Elizabeth C. Tower (1920-2013), Red Display, 1979; oil on canvas, Overall: 40 1/4 x 36 1/4 in. (102.2 x 92.1 cm)Frame: 40 1/4 x 36 1/4 in. (102.2 x 92.1 cm); Gift of Tom and Penny Flickinger, 1989

Elizabeth C. Tower (1920-2013), Red Display, 1979; oil on canvas, Overall: 40 1/4 x 36 1/4 in. (102.2 x 92.1 cm)Frame: 40 1/4 x 36 1/4 in. (102.2 x 92.1 cm); Gift of Tom and Penny Flickinger, 1989

Remembering Elizabeth C. Tower (1920-2013)

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Elizabeth C. Tower, known as Liz to friends and colleagues, was both an accomplished artist and an extraordinary philanthropist. She and her husband Peter have been deeply involved with the Burchfield Penney Art Center for decades, providing grant funds for a unique dual curatorial/educational position, contributing very generously to the capital campaign of the new building, donating artwork to the collection, and providing sage advice during the museum’s growth. Mrs. Tower passed away in her East Aurora home on May 2, 2013

One of the first significant initiatives supported by the Peter and Elizabeth C. Tower Foundation began in 1996. Through the “Elizabeth and Peter Tower Program for Special Needs Art Education” at Buffalo State College, the Burchfield Penney Art Center started a multi-year program that served as a national model for training professional museum educators to develop and implement programs to serve special needs audiences. The program enabled specially appointed Education Curator Lisa Abia-Smith to work with graduate students at Buffalo State College and teachers in Western New York schools to develop, implement, and disseminate an interdisciplinary curriculum and complementary learning resources, including slide sets and gallery guides, for fourth grade students that could be adapted to all levels and learning styles. Art created by students involved with the project was exhibited in the Center’s Education Corridor.

In November 2008, the Burchfield Penney Art Center opened its new state-of-the-art, 84,000 square-foot building designed by Gwathmey Siegel & Associates Architects LLC. The Towers’ primary patronage in the capital campaign is recognized in the name of the Peter and Elizabeth C. Tower Auditorium, which has been the perfect venue for concerts, poetry readings, lectures, demonstrations, symposia, and panel discussions. It is used for Burchfield Penney events as well as college and community programs. The auditorium accommodates 156 people.

For the 2008 inaugural exhibition The Art of Western New York: A Historical Context, Nancy Weekly selected Liz Tower’s painting Birmingham (1963) as one of the most important works in the museum’s collection. The exhibition was presented in the Margaret L. Wendt Gallery from November 21, 2008 through September 27, 2009.

A retrospective exhibition titled, Liz Tower: A Selection of Paintings was held in the Peter A. and Mary Lou Vogt Gallery and Alumni Gallery at Canisius College from August 26 through September 30, 2005. It was accompanied by an exhibition catalog by Professor Albert L. Michaels, Ph.D. (now an associate curator at the Burchfield Penney Art Center and a member of the history and honors faculties at Buffalo State).

Four years later, Dr. Michaels curated Liz Tower, a solo exhibition presented in the R. William Doolittle Gallery at the Burchfield Penney Art Center from December 5, 2009 through June 13, 2010. It included art from the museum’s collection as well as works from private collections.

In 2007, the Buffalo Seminary recognized Liz Tower’s artistry with an exhibition of works from the Burchfield Penney’s collection and a lecture about her career by Nancy Weekly. The following text is the script for Weekly’s presentation that includes both a biography and her observations about the paintings. As we reflect on this history, we will remember the warmth and generosity of an elegant woman who made a great impact on our museum as well as the whole Western New York community:

Elizabeth C. Tower has always been interested and involved in the arts. Known to her friends as Liz, she painted and exhibited for many years with a group of women called “The Oakland Artists.” The group included Nancy Jewett, Grace McKendry, Virginia Tillou, and others. Tower also created collages and used collage strategy for juxtaposing areas of different, vibrant colors for balance or contrast.

Elizabeth Clarke was born on February 23, 1920 in Mount Vernon, New York. Her mother, Emma Elizabeth Vought, was a graduate of Hunter College, and Liz’s maternal grandfather was a contractor whose projects included the Flatiron Building in Manhattan and what would become Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. Liz’s father, Major Gilmore David Clarke (1892-1982), was a landscape architect who became dean at the School of Architecture and Planning (1938-1950) at Cornell University. He worked closely with Robert Moses, the urban planner and parks commissioner who changed the infrastructure of many areas throughout New York State.

Thanks to research conducted by Dr. Albert L. Michaels, a history professor at the University at Buffalo and regional art collector, who wrote a brief biography of Elizabeth Tower last year, we now know more of the details about her life. After graduating from high school in Pelham, New York, Elizabeth entered Cornell University in 1938. There she met her future husband, Peter Tower, who had come from Youngstown, New York and they were married in 1942. Beginning in 1943, Peter served in the U.S. Army. Elizabeth joined him in Texas where he was based for two years. They returned to Western New York in 1946, after Peter’s return from a year’s service in Europe and his Army discharge. “Peter went to work for his family’s customs brokerage, C.J. Tower and Sons. He later bought the company and turned it into one of the largest and most successful companies in the area.” (Michaels, 2006, p. 5) “The Towers have two daughters, Molly (b. 1944) and Cindy (b. 1947), and four grandchildren. They have lived in this region throughout the last 61 years and have become well-known in local business and philanthropic circles.”

