By Jim Rosenthal
In 1946 Charles Merrick “Chili” Capps knew as much about the running of a print association as anyone. He was one of the founders of the Prairie Print Makers. He served as Secretary-Treasurer of that organization from 1940 to 1942 and was serving at that time as President. He also was a member of other print organizations including the Chicago Society of Etchers (CSE). Consequently, he was shocked and dismayed to learn that the Board of the CSE had asked for and received the resignation of their Secretary-Treasurer, James Swann.
James “Jimmie” Swann was the protégé of Bertha Jaques, one of the founders and the driving force behind the Chicago Society of Etchers since it began in 1910. Jaques retired from her position as Secretary-Treasurer of the CSE in 1936. Swann took over in 1937. He had done an admirable job – despite serving in the military during WWII. In a down print market Swann was able to continue with the traditions of annual shows and the selection and distribution of a yearly Presentation Print for Associate Members. Associate members were collectors who paid an annual fee of $5 to support the organization and to receive a Presentation Print.
Swann was also able to establish good relationships with the artist members of the CSE. These artists appreciated his efforts to give them the opportunity to enhance their reputations and to sell their prints. Many also became good friends – including Charles Capps.
When Swann was forced to resign, there was an uproar of disapproval from many artists. Supporters of Swann contacted the Board and expressed their dissatisfaction. These supporters included such notables as John Taylor Arms, May Gearhart, Ernest Roth and Charles Capps. Capps’ letter to the Board of the CSE has been preserved in the James Swann Archives at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. It is a clear, perceptive and persuasive piece that explains much about what it was like to run a print society, the work of James Swann and the personality of Charles Capps.
“To the President of the CSE with copies to all Members of the Board:”
May 26, 1946
I have just heard about the May 2 Board Meeting of CSE. According to the story, the Board learned that Mr. Swann had given the Woodcut Society a copy of our Associate Member list. The Board considered this an action against the best interests of the Society, and asked for his immediate resignation from his office as Secretary-Treasurer.”
“Obviously, the Board of Directors have to act as they think right. If they consider that the Woodcut Society offers associate members a more attractive deal, and therefore will take associate support away from our society, then they must plan constructively to meet the competition. I can’t agree that firing Mr. Swann improves our position and if the Board takes more sober counsel and realizes that its action was hasty, then it is their duty to offer reinstatement and an apology to Mr. Swann.”
“I have been concerned with print societies since 1929, when a group of us here, with Birger Sandzen and C. A. Seward as leaders formed the Prairie Print Makers. Seeking advice and help, Mr. Seward corresponded with Mrs. Jaques, with Mr. Simmons of the Brooklyn Society (now the American Society), with Mr. Brown of the California Society and with others. Every one was most helpful and encouraging, particularly Mrs. Jaques. Every one gladly gave Mr. Seward the associate member list of their society.”
“I have never heard that any of them regretted it – as they might have if their own membership had fallen off on that account, for their own labors would have had to build back their lists to sustainable strength. On the contrary, every one expressed the conviction that more print activity makes more collectors, that a collector is more likely to become an associate also of a second society that attracts him, than he is to drop the first for the sake of the second.”
“My own observations over the years support that view. I have seen that a print society may suffer serious loss of associate strength because of:
(1) a succession of unpopular print publications; (2) a secretary deficient in tact and energy; (3) internal friction
I hope the third cause will not ruin our society, as it did in wrecking the Philadelphia Society. On the second count, I find it hard to imagine anyone more ideally fitted and inclined than Mr. Swann to promote the interests of a print society. I filled the same office for several years for the Prairie Print Makers, so that I know the amount of steady work the job requires. I can appreciate, better than most people, how competently Mr. Swann has done his job. I also know from this experience that a secretary who accomplishes a great deal, as Mr. Swann has, can’t always manage to secure approval from his board for every decision he has to make – as most societies realize in permitting his wide discretion. He has to budget his own judgment with experience and precedents that have been tried and found sound by his predecessors – in his own and in other societies.”
“Undoubtedly, that was the basis for Mr. Swann’s action in this instance. He could not have gone to better sources for a precedent. I have not yet corresponded with Mr. Swann about this matter, so I do not know whether or not he would accept reinstatement. But I do consider he should have an apology and the offer of it.”
“Very truly yours,
Charles M. Capps”
There is no record on when this letter was shared with James Swann. The Board of Directors of the Chicago Society of Etchers did not apologize and did not offer reinstatement.
The Chicago Society of Etchers continued for several more years but by 1956, in the words of Joby Patterson in her excellent book Bertha E. Jaques and the Chicago Society of Etchers, it “quietly faded away.”
James Swann did not stay on the sidelines for long. In 1947, Charles Capps asked him to be the Secretary-Treasurer of the Prairie Print Makers – a position he held until 1966. Capps continued to be the President of the organization for that time. Capps and Swann worked together on behalf of the Prairie Print Makers for a total of 19 years. They had a warm, positive and productive working relationship during the entire period. Their choices of Presentation Prints represent some of the finest examples of representational art of the mid-20th Century.
In the final letter of the Prairie Print Makers to artist and associate members dated July 27, 1966, Capps said this about James Swann:
“Over the years we have worn out seven Secretary-Treasurers. The correspondence, planning, matting and mailing the publication . . . the assembling, scheduling and following-up on the exhibitions and their return to the artists all add up to an amazing total of work (and very little of the compensation for it all is financial). Nineteen years ago we were fortunate indeed to find Mr. James Swann willing to take on this job. No one else could have done it half as well, and probably no one else has his extensive acquaintance with printmakers here and abroad. When the number of prints contributed for our exhibitions was inadequate for a good representational show, Mr. Swann was able to fill them out from his own private collection. But we have finally worn him out too, and he must conserve his time for his own use and travels. We will not attempt to replace him.”
(For more information on Charles Capps and to view his artwork, please visit the Wichita Art Museum’s current exhibition: Charles Capps: Prairie Print Maker. The exhibition is on display through September 29, 2019. https://www.wichitaartmuseum.org/exhibitions/current )