John William Vawter, born in 1871 in West Virginia, will forever be associated with southern Indiana, for his work as both an illustrator and a painter.
After some study in New York and at the Herron Art School in Indianapolis, Vawter began his career as an illustrator for the Indianapolis Sentinel in 1891 and soon worked for other newspapers and magazines. It was his introduction in 1893 to poet James Whitcomb Riley, however, that would put Vawter’s art in the public eye. Over a thirty-year period, Vawter illustrated eleven volumes of Riley’s poems.
Two volumes with some of Riley’s most enduring poems offer excellent examples of Vawter’s work. The 1883 Riley Farm-Rhymes is accompanied by “Country Pictures by Will Vawter”; the 1890 volume of Riley Child-Rhymes is illustrated with the artist’s “Hoosier Pictures.” In both cases, Vawter’s miniature sketches and full-page illustrations appear throughout the book.
Farm-Rhymes begins with four pages of small sketches, including a scarecrow with five crows perching atop him, and a charming little rabbit watching a man and boy walk through a farm field.
Vawter adds emphasis to the rather gruesome stories told by Riley’s famous “Little Orphant Annie” with a full page illustration of the bewildered parents of the boy who “wouldn’t say his prayers” as they view his empty bed, and an even more pointed sketch of a little girl being “snatched . . . through the ceilin’” by two goblins.
In 1908, Vawter moved to Brown County, where he lived and worked for the rest of his life. He took up oil painting and became one of the respected and sought-after members of the Brown County School of artists. He also continued to work with Riley, and many of his later illustrations are based upon people he knew and observed in Brown County. Vawter died in 1941. His work continues to be known as books of Riley poems are re-issued in their original editions, and his oil paintings command high prices at auctions of Hoosier artists.
Sources: Josephine Graf, “The Brown County Art Colony,” IMH, December 1939; www.willvawter.com and www.hancockcountyarts.com; James Whitcomb Riley, Riley Child-Rhymes and Riley Farm-Rhymes
A Moment of Indiana History is a production of WFIU Public Radio in partnership with the Indiana Public Broadcasting Stations. Research support comes from Indiana Magazine of History published by the Indiana University Department of History.