Zulma Steele: Gender blender extraordinaire

Hail, Zulma — The young Zulma Steele. Sketch by Joel Iskowitz

The unique name Zulma belonged to the mother, daughter and grand-daughter of a once-famous Vermont poetess named Julia Ripley Dorr [1827-1917.] Our concern is the last of that legacy, Zulma Ripley Steele [1881-1979] though all three Zulmas were related to the original owners of this portion of the Catskills, The Livingstons. 

Our Zulma was a protégé of the country’s great art teacher and painter, AW Dow. Her pedigree was as impeccable as her talent was limitless. A renowned beauty and intellect of legendary sensuality and style, she was praised, envied, scandalized, even worshipped (for one, by Byrdcliffe’s founder Ralph Whitehead, who named the domicile he built for her “The Angel.”) But though she was the first great woman artist of Woodstock, her face remains all but unknown to us. And in the few glimpses we possess, it seems to change — this face — so as to remain elusive…this 22 year old who came to Woodstock in 1903, to quietly assume the mantle of Queen, and who, for some of us, reigns here still.


Her mother, Zulma De Lacey Steele, was also an artist whose charcoal landscapes adorned two books. Early mentions of works by “Zulma Steele” shown at the Boston Museum of Art as early as 1894, actually refer to the mother, for her daughter, Zulma Ripley Steele, was born in Wisconsin in 1881. The Steeles moved around the Great Lakes before returning to Rutland, Vermont (where poetess Julia Dorr yet lived) when Zulma was seven. Here Zulma’s father prospered sufficiently to send two of his three children to prestigious art schools. 

The older brother Frederic, [1873-1944] would become one of America’s best-loved illustrators. Whereas young Zulma set her mind on fine art early, which — unless she married well — seemed a preposterous idea. Except that Zulma Steele and her work seemed to always get noticed, as borne out by the legend that she came to the attention of Arthur Wesley Dow at the Chicago Art Institute at age 17 (when she looked very like this sketch by our own Joel Iskowitz.)

Although Zulma Steele would become a decidedly private person, last week’s group photo of her and Edna Walker at Prof. Dow’s side (in his original Pratt Institute class of 1899), reveals a recklessly confident beauty. In fact, Dow appears to have drawn out an artistic adventurousness in Steele matched only by one or two woman artists of her generation (his student Georgia O’Keefe being another.) Zulma would become the first noteworthy female plein air painter in the country, and master the “monotype” before any American peer. In Byrdcliffe of 1903 she and her shadow, Edna, became known as “Steelie and Walker ” — the moniker “Steelie” saying much. 

Though clearly a romantic entity unto themselves, the two made Ralph Whitehead’s personal vision of Byrdcliffe tangible to the world, while Zulma declared her appearance in Woodstock, a proud descendant’s return. In both instances, then, Mrs. Whitehead’s supremacy was not-so-subtly undercut. Aside from Zulma learning frame-making from Herman Dudley Murphy, she seemed more to inhabit a heavenly realm. For Ralph Whitehead, Zulma Steele radiated a talent and beauty which, in truth, his wife couldn’t hope to match. Nor was Jane Whitehead alone in her jealousy of “Misses Steele and Walker.” Perhaps this is why their unique collaboration under the invisible supervision of Whitehead remains a peculiarly unheralded milestone in the history of American Art and Antiques, even to this day.  

Moving from their original Byrdcliffe quarters in a local barn (pictured in Part I) the duo awaited completion of “the Angelus” while becoming long-time guests of painter Birge Harrision and his wife, both of whose friendship Zulma honored in a one-time-only personal reminiscence. However, in this curt remembrance Zulma does not recall Edna living with her at the Harrisons, nor anywhere else. In fact, for reasons revealed soon enough, Steele indeed fails to mention Edna at all, while in actuality they were full partners in love, career, and art for many decades. Sadly, historians tend to emulate Steele’s sanitization, and so many modern writings (including Zulma’s Wikipedia page) fail to include Edna Walker as, for instance, co-creator of the duo’s pottery line, though the combination of their first names is obvious enough in the company “Zedware.” 

