock Arts. The author is also responsible for digitizing one of Hervey’s silent Toonerville Trolley comedies: “The Skipper’s Narrow Escape” (1921), which is being shown at the Woodstock Historical Society along with art by and memorabilia about Wilna and Nan through July and August.
Reflecting on the life The Big Girls shared, Eckhardt describes a partnership “defined not only by the remarkable variety of things they accomplished…but also by their steadfast devotion to living life for all it was worth.” Copies of Eckhardt’s book will be available at the opening reception of exhibition and at the Full Moon celebration later in the month.
Wilna and Nan a Tribute to Two Woodstock Originals will continue though August 2. The James Cox Gallery at Woodstock is located at 4666 Route 212, Willow, NY. For more information call 845-679-7608 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.