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Detroit Free Press

Marsha Miro

Edgar Louis Yaeger is a gremlin of a man with a distinctive, raspy voice. His charm lies in his innocent manner – at age 85. His success comes from having been content with his gifts; from having been, for all these years, a local artist, an abstract artist of quiet and unassuming talent. He was, in fact, one of the first abstract artists in Michigan.

“I’ve been painting steady since I was a kid,” he says. “I still paint every day and I teach adults every Tuesday. It’s just as easy for me as ever before.” And now, after hundreds of paintings, more than a dozen murals and loads of drawings – of landscapes still lifes and figure studies – Edgar L. Yaeger, this engaging senior citizen of the Detroit art community, is finally being celebrated in his hometown for his artistic accomplishments. A retrospective of his art is on display at the Scarab Club in the Cultural Center through October 2.

Yaeger has had a lot of down times interspersed with the good moments in his career. But he isn’t a complainer. He just keeps going.

Like artists working in cities outside the modern art centers in the 1920s and 1930s, he chose to apprentice himself to the masters.

“I’d see a Picasso or a Braque at a gallery when I lived in Paris,” said Yaeger. “And I didn’t try to copy their work. They taught me how to compose a picture. Whoever I worked with I learned from. My work just evolved from things around me.”

He learned from Picasso and Braque and their synthetic cubist still lifes in the 1920s. The surrealism of De Chirico affected his landscapes of the 1930s and 1940s. The input of Diego Rivera becomes strong when Yaeger began doing murals in the late 1930s. These artists were the great talents of Yaeger’s time. He digested their styles and turned out skillful and enticing variations.

The evolution of his art began early. The Scarab Club show, which was organized by John Joseph, opens with a childhood drawing. Done January 6, 1911, it is an engaging fantasy of boats, a lighthouse and a jumping fish.

“My grandfather was an architect and he taught me how to carve and paint when I was only four,” said Yaeger. “I was just a little kid and I’d carve cookie molds for my mother. And I kept winning prizes for my art at school. I just seemed to be good at it.”

An exuberance, present in much of Yaeger’s later work, is here in this childhood fantasy. In an age when art education was based on learning by rote, Yaeger obviously had an irrepressible spirit.

He says he didn’t learn much in school, except for a class in high school. He attended two local professional schools: Robert Herzberg’s Detroit School of Fine and Applied Art and the John P. Wicker School of Fine Arts. “My father said as long as it didn’t cost him any money, he’d let me see art school through,” Yaeger said. “I used to make my own supplies – grind my own charcoal. I only had 50 cents to spend. I’d walk to school and sell my materials to other students. I could make the stuff quicker than they could buy it.”

Yaeger obviously believes strongly in what he has done. In 1932, he won the Detroit Institute of Arts Founders Society Purchase Prize, as well as a traveling scholarship from the Detroit News. He went to – where else? – Paris, to study with Orthon Friesz and Andre Lhote, influential teachers of cubism.

“Lhote said I’d be a big success if I stayed in Europe,” Yaeger recalled. “One English lady said I was the first American artist that she liked.”

Yaeger’s cubist still lifes from this time and later are very derivative, yet they have a rich interplay of color – light blue and an ochre orange, for instance – that is satisfying. Strange mauve mountains loom in the background of another work, shifting it from the purely abstract to include a bit of dream.

“Those mountains seemed purple when I saw the red sun hit them,” he said. “Everything looks like color to me. I paint landscapes outdoors to get feelings from nature, except I change them to fit my idea of the composition.”

Yaeger came back to Detroit in 1935. “My home was here. America was really the center. But I didn’t like New York. It was too noisy.”

His landscapes became almost pure fantasy: Elongated figures prancing in space and distorted dogs with huge tails in a courtyard where ribbons fly. The paintings merge Picasso figures with De Chirico spaces. The result is an involving naivete.

“I couldn’t sell anything in Detroit at all,” Yaeger said, “Though I once sold ten pictures to the London Chop House during the Depression. That was good money in those days. You’d think you were rich.”

In the early 1940s, Yaeger was one of the local artists employed by the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project, doing murals in public buildings around town. “They paid us $20 a week, which was enough to live on. I had 10 artists working under me,” he said.

His style of inflated figures, abstract symbols and historical references relates to Diego Rivera’s. Yet there is a gentleness and lack of reforming zeal that were never qualities of the great Mexican muralist’s work. The colors, too, are Yaeger’s.

“Rivera used to come to the Scarab Club,” Yaeger said. “I saw him there. But I wasn’t crazy about his murals, though I liked his technique. Dr. Valentiner (the Detroit Institute of Arts director who brought Rivera to Detroit) used to buy my works. Edsel Ford was one of the first to buy my paintings.”

Yaeger did murals at Brodhead Naval Armory, Grosse Pointe City Hall, Grosse Pointe South High School, and a dormitory at the University of Michigan. These are still in place, though others were destroyed over the years.

From the late 1950s to a few years ago, Yaeger’s type of painting would have been seen as out of style. He wasn’t alone. WPA murals like Yaeger’s all over the country were lost for lack of appreciation of this work.

Yaeger doesn’t seem bothered by questions about his art being dated. “Extreme radical art in a few years will be outdated anyway, while people who bought my work 20 or 30 years ago still keep it in use and galleries still want it. I try to get a harmony of color and composition in my work. The trouble with art today is, there is very little in harmony. That’s why it won’t last long.”

Two late Yaeger paintings, of a woman having tea, from 1972, and a female model with a red umbrella, from 1981, bear the fruits of a lifetime of painting. They are sure and satisfying in their emotion.

Three years ago, Yaeger married for the first time. “I never made a good living before. I just made enough to get along on,” he explained. “Nobody wants to bother with you if you don’t make a good living.”

His wife Elizabeth Rosatti, was a teller at the bank he patronized. “She was interested in art,” said Yaeger. “Now I have someone around to talk to.”

Does it bother that his art isn’t known beyond this area? That wouldn’t be his style. “It doesn’t matter. Everything comes out right in the end. The bigger collectors are starting to buy my work now. My friend, Jackson Pollock, couldn’t sell $10 of his work at one time. He used to burn up armfuls of paintings.”

Will Yaeger’s art ever make it much beyond Detroit? Probably not. But so what?

The point is that after all these years, Detroiter Edgar Louis Yaeger – a member of the Scarab Club since 1925, an art teacher in Grosse Pointe since 1938, always an artist from the heart – is being honored in his hometown.

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