Birge Harrison only headed the Art Department at Byrdcliffe from 1904-5 after which he presided over The Art Students League newest chapter in Woodstock. When Leonard Ochtman took over in Byrdcliffe 1907, Zulma likely led the Byrdcliffe revolt of Pratt alums who “visited” their first teacher, Arthur Wesley Dow, at his summer school in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Dow suggested Zulma study that winter at the Boston Museum School with a highly commercial painter. This shift is best explained by the rise of Zulma’s brother, Frederic Dorr Steele, whose images of Sherlock Holmes (with deerslayer hat and meerschaum pipe) became internationally famous in magazine illustrations between 1903 through ’05 — exactly that period during which Zulma’s designs seemed to lead Byrdliffe furniture into oblivion. So it appears that Frederic Steele’s little sister needed or desired greater success on the heels of initial disappointment. Yet a closer look at Byrdliffe furniture’s apparent failure provides a striking alternative to that common perception.

An absurdly wealthy Ralph Whitehead agonized over the humiliations dooming his every attempt to make a so-called “simple life” practical — Byrdcliffe Furniture being the foremost example. Yet Whitehead refused to pander to distasteful strategies such as salesmanship and advertising through which commercial success was achieved. So while scholars trot out numerous other “reasons why Byrdcliffe furniture failed,” in their residence/showroom at 223 Lexington Avenue, Zulma and Edna disproved these explanations, one by one. The couple likely began with whatever pieces didn’t sell from McCreery Department Store’s impressively large order. Next the principal designers of this soon historic furniture line evidently sold such piece to a wealthy clientele easily and profitably. 

Though Byrdcliffe had lost considerable steam by the early teens Zulma and Edna carried on creative as ever, spending summers in The Angelus and winters on Lexington Avenue. Then, almost inexplicably, Zulma began a series of tiny monotypes of Byrdcliffe; her undated print of “The Villetta” [3 x 4 inches] certainly being the most lyrical of these. 

Zulma monotype, The Viletta, from the collection of Eva Ballantine.

Bard art-historian and Byrdcliffe expert Tom Wolfe notes that, though correctly termed a “monotype,” the master for this work was likely re-inked to create several prints. Certainly, the audacity of Steele’s technique would’ve caught a collector’s eye and warranted a highly respectable price. Indeed the provenance of “The Viletta” leads us to the collection of Martin Schütze, husband of famous Byrdcliffe photographer Eva Watson-Schütze, and future founder of the Historical Society of Woodstock.

Although she painted landscapes even in her very first year in Byrdcliffe (‘03), from roughly 1908-1917 Zulma’s canvases go large, as she becomes the first major female landscape painter in America. But, mind you, not by attending field classes of Bolton Brown or even Birge Harrison; instead Zulma scrambles up and down mountains and valleys at the very edges of Woodstock to amass a body of work we can only guess at today. (Fire and “her own later disregard” have left major gaps in Zulma’s early and middle work.) 

So how did she arrive at these far-flung locations? We can’t be sure. Might she and Edna possibly have owned a car? Sorry, no. Did they hike and camp in situ? Possibly. Did one or both rise at The Angelus before dawn and set out in hopes of having Zulma’s easel up by mid-morning? Maybe. Or did the fact that Ralph Whitehead finally succumbed to the sleek temptation of a chauffeured touring car have much more to do with Zulma’s career in plein air? 

In any case, her paintings happen to chronicle “before and after” views of the flooding of what would become the Ashokan Reservoir. (Her favorite spot wasn’t far from what is today Winchell’s Corners.) Elsewhere, these delightfully mottled, if essentially traditional, canvasses flew in the face of far racier works from the newest and wealthiest lesbian enclave at the Western border of Whitehead’s empire. 

Just east of Striebel Road off Glasco Turnpike you can still see the extensive cut-stone foundations of “Red Roofs,” the lavish home of Dewing Woodward, Louise Johnson, and their Blue Dome School. Here thoroughly modern women were instructed to paint like-minded women in the nude against natural settings such as pine forests. It created quite a fuss. Whereas more private lesbian couples, like the Byrdcliffe potters Edith Penman and Elizabeth Hardenbergh, or Zulma and Edna, steered clear of controversy and simply got their work done. This, doubtless, would’ve been Ralph Whitehead’s explanation to his wife, Jane, as regards his unflagging devotion to the residents of The Angelus. Besides which, for a considerable period Zulma’s landscapes were easily the strongest work of any remaining Byrdcliffe artist, and so “Misses Steele and Walker,” as Lady Jane’s daily diary cooly called them, were actually the staunchest defenders of the Whitehead’s founding ideals.

