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Lorena Phemister (1920 – 2005)

Updated: Oct 17, 2023

Dressmakers Shop/Seamstress, c. 1940s, oil on panel, signed lower right, 30 x 20 inches, labeled "#7" and titled "Dressmakers Shop" verso, provenance includes Vose Galleries (Boston) and the Collection of Peggy & Arthur Hittner


About the Painting

When the artist graduated with honors from the John Herron Art Institute, the The Indianapolis Star remarked, "The several paintings that represent Lorena Phemister, graduate from the Herron's fifth-year class, prove her to be one of the most versatile of this year's graduates. She designs and paints with equal skill and interpretative power whether painting close up portrait heads. . . or a large-sized portrait group . . . [of] close standing figures viewed from the back." Although The Star's critic was referring to a different painting called Departure, the present work shares many of the same attributes with its tightly packed subjects and the central figure in the foreground with her back to the viewer, while the dressmaker and her client are depicted in profile and the mannequin and hall tree complete the composition. Phemister's figures are pared down and modern in design, but also capture an authentic slice of life in the form of an Indianapolis shopping trip. The space Phemister depicts is one that would have been interpreted as exclusively feminine both from the point of view of the stylish shoppers and the hardworking dressmaker surrounded by the tools of her trade. The bold and colorful hat and the ashtray in the foreground suggest a hint of glamor, since smoking was still viewed by many women at the time as a sign of upper class sophistication. The artist's choice to paint the Black seamstress in a near grisaille palette raises unresolved questions and reminds the contemporary viewer of Amy Sherald's depictions of Black Americans.

About the Artist

Lorena Phemister was an Indiana artist and art instructor who worked in a variety of media, but is best known as a Regionalist oil painter. She was a 1938 honors graduate of Arsenal Technical High School. Between 1938 and 1943, she was a scholarship and honors student at Indiana's main art school, the John Herron Art Institute. After receiving her BFA from Herron, she spent two years at the University of Iowa, obtaining an MFA in 1945. Phemister then held a series of art instructor positions, including at St. Francis College (1946–47) and Mishawaka High School (1948–50) before returning to Arsenal Technical High School in 1951, where she spent the remainder of her teaching career before retiring in 1984. Phemister's painting career was short, lasting from her time at Herron through 1956. During this less than two decade period, she exhibited at the Indiana State Fair, the Hoosier Salon where her painting "Phantasmagoria" won the Estelle M. King Memorial Prize and at Old Northwest Territory Art Exhibition, among other venues. After abandoning painting, Phemister gained a reputation for her work in paper sculpture.


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