Purser Studio

Stuart Purser's Biography page

Stuart R. Purser was born in Stamps, Arkansas in 1907 and grew up in Louisiana. His mother, Ora Olive Glass was born in Oklahoma. His father, Ed Purser was from Dayton Tennessee, home of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial. There he worked in the coal mines but departed the day after a terrible mine explosion, never to return. So Ed ventured west to work in a sawmill in Stamps, Arkansas where he met and married Ora Olive Glass.

When their children Madelle and Stuart were in elementary school, the mill in Stamps closed and the family moved to Good Pine, Louisiana. Stuart majored in history at Louisiana College in Pineville and received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1928. Despite his father's wish that he become a medical doctor, Stuart followed a long-time desire to become an artist. He left Louisiana about 1929 to attend the Art Institute of Chicago with only $14 in his pocket. This was quite a step. Becoming an "artist" was not a profession that any true Southern boy would consider. Besides it was the beginning of the Great Depression and jobs were scarce--particularly in the North.

In Chicago, Stuart simultaneously worked as many as four jobs to get through art school. This included night clerk at the Palmer House Hotel and janitor at the Art Institute. A janitor position was like a scholarship during this era of scarce jobs. In 1933 he graduated and the next year married Mary May, a scholarship student at the Art Institute who had grown up in Chicago. (Mary only attended the Art Institute two years as she shared the scholarship with her twin sister who had come in second. Both of her parents were German immigrants.) Stuart got a half-time job at Washington State College in Pullman, WA. He only taught there one year before returning to head up the art department at Louisiana College in Pineville. There Stuart taught drawing, painting and art history while Mary taught design.

After returning to the South, Stuart painted four murals located in the states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. These were done during the Depression and funded by the U.S. Government Treasury Department to enhance public buildings. They focused on local themes. The mural in Carrollton, Alabama included the U.S. House Speaker William Bankhead who had helped secure funds for the project. A mural done in Gretna, Louisiana shows the steamboat river traffic of the New Orleans. Two murals illustrate the economy of cotton production in the South. Wagons carrying cotton to the gin are shown in the mural in Leland, Mississippi, while the one in Ferriday, Louisiana, has people working the machines of the cotton gin.

Mary painted one mural which is located in the post office in Clarksville, Arkansas. It is based on old photographs of the town. Local citizens demanded that she return to correct one detail in the mural. Being a city girl she hadn't known that horses do not have cloven hooves. The murals were done in tempera and oil.

A son, Robert Stuart was born on May 21, 1940 in Alexandria, the city across the river from Pineville. Stuart was born Robert Stuart Purser but at this time changed his name to Stuart Robert Purser as he did not wish his son to be a junior. Everyone called him Stuart anyway. The same day as this birth, Stuart's studio burned down with most of his earlier paintings and drawings. People didn't know whether to congratulate or console him. During this time Stuart often continued to paint as did Mary. While he painted in oil, Mary often preferred egg tempera.

Stuart won first prize in the annual Art Association Exhibition in New Orleans (sponsored by the Delgado Museum) for three consecutive years 1942-44. His last work, "Political Merry-Go-Round" was extremely controversial, showing Huey Long on a merry-go-round with his mistress and cronies, including one with a ball and chain. The mayor of New Orleans refused to award Stuart the prize.

During the war, Stuart volunteered to become a Marine. However he was the only one in all Louisiana with that goal. They didn't feel it worth the expense to send one person to be trained so he was returned to Louisiana College where he'd just been honored with a big farewell party. It seemed like a good time to move on. After all, he had been offered a tempting position at the University of Chattanooga, an opportunity to build another art department. So in 1945 Stuart became head of the art department at that university. Both Pursers taught subjects similar to the ones they had taught at Louisiana College. Stuart continued winning many art exhibits in the South and nationally. One of the highest honors was being among 70 artists chosen for the Pepsi Cola exhibit that originated in New York and traveled to the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. and other venues. He was honored to have Eleanor Roosevelt purchase a painting that was given to an art museum in Melbourne, Australia.

On January 7, 1946 daughter, Jean was born. In 1950 the Purser family moved to Oxford, MS where Stuart established the first Art Department at Ole Miss'. There he went out into the countryside to sketch and paint. One of the more interested persons he befriended in there was William Faulkner. Also he established a successful summer art program on the Gulf Coast near Biloxi. During this period Mary enrolled at the University of Mississippi and received a B.A. in fine arts.