Zulma’s canvasses became even more delicious after she attended the New York Armory show of 1913, but they hadn’t basically changed…yet. At least not in any way comparable to the revolution lead in Woodstock by Andrew Dasburg. At her core Zulma, with Edna at her side, was still an all-Byrdcliffe traditionalist. And though we won’t have proof of her astounding intellect, save a book review she wrote for the leading nursing magazine, still we can guess her brain power by the company she keeps. For instance, Anita Smith recalls Zulma and Edna hiking Overlook with two of the most intelligent men to ever set foot in Woodstock: internationally infamous lawyer Clarence Darrow (commonly called Attorney for the Damned) and a Jew so brilliant he won an invitation to build in Byrdcliffe from Ralph Whitehead, himself! (One Walter Weyl, by name.)

Then, between 1912 and ’13 Jane Whitehead up and leaves her husband and returns to a small mansion built on unsold land accompanying the Whitehead’s original villa near Santa Barbara, California. 

Sixty or so years later rogue historian Robert Edwards will observe that all of Whitehead’s Byrdcliffe lovers just so happened to have been his closest neighbors. Zulma Steele, however, is singled out by history as his chief “victim.” That word, favored by Edwards, of course pre-supposes complete innocence on the part of Steelie, and places all blame on Whitehead without even broaching the possibility of a gender-blending menage a trois with Walker. (Which, naturally, would supply early grounds for Woodstock’s own “Me-three movement.”)   


In any case, Lady Jane’s absence from Byrdcliffe certainly increases the likelihood that Whitehead’s Winston touring car best explains Zulma’s mobility as a landscape painter. Indeed these are the paintings which find her included among modernists: Andrew Dasburg, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, and William and Marguerite Zorach, in an Exhibition of Contempary Art at the National Arts Club in 1914. Steele is represented by Beyond The Farm, Purple Hills, Indian Head Mountain, and First Snow. Yet her presence beside such radicals is really only explained by the persistent patronage of Dow, who was Vice-President of the National Arts Club, and who will likewise make sure (in the following year of 1915) Steele is shown in the San Francisco World’s Fair “Palace of Arts,” where his own work will also appear. Of course, Dow’s admiration might well have been completely honorable (he was after all a happily married man) although an unpublished letter to his brother around this time confessed: “We are all of us sinners.”

Edna and Zulma (incognito) as Red Cross volunteers in France during World War I, c.1917.

With World War I, Zulma becomes a nurse for the Red Cross in France in 1917. At conflict’s end she’s allowed access into an otherwise forbidden zone to draw on the bottoms of cigar boxes due to paper shortages. Further investigations find that Edna M. Walker, herself, was photographed while serving as a Red Cross nurse in France. Other likenesses of Zulma corroborate that this photo indeed captures the happy couple in France, circa 1917. Also during this clandestine European adventure, the matriarch of Zulma’s family — that morally pure poet Julia Ripley Dorr — finally dies in Vermont at ninety. Did an inheritance trickle Zulma’s way? We don’t know.

Fourth of July, Zulma’s post World War I award winning print.

Zulma and Edna return to Woodstock and privately celebrate 20 years together, a more public expression of which is found, circa 1920, in Zulma’s humanity-crammed and completely untypical, “Fourth of July,” which will eventually to beat out George Bellows and Reginald Marsh on an exhibition cover for the very best print-makers in the country. Yet of that post-war period Zulma writes: “…it was a hard time for painters and I turned to design and crafts again in pottery, using a kick wheel and getting interesting results with local clay from brickyards along the Hudson River.” This covertly describes the birth of “Zedware,” often considered the most important and innovative of Byrdcliffe’s pottery. Next Zulma details her return to France where she finally modernizes under the instruction of André Lhote, though the heart of her narrative is missing. Until, finally, Steele’s merciless removal of Edna from their life story is explained with, “Soon after this I married and there was an interruption due to other responsibilities.”

In Tom Wolf’s history of The Woodstock Artists Association we learn that “late in 1919 ” three local artists were joined by “Neilson Parker, a business man sympathetic to arts,” and together the four “bought a lot for the gallery for a $1,000.” 

