The Chowning Mystique

Edward Chowning's life remains
a mystery to this day

The late artist's paintings can be found
throughout Madison, Ind.

(January 2015) – A lot has changed since 1935. Back then, you could buy a new car for $625 and fill it up for 10 cents a gallon. This was the year that Monopoly was released by Parker Brothers, and Penguin Press began producing its signature paperback books.
Seventy-nine years have passed, but one can still stand at “The Point,” a bluff on the Hanover College Campus that overlooks the Ohio River, and see what the late Madison, Ind., artist, Edward Charles Chowning, saw. Many things have changed, but some things remain the same. Places of beauty that inspired an artist to pick up his brushes and mix his paints continue to speak today.

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January 2015 cover

Perhaps this is what caused such a stir at a November auction conducted by Sara Minor when a Chowning painting sold for more than $5,000. The 4x7-foot painting is among the largest of paintings done by the elusive artist that Minor has encountered. “His paintings are usually 12x15 inches or 15x21 inches,” the auctioneer said.
Minor said this is not the first time the panoramic river scene has passed through the family’s auction house. The painting had been sold by Minor’s father, Cecil Meier, in the early 1970s to Bob and Shirley Rogers of Madison. The painting was part of an auction of items at Main Street barber shop that used to operate near Lydia Middleton Elementary School. The painting depicts a bend in the Ohio River in the afternoon. The landscape seems very similar to the end of Vaughn Drive at the foot of what is now the Heritage Trail. Of course, the Indiana-Kentucky Electric Corp. power plant had not been built at the time and is absent from the painting. Closer inspection reveals a steamboat making its way along the water.


Photo by Don Ward

This large landscape painting by Edward Chowning was discovered on a hidden wall at the former Rogers Corner in Madison, Ind., when the building was undergoing renovations into Shooter’s Sports Bar & Restaurant. The painting still hangs behind the bar there.

Ruth Donahue, a Californian who recently bought the Shuh-Leininger home from Ron and Vangie Greves on Main Street in Madison, was attracted to the painting for the beauty of the historic river scene. Donahue’s Main Street home had belonged to her great-great-great grandfather, Jacob Shuh. She said she was very taken with the home’s orientation to the river and felt that the painting would highlight this affiliation.
Chowning, a lifetime resident of Madison who died at age 40 of renal failure, seemed to be drawn to the river as well. Its stately presence is prominent in several of his paintings. The painting that now belongs to Donahue would have been among the last that Chowning painted. Below the signature, the artist has painted the year “1935.” It is clear that the painting is done during the summer months.

Chowning home

Photo by Jenny Straub Youngblood

The late artist Edward Chowning and his family lived in this house at 410 West St. in Madison, Ind.

Chowning died on July 31, 1935, after a “month-long illness,” according to his obituary. Taking that information into account, it is safe to say that this painting may actually have been the last to be touched by the artist’s brush.
Unfortunately, very little information about Chowing is known today. A pamphlet announcing an exhibit of Chowning paintings is held at the Jefferson County Historical Society. This pamphlet mentions that “taped interviews” with Judge Harry Nichols, Mrs. Stella Cisco, Mrs. M.E. Garber and Mr. Louis Owens provided biographical information.
However, a request for these tapes reveals that the recordings are not at the Historical Society. The recordings are not at the Jefferson County Public Library nor at the Duggan Library at Hanover College. What information they held will have to remain a mystery until they are located.

Chowning graves

Photo by Jenny Straub Youngblood

Edward Chowning and one of his three sons, Edward Dagmar, are buried side by side at Springdale Cemetery in Madison, Ind.

