Advertising art to find home at historical society

After Sue Payne's mother died in 2006, the work began. Every week or two, Payne's husband, John, climbed into the attic and brought down boxes.

Payne would spend the next week going through vintage postcards, letters from decades past, clothing from the 1920s. She even found a locket that matched one in a photograph of her great-great aunt.

Then one day, Payne peeled away some yellowed newspaper and unwrapped a revelation. Her mother had been much more talented than she had imagined. Payne's mother, Betty Schaefer, 88, had been part of a bygone era in advertising—long before the advent of "Mad Men"—when big downtown department stores ruled the retail landscape and employed their own fashion illustrators.

Payne found a stylish drawing of a woman's legs in back-seamed nylon stockings, a face faintly visible in the background.

A second piece of artwork featured big, sexy legs with high-heeled shoes. It had been used in a 1940s print ad for The Indianapolis News. The instructions for newspaper printers were still legible: "½ red, reverse pos, Fri News, Blocks up, line and highlight halftone."

"It just knocked me out," Payne said, recalling the moment. She knew her mother had been an artist for William H. Block & Co. department store but didn't realize the extent of her background in commercial art. Furniture had been her mother's specialty, and it was the only type of art Payne had ever seen her do. "To see this was remarkable."

For weeks, Payne, 58, went through scads of illustrations, uncovering nearly 300 in all. It got so she couldn't help herself. When her husband would carry more artwork down from the attic, Payne would sometimes cry.

"It was like Christmas every day," she said.

And now she is sharing that gift with the community. This spring her mother's artwork will be donated to the Indiana Historical Society for preservation and future study.

Steve Haller, the historical society's senior director of collections, described the collection as "high-quality" and said it is "far more engaging than perhaps a nostalgic look at how advertisers once saw their customers."

In addition to the drawings, Payne found a black-and-white halftone image of her mom sitting at her desk at Block's in the 1940s and newspaper clippings featuring her mom's artwork.

One drawing depicted a woman's hands painting the buttons on a serviceman's uniform, an advertisement for Revlon's Keep 'em Shining. The product price: 60 cents. Another drawing was a tube of toothpaste with a chef who devised the formula, an ad for Elizabeth Arden. The toothpaste was a buck. Another drawing showed bobby pins falling out of an envelope. "They'll do a swell MP job on your AWOL locks and keep them where you put them," the ad read. They were 10 cents for 12.

Through much of the 20th century, Block's was one of Indiana's premier department stores. From 1937 to 1953, Schaefer worked at the eight-story Block's store at Illinois and Market streets in downtown Indianapolis.

Block's closed in 1988, and its 10 Indiana stores were converted to Lazarus stores. The building is now home to a T.J. Maxx store and apartments.

Payne's artwork, Haller said, offers a window into the cultural history of advertising in the United States and adds to the historical records of Indiana and Indianapolis.

Jo Nicks, 92, a former colleague of Schaefer, said Block's in the 1940s was a special place and time.

Nicks came to Block's as a commercial artist in 1940 and became great friends with Schaefer. The Indianapolis resident still keeps in touch with Payne and remembers what she called "the golden years" at Block's—from creating artwork for ads to sneaking out to watch movies at lunch when the two weren't busy.

Artists made $15 per week and would go out on the sales floor to see the furniture or draw from manufacturers' photos. Sometimes, Nicks said, store products were brought to the artists who would draw the pictures.

Mannequins, rather than live models, were used to illustrate clothing.

After the artwork was published, it was returned daily to Block's and put in a closet. Artists had a chance to take their work before it was thrown out.

Nicks recalled how each artist had a specialty, hers being household goods such as pots and pans and, later, lingerie and ladies' fashions.

Schaefer's specialties were hosiery, children's clothing, draperies, rugs, tablecloths, hankies and furniture.

"She could take a picture of a sofa and turn it into this gorgeous thing," said Payne, who remembers watching her mother draw pictures of couches, chairs and dining room tables.

Payne's mom later designed furniture and co-owned with her daughter a store called Colonial Treasures in Zionsville. Schaefer worked as an interpreter in costume in the late 1960s and early 1970s at Conner Prairie Interactive History Park in Fishers, where she also volunteered.

Payne, a textile specialist at Conner Prairie, has spent the past four years cleaning, restoring and now appraising her mother's artwork. Many of the drawings are yellowed; light has gotten to some pieces and left an uneven color.

Through an art store, she found Guy Davis, an art conservator at Snodgrass & Davis Studio near Broad Ripple, who has been removing stains and surface grime and is digitizing every piece, so Payne can keep copies.

"She brought the artwork to me because it was in really poor condition," said Davis, 59, of Zionsville, who would spend up to an hour on each item. "A lot of them had fingerprints and stickers the Star would use to label the artwork," he said.

Most of the work was done on illustration board with colored pencils.

Davis has relined canvas with new linen and removed dimples and imprints caused when pieces leaned together. It was during that process that Payne decided to donate the collection to the historical society.

"I want it to go to an institution where it will be well taken care of," she said.

Through finding all of these treasures, Payne said, she gained a new appreciation for her mother.

The advertising drawings weren't the only treasures in the attic. Payne also found several watercolor paintings that date back to primary school, when her Marion-born mother was 9 years old and growing up in Hollywood, Calif. There were also 13 pieces of artwork from the John Herron Art Institute dated 1935.

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

Editor's note: IBJ is now using a new comment system. Your Disqus account will no longer work on the IBJ site. Instead, you can leave a comment on stories by signing in to your IBJ account. If you have not registered, please sign up for a free account now. Past comments are not currently showing up on stories, but they will be added in the coming weeks. Please note our updated comment policy that will govern how comments are moderated.