While searching the countryside for subjects to paint, Stuart passed a house near Ecru, MS which had two large heads sculpted of clay sitting on the front porch. There he met a young man named M.B. Mayfield. Stuart offered him the job of "custodian" for the Art Department. He couldn't invite him as a student, as the University was still segregated. Mayfield continued his art work under Stuart Purser's encouragement and has become one of Mississippi's leading black artist.

The Pursers didn't stay in Mississippi long but moved to Gainesville, FL in 1952 where Stuart headed up the Department of Art in the School of Architecture and Allied Arts. Though he was offered jobs in other parts of the country, his loyalty was still with the South. In Gainesville, he built a strong art department which included photography, commercial art and fashion design programs. Stuart was aware that few other Southern universities offered such practical programs in art to aid the Southern economy.

Over the years the University of Florida was considered the men's college and FSU the women's, with a stronger art program. The battle to build a first rate art department got to be too much. In 1957 he resigned as chairman. He stepped down to teach advanced painting and drawing. He also developed a course in media for artists, teaching the old techniques of silver point drawing, encaustics and construction of various media from the raw materials. The next year and two years after that, Stuart was invited to be a visiting artist at San Fernando Valley State College (now California State University, Northridge). He seriously considered relocating to the Los Angeles area but loyalty to the South was stronger.

Between 1957 and his retirement in 1975 Stuart turned to writing and publishing his own books. His book, "The Drawing Handbook" was a text for college drawing students that was adopted by various universities. At this time he also became good friends with a man named Jesse Aaron who had started sculpting at the age of 75. Stuart had been invited to have a one-person exhibit at the University Gallery. On his own, he invited Jesse to exhibit with him. Needless to say, the gallery director was a bit surprised. Jesse's career took off from there. Through Purser's promoting, Aaron became recognized as one of our nations' top black sculptors and was in an exhibition sponsored in Washington, D.C. by the Smithsonian. Stuart wrote and published a small book titled Jesse Aaron which sold out in a short time as Aaron became better known.

Stuart wrote and published an autobiographical book his childhood in rural, central Louisiana called "Applehead." It was book about his childhood friendship in Good Pine, LA with a black boy named Applehead Jones. It was also a comment on the cultural diversity of the area with the Scandinavian mill owners, the white middle class, the blacks mill workers and the "Lakites," French trappers who lived in the swamps. It was an inditement of the cruelties of hunting, a common theme of Stuart's paintings.

In the 1960's, Mary Purser received her Master of Fine Arts from the University of Florida and became a elementary art teacher in the local schools. A few years later she joined the faculty of the School of Education as an art education professor. Stuart Purser retired as a Professor Emeritus in 1976 and Mary Purser retired the same year. Retirement gave the couple much more time for their first love, painting and drawing. Although the South had changed greatly there were still great injustices and Stuart continued to paint the struggle of the black man in the South.

He also continued his fight to expose the barbarity of dog fighting and wrote a final book, "Catahoula Curr." Dog fights were illegal by this time but nevertheless still going on much like the secret meetings of the KKK. As a result, Stuart got a number of threatening calls from dog fight supporters. Mary and Stuart found that working in the studio at home was unproductive--there were just too many interruptions and visitors. So they rented a barn about 10 miles out of Gainesville. The loft area was remodeled into a studio for painting and writing. Mary's work was far more upbeat with cheerful themes of still lifes and landscapes. Both painted with oils but increasingly converted to acrylics as the technology developed.

In 1984 Stuart and Mary celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. Son, Bob had gotten his Master of Fine Arts from the University of Washington and a Ph.D. in Architecture Education from the University of Oregon. He was married and teaching art at a Bellevue Community College near Seattle. Daughter Jean was married and teaching high school art in Gainesville. Stuart continued to paint, have breakfast each morning at The Clock and faithfully read the sports page. Mary also painted regularly and continued a very active role in church. Both passed on within a few months of each other in 1986.

Stuart Purser's Biography
Stuart Purser's Resume
Stuart Purser's Gallery
Stuart Purser's Murals
Mary Purser
Robert Purser
Contact and Links
all images copyright 2004, 2005 Robert Purser
website design by bluMantisPhoto.com