We are offered a small glimpse into Chowning’s life through the information in his obituary, as well as the Historical Society pamphlet, which references the Art Guide to Indiana.
A man of considerable musical talent, as well as artistic, Chowning was reported to have played with a band called Lou Perry’s Footwarmers. The group frequently provided the entertainment on riverboats traveling between Madison and New Orleans. Chowning was considered to have considerable skill on the violin as well as the drums.
He was also employed for 22 years by Louis Holwager at the Grand and Little Grand Theaters, providing background music and sound effects for the silent films. Chowning would later marry Holwager’s daughter, Anna The couple had three children – Edward Dagmar, Louis and Charles. Sadly, baby Edward Dagmar died at 11 months old. The family lived at 410 West St. in Madison.
When the Grand and Little Grand was leased to another party, Chowning began to focus more on his artistic interests. Said to have worked primarily in oil on canvas and glass, Chowning was known to have painted many beechwood scenes. This was most likely the influence of his well-known instructor, William McKendree Snyder.

Chowning painting2

Photo by Jenny Straub Youngblood

This Edward Chowning painting is on permanent display at the Jefferson County Historical Society.

The artist would also paint many other nature scenes that are significant to the area, such as the Ohio River, Hanging Rock Hill and Cedar Cliff to name a few. It is said that the majority of these paintings were sold to Main Street commercial businesses. Some of them were not able to change hands so easily since they were painted or applied directly to the wall.
In 2010, Harry Dobbins and Glenn Perkins discovered a large Chowning painting while they were remodeling the former Rogers Corner into what is now called Shooter’s Sports Bar & Restaurant on Main Street in Madison. The piece seemed to have been painted on wallpaper and then applied to the wall. The 3x6.5-foot landscape painting depicts a forest with a winding road. The two men decided to leave the painting on the wall, where it has been for close to a century. It can still be seen hanging behind the bar of the restaurant.

Chowning Riverhouse II

Photo by Jenny Straub Youngblood

Pictured above is one of the three Edward Chowning paintings found at the Riverhouse II tavern on Jefferson Street in Madison, Ind. Riverhouse II owner JoAnn Connolly hired Vevay, Ind., artist Ann Farnsley to clean and revive the paintings.

Three additional Chowning murals can be seen at Riverhouse II, a Madison tavern located on Jefferson Street. These paintings seem to have been painted directly onto the plaster. A river scene, Hanging Rock Hill Road and a close-up of the waterfall on Hanging Rock Hill take up most of the north wall.
Bar owner JoAnn Connolly of Vevay, Ind., says that the paintings were there when she purchased the building. She says that she was unable to locate any information about them. A search at the Historical Society reveals that at the time the paintings were likely to have been done, the building was a Greyhound Bus Station. It seems a likely story that a bus station would exhibit local scenes.
Connolly commissioned Switzerland County artist Ann Farnsley to clean and revive the artworks.

Chowning auction

Photo by Jenny Straub Youngblood

This large 4x7-foot landscape painting sold for more than $5,000 at a November auction.

“It was quite a procedure,” said Farnsley, who added that she was very taken with the river scene. She said it was the most damaged, with large chips in the paint. All the scenes were covered with years of grime and nicotine.
Farnsley was able remove the soil and touch up the areas that were without paint. This can be quite challenging since the pigments available in the 1920s and 1930s differ greatly from those available now. “I enjoyed it,” she recalled. “I loved restoring the paintings and bringing them back to life.”
In July 2015, eight decades will have passed since the time Chowning last walked the streets of Madison. However, it seems that his story is still struggling to be told. After his death, his wife and his children moved to Florida. Prior to his passing, his mother had moved to Ohio and his grandmother to California.
However, Chowning remains. Not just at the site of his burial in Madison’s Springdale Cemetery but in the artwork that continues to be viewed and appreciated. Artwork in frames and artwork that still clings to the very material used to construct the buildings of his town.
It is hoped that anyone with information regarding this mysterious artist will share it with others so that Chowning’s life, as well as his works, can be familiar to members of future generations. In the meantime, we can take a moment to pause in a beechwood grove or to gaze up at the falling waters of Hanging Rock and know that a man once stood on this spot – and was moved to paint it.

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