Liz Tower’s arts background really developed through friendships and instruction from artists in this region such as Ruth Gay, a Niagara Falls painter and ceramicist, and Sam Russo, a painter and sculptor in Lewiston. She established her first major studio in 1950 on the third floor of the new home overlooking the Niagara River between Lewiston and Youngstown. The studio provided an excellent environment in terms of light and space, and the surrounding coastal environment provided inspirational subjects, such as we see in Seagull (Self-Portrait), 1972, which was selected to travel to Kanazawa, Japan for a sister city exhibition of 14 works by Buffalo artists. During her career, she exhibited frequently in the region and won numerous awards.

In 1972 the Towers moved to Delaware Avenue in Buffalo after their daughters had married. In 1988, they moved to East Aurora. Each home had a large studio where Liz worked in different media and experimented with different styles ranging from organic abstraction, as seen in many landscapes, to social commentary to still life and geometric abstraction.

Most of Tower’s artworks now in the Burchfield Penney Art Center’s collection were published a handsome catalogue titled, Liz Tower: A Selection of Paintings. It accompanied her retrospective exhibition held in the Peter A. and Mary Lou Vogt Gallery and Alumni Gallery at Canisius College from August 26 through September 30, 2005. Dr. Michaels contributed “A Brief Biography” and Rev. Michael F. Tunney, who also paints, wrote about her work.

In that exhibition, Birmingham, painted in 1963, immediately stood out to me among all the other works as an important painting to acquire for the collection because of its socio-political statement about the Civil Rights Movement. 1963 was a turning point, especially in Birmingham. On April 16, Martin Luther King was arrested for his involvement in anti-segregation protests. Televised news reports in May of police using fire hoses and police dogs against black demonstrators stirred more sympathy for the civil rights cause. Tower’s painting appears to be a reaction to these events and possibly others occurring in the following months. On June 12, NAACP field secretary, Medgar Evers, was murdered outside his home in Jackson, Mississippi. On August 28 around 200,000 people participated in the “March on Washington” and heard Martin Luther King deliver his famous “I Have a Dream” speech by the Lincoln Memorial. On September 15 in Birmingham four young girls (Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Addie Mae Collins) were killed by a bomb while attending Sunday school at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, which had served as a location for civil rights meetings. Riots erupted, leading to the deaths of two more black youths. Tower’s depiction of two prone black figures symbolizes the period’s abuse.

A very different painting, Growing Season (1964), is currently on loan and could not be included today. It is a romantic, atmospheric checkerboard abstraction of a landscape in greens and golds. Your eyes follow the softly undulating hills of Western New York through a seemingly limitless tract of rich, productive farmland toward a foggy distance.

Red Ladder (1968) is a prime example of Tower’s abstraction. We recognize a can of white paint sitting on top of a ladder, but the perspective is skewed in a semi-Cubist fashion. The objects are shown simultaneously straight on, from above, and from the side. A large swath of white in the background of the undefined, dark space suggests a wall, or canvas, being covered with white paint, covering blue and pale sage green. The arbitrary highlights in red and blue provide rhythm. The title, Red Ladder, belies our own perceptions that other colors dominate the ladder, and only one leg is red. This jolt of vibrant red speaks to the spirit of the piece. I suggest it reflects cleverly on Piet Mondrian’s (1872-1944) early twentieth-century compositions that reduced painting to its bare essentials: the primary colors of the color wheel (red, blue and yellow), with white and black. We might also free-associate with the common phrase, “climbing the ladder of success,” to imply that Tower places painting above all.

A loaned work, Seagull (Self-Portrait) (1972), represents a lone white bird standing on a large gray boulder, facing a red horizon and black night sky. Painted in flat planes of solid color, the minimal approach contrasts with the more painterly approach of Tower’s other canvases. An eerie silence pervades the painting, no doubt provoked by the exaggerated, surreal colors of the stark landscape, which the artist noted is Georgian Bay in Northern Ontario (which has inspired Canadian artists known as The Group of Seven and others). The gull looks away from us to the distance. Since this was painted the same year that the Towers moved from their Niagara River home to Buffalo, perhaps the subject is truly nostalgia, a bittersweet remembrance of decades in one home while anticipating a new chapter that is unknown.

In Red Display (1979), the small areas of red and adjacent forms in yellow seem to float above the face of the painting. Meanwhile, cooler blues and whites recede into a neutral background, slightly curved like the earth’s surface seen from a great height. This is an example of Tower’s non-objective abstraction. We cannot recognize distinct subjects, yet there is a sense of horizon line. Using stream of consciousness associations, I imagine the colors to suggest bright banners or streamers attached to mast lines or spars on a sailboat, blowing in a lake breeze, as we float in navy blue water toward misty, pure white light. It represents a joyous moment filled with action and contemplation. Still, it can also be appreciated as an expressive flourish of colors and gesture that reflect the energy of the painter. What does it suggest to you?

Nancy Weekly
Head of Collections and the Charles Cary Rumsey Curator
Burchfield Penney Art Center at Buffalo State