Often called a “gentleman farmer,” Neilson Parker actually created the American insurance business (according to Zulma Steele expert Henry Ford) and, in doing so, became an exceedingly wealthy man. He’d have met Zulma at the board meetings of WAA where she, along with Eva Watson-Schütze were overwhelmingly outnumbered by men. Inside of the next few years Parker was widowed, and so lived in the stone mansion of the vast estate “Green Pastures” without a woman in the house, save maids and the cook. Until 1926, when, at the age of 66, Neilsen Parker married Zulma Steele, by then a saucy 45. She and Edna had taken over the Byrdcliffe Pottery barn in 1922, and, perhaps paid off by Parker, Edna is said to have hastily moved to Scotland around the time of Zulma’s marriage. 

Tongues must have been a wagging all over Woodstock, but apparently they stilled and Mrs. Zulma Parker was transformed into an exceedingly important public person. She became president of the Artists Realty Company (created by Parker and associates to build The WAA which it owned), she helped shape the WAA, and in 1939 became the first president of an offshoot called the Woodstock Guild of Craftsmen. Alf Evers heard Zulma say that “moving into Green Pastures felt like coming home,” for it was built on the original territory of her forbearers, The Livingstons. Yet after only two years of marital bliss Nielsen Parker was dead, and his widow had a fortune to spend on travels to far off lands, where she gradually returned to her art. 

We’re tempted to say this must have been particularly hard-hearted art for the shabby way in which Zulma treated Edna. Either that or those of us romantically inclined might dream up a different conclusion from the story told in Woodstock, that “no one ever heard from Edna Walker ever again.” Fortunately, I recently encountered strong evidence of that far happier ending in the archives of WAAM when, among artifacts gifted by one-time WAAM head Holly Gersh (who then owned Green Pastures) I found a small book from Zulma’s library of King Solomon’s famous sayings. It was inscribed in the year 1930 — two years after Parker’s death — with two sets of initials set either side of that date. Those initials, as shown in the photo to the left, being none other Z.S. for “Zulma Steele,” and — in a different hand — E.D.W. for “Edna D. Walker.”

So the seeming callousness of Zulma’s single page memoir, together with what seems to have been a longer if similarly dispassionate writing by Edna (which I haven’t  located), actually protects the secret re-union of this briefly interrupted, life-long love affair. While the “interruption” happened to supply these lovers with all the money they’d ever need to privately travel the world together until — we presume — shortly before Edna’s death in 1942, at the age of 62. But, to be less cynical, that “interruption” was also a marriage, and as such it allowed Zulma to finally lose herself in the other side of her dual nature. Though in fact we first glimpse that double-nature in last week’s  photo of 1899, wherein a triumphant eighteen year old furtively touches elbows with her mentor while seated in her lover’s lap. 

Zulma would leave Woodstock in 1967 and live to be 98 though “Green Pastures” was only sold shortly after her death in 1979. Soon after, several dozen of Zulma’s since-most-prized paintings (probably found rolled up in the attic following the estate auction) were discovered in a pile at the Woodstock dump by Mike Densen — that, being a story for another day. Yet what’s obvious from these bare facts, is that one unsentimental Zulma Steele Parker (who, except when placing her initials beside Edna’s in 1930, loyally used Parker’s name until her death) had simply moved beyond her Woodstock experience. Even though a fame-hungry artist (and face it, the overwhelming majority are!) would’ve milked so important a history to the max. Instead, sometime before leaving town, Zulma summed up her clear-eyed if profound life journey for The Woodstock Artists Association, thus:

“The experiences of war and some knowledge of other civilizations, of speed and air flight, have made an earlier art expression less adequate. After all, if you really have been over the rainbow and looked down on the floor of the ocean, your point of view changes and what one has to say takes on an aspect less objective in its presentation.”

Author’s note: The many who attempted to interview Zulma Steele during her long life, including Woodstock’s now famous historian, Alf Evers, always received the same answer, “Oh, that’s all past!” So I now ask Zulma’s ghost, as well as her heirs, to forgive these uninvited intrusions through which we have learned more of her and from her, so as to bring Zulma Steele even greater honor.

My thanks to the late Beata Dumont and the late Alf Evers, to Tom Wolf, Bruce Weber, Nancy Green, Heidi Nasstrom Evans, Les Walker, Jeanne Solensky at Winterthur, Emily Jones at WAAM, Special thanks to Joel Iskowitz and in particular to Robert Edwards who died prematurely, while knowing far much more than we ever will. — TW