By CONNIE ZEIGLER
Helen McKay Steele and her husband, Rembrandt “Brandt” Steele, were the artsy “It” couple of Indianapolis in the early years of the 20th century. They taught art to a generation of students and made art for everyone in the city, from the poorest newsboy to the richest blue-bloodiest families.
Born in Michigan in 1870 to Theodore Clement Steele and Mary Elizabeth Lakin Steele, Rembrandt Theodore Steele moved with his family to Indianapolis when he was only three years old. Then, in 1880, the Steeles, by then including daughter Margaret (“Daisy”) and second son Shirley, moved to Munich, Germany, where T. C. Steele, a portrait and sign painter in his early Indianapolis years, attended the Academy of Fine Arts.
When the family returned to Indianapolis in May 1885, T. C. Steele quickly began to make a name for himself. He and a group of fellow painters, most of whom had also studied in Munich, became known as The Hoosier Group.
Being the son of one of the most famous Indiana artists might have been an uneasy legacy for an artistically gifted young man, but Brandt fell in love with a new way of looking at art inspired by the Arts and Crafts Movement, which was spreading across the Atlantic (and around the world) from England’s William Morris. The movement embraced craft as an art form and young Brandt reached out for training in all forms of craftsmanship, according to an article by Barry Shifman, “Work Worth Doing,” in the Winter 1994 edition of Traces Magazine.
Shifman writes that Brandt took a job at the Indianapolis Terra Cotta Co. and designed ornamentation for buildings by Indianapolis architects Vonnegut and Bohn and Louis Gibson. His work included the exterior terra cotta for a building at the 1893 Chicago World’s Exposition.
In a completely different format, he also designed lettering for Modern Art Magazine, which Joseph M. Bowles published in Indianapolis from 1893 to 1895 [see History 301, Urban Times, February 2019]. Brandt produced pottery, stained glass, book-bindings, ceramics and metalwork.
He established the Indiana Ornamental Iron Work in 1902 and designed the wrought iron gate at the southwest entrance to Crown Hill Cemetery.
He also began teaching a “modern ornament” class, which included everything from metalwork to wallpaper design, in 1902 at the brand new John Herron Art Institute, which happened to be located at his family’s former home on Tinker Street.
The artfully gifted Helen Elizabeth McKay also joined the Herron staff in 1902. An Indianapolis native, McKay was a daughter of wealthy realtor Horace McKay, and his wife, Martha Nicholson McKay. She was graduated from Shortridge High School and the Art Institute of Chicago before returning to her hometown to become a working artist and teacher.
She was six years younger than Brandt, who was 32 when they met, and just a couple of years into her own career. It was a time surprisingly rich with possibilities for artistic women, who became some of the most creative – if rarely heralded – artists and craftspeople of the Arts and Crafts Movement in the U.S.
Theirs was a whirlwind romance, it seems. Brandt and Helen met and married in 1902. The match was rich in talent.
In December 1903 the Richmond, Ind., Item newspaper wrote that Helen was a “remarkably gifted young woman of an astonishing versatility… Mrs. Steele’s bookplates are among the most notable of contemporaneous designs, but she also paints, carves in wood, illuminates manuscripts … Mrs. Steele might be termed a latter-day pre-Raphaelite.”
After their wedding, the two kept busy with artful work. In 1909 Brandt designed the beautiful stained-glass windows for the Herman Lieber residence at 1415 Central Ave., now the Psychic Science Spiritualist Church. In the 1910s he designed the interior, including bookcases and stained-glass windows for the principal’s office at School No. 45 at 23d Street and Park Avenue. Around the same time, he designed stained-glass windows for All Souls Unitarian Church at 1415 N. Alabama St.
During this period and until about 1930, according to Shifman, Steele also worked at H. Lieber Co. designing catalogs, picture frames and mantelpieces, among other items, for the art store.
Meanwhile, Helen McKay Steele gave birth to three sons – Horace (in 1904), Theodore (1905) and Brandt (1907). For a few years, she was probably a busy at-home mother, but in 1910, she emerged into the workplace and painted a mural at School 45 where her husband was doing the interior design work.
Then, starting in May 1911, she began to draw an illustrated page for children in The Indianapolis Star. The clever drawings and cute poems and stories, copyrighted and signed by “Helen McK. Steele,” charmed Indianapolis and those much further afield.
It gained her national notice, in fact. According to an article from New York-based Outlook Magazine, quoted in The Star in December 1911, Helen’s page was not the typical “comic supplement [with] a hideous caricature of races and types of characters which could not fail to breed in children the meanest forms of race and class prejudice.”
Oh no, it was not. Helen’s work, the magazine said, was “well-drawn, well-printed, and [a] thoroughly interesting page for children, which at once meets the needs of the eye, the love of humor and the demands of good taste.” The success of The Star’s “experiment” with Helen’s tasteful “Mother Goose fairies” page, according to the Outlook, was “a matter of national importance.”
The experiment was a success for a time, but for some reason the charming page was a Sunday staple for only two years. After that, Helen was on to other artistic ventures.
She never stopped painting and continued to show her work, always gaining accolades. In the 19-teens, the woman who had always maintained her identity as an artist and an individual, not just as a wife and mother, also became a major force in the fight to get women the vote, speaking to women’s organizations in the city about this struggle.
Helen McKay Steele’s remarkable life ended in 1947 at age 71. The headline in The Indianapolis News read: “Mrs. Helen Steele, Cultural Leader, Artist, is Dead.” The first line of the obituary properly called her the name that she had always used: “Helen McKay Steele.”
Brandt Steele survived his wife. He continued to paint and became a proficient photographer. When he died in 1967 at age 94, his obituary in The Indianapolis News referred to him as “Indianapolis Architect and son of Brown County painter, T. C. Steele.”
While his work as an architect isn’t well-documented, he did design his own home where he and Helen lived for many years – a remarkable house full of their craftsmanship at 811 East Drive, Woodruff Place.
Helen McKay Steele and Brandt Steele’s archived collection at the Indiana Historical Society contains many pieces of their work. It is one of few places where Helen’s art can be seen today outside of digitized copies of her pages in The Star. Brandt’s work is still viewable to anyone who cares to take a walk on Central Avenue, Alabama Street or East Drive.
Connie is a historian who researches and writes about design history and Indianapolis and owns C. Resources, a preservation consulting firm.