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Archive for June, 2022

Upon starting my research, my knowledge of Wilber Stilwell was very base level; I knew that he was Chair of the Department of Art for over 30 years, I had heard that he had won a Medal of Honor, awarded by First Lady Johnson, for his dedication to art education, and there’s a student exhibition every year in his honor. As my research went on, and I got a greater sense of Wilber, I realized that there’s much more to the story than the headlines. Somewhere along the way, we’ve forgotten many of his efforts. The first of these I’d like to share is Wilber Stilwell as an inventor.

            From the beginning of the collection until the end, Wilber was overflowing with innovation. Scrawled in the margins of every page are notes that imagine the possibilities to surpass the limitations of our everyday lifestyle. He wasn’t alone, either; his wife, Gladys, had an innovative side as well, pioneering different gadgets to make life easier. She was particularly interested in fashion design and pursued a patent for a hem measuring tool. It’s obvious, and heartwarming, that the pair were inspired by one another, and supported each other’s creative endeavors. 

            During his time as a student at the Kansas City Art Institute, Wilber experimented with inventive techniques to inform his artwork – this includes trial and error with his Transfer Wax process, and the Blottergraph. The Blottergraph would later become a staple in many classrooms as an introduction to relief printing. Wilber even developed his own color wheel after much experimentation. 

            Gladys and Wilber becoming parents seemed to have spurred more inspiration for their inventions. They clearly had a passion for making art safe and accessible for children and young adults. Many of these techniques found their home in classrooms, especially after they were published in art process magazines. It was around this time that Wilber developed the idea of the “Safe-T-Scissors.” Wilber was in contact with attorneys and material companies throughout this time, to see if this was even possible. He created hundreds of sketches, and after much trial and error, was granted a patent for the invention. The safety scissors, something we’ve all probably used at some point or another, were a revolutionary possibility, and eventual reality. Below is the official patent found in Box 9, Folder 41.

            Behind the success of their inventions was a fair amount of failure and rejection. There is a significant amount of correspondence in which their lawyers told them their inventions were unpatentable, or that the idea didn’t hold enough merit for a company to invest money into. Throughout all of this, Wilber and Gladys persevered for their passions. 

            During a tumultuous economy, and a lack of state funding for education, Wilber and Gladys utilized accessible materials, like tin foil, basic crayons, freezer paper, even face powder, to help students make “fine art” without access to the prestigious materials usually utilized. In all of this lies a profound lesson: There can and often will be adversity and rejection in our lives, but it can lead to greater inspiration and success.

#ASummerOfStilwell

Here’s a link to the finding aid for the collection I’m researching.    https://archives.usd.edu/repositories/2/resources/99

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Come visit us and check out the view from our new space in the library at the University of South Dakota.

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Veronica Knippling

            What happens to a collection after it is donated to the Archives? Thousands of papers, receipts, envelopes, tickets, and magazines came to me in folders, stacked in boxes, and initially overwhelmed me. I had never received an assignment such as this prior to being honored as a U.Discover Scholar. As a student, I encounter secondary sources in the form of journal articles all the time, but it’s rare to come across a primary source, even in digital format. To have 13 boxes full of primary source material to sort through has been a challenge, but a fruitful one. The more I’ve learned about Wilber Stilwell, the morepassionate I’ve become about my job as a researcher. 

            I started sorting through the boxes, folder by folder, page by page. I was quickly familiarized to a name that I’ve heard often during my time here at the University of South Dakota: Wilber Stilwell. Wilber was a professor and Department Chair at USD for over 30 years, but that’s only the beginning of his story and legacy. 

            To start establishing points of interest, I bookmarked information that piqued my curiosity, all the while trying to develop a greater understanding of Wilber. He won a Medal of Honor, hand gifted to him from Lady Bird Johnson, for his dedication to art education. Where did this passion for art education begin? Wilber was an enthusiastic inventor. What planted the seed of innovation? I wished to see the bigger picture. 

            After this part of the project, comes the digitization process. Each folder will be described to ensure efficient search and retrieval efforts for scholars and researchers who wish to consult the “Stilwell Papers” as a resource. Whether they are interested in Wilber as a Regionalist artist, or an educator, or the inventor of the “Safe-T-Scissors,” they will be able to find it with the click of some buttons. Prior to this project, the “Stilwell Papers” were thousands of pages without descriptors, difficult to navigate with any certainty. With the description and digitization process, those who wish to utilize the resource will be able to do so much more efficiently.

            All the while, I have kept a meticulous research journal, developing my premature ideas as more concrete themes. The four to arise are Wilber as an Educator, Advocate, Inventor, and Artist. In future blog posts, I will describe each of these themes with more detail, telling the story of Wilber Stilwell. Keep an eye out!

            An opportunity that has truly helped my research blossom is the U.Discover Summer Scholar Program, which is open for application to all undergraduate students. The grant provides a generous stipend and freedom to conduct your research as necessary. Research was very intimidating to me before this process, until I was encouraged by my faculty mentor, Dr. Lauren Freese, to step out of the box. I had preconceptions about what research needed to look like. I was pleasantly surprised to unveil the possibilities that this grant can cover.

            This isn’t to say that this summer hasn’t proven to be a challenge; it certainly has. Time management, critical thinking, and creativity have been skills that I have had to develop more thoroughly. Connecting the dots between the different milestones of Wilber’s life has been difficult, but so worthwhile. I feel like I’ve jumped into a time machine and been dropped into a tumultuous period of uncertainty; filled with war, societal disparities, a lack of appreciation for educators, and a difficult state economy. I’ve been able to develop a greater appreciation not only for Wilber, but for all educators, past and present, who have made my time at USD possible and enjoyable. 

#ASummerOfStilwell

Here’s a link to the finding aid for the collection I’m researching.

https://archives.usd.edu/repositories/2/resources/99

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The Archives and Special Collections received 31 boxes of rolled architectural drawings, floor plans, and blueprints of buildings in Vermillion SD and the University of South Dakota.

architectural drawing of building

We are in the process of flattening and inventorying this gift. Projects date from 1920s to 2000s. Some of the projects are the Clay County Courthouse, Vermillion public schools, DakotaDome, Chemistry Building fire repair, animal quarters, and many dorms. The brief inventory included with the gift also lists items that are not buildings, such as a plot plan/old map and campus development. I look forward to finding them.

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