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Time Machine: Artist Marvin Cone’s ghosts
Who was the ‘Uncle Ben’ who haunted so many of his paintings?
Who was Uncle Ben, and why did artist Marvin Cone create paintings of unsettling rooms that often included the eerie man with a bushy black beard?
Winnifred Cone, widow of the longtime Coe College art professor, said in 1966 that her husband had had an Uncle Ben, “who was the inspiration for the man in the houses. He used to terrify Marvin when he was a boy.”
She thought the dour woman in some of his paintings, like “Dear Departed,” must have been “Mrs. Uncle Ben.”
Gazette columnist Frank Nye wrote about Cone in 1946, noting the artist and Coe professor was “a man whose affinity for a haunted house is much akin to that exhibited by a small boy for a mongrel dog.”
“He loves haunted houses. He simply can’t pass an abandoned structure if the slightest suspicion of haunt hovers over it. He gravitates to such places. He enters them. Once inside, he usually sees something he wants to paint.
“Probably his intense liking for mystery stories has something to do with it.”
Cone named one of his paintings — of a dilapidated, abandoned, haunted-looking structure — “Ben’s Barn.” Another haunting painting, suggesting abandonment and eeriness, was titled “This Was the Room.”
Cone’s “Dear Departed,” painted in 1946, showed a room in an abandoned house with an old portrait on the wall and a dour-faced woman. It was chosen for a New York exhibition of 260 Paintings of the Year.
The artist apparently developed a sense of the macabre early on. While a student at the old Washington High School (where the Cedar Rapids Public Library now sits), he had a hand in arranging a skeleton at the desk of Principal Abbie Abbott.
A year off
Cone joined the Coe College art faculty in 1919 and became a professor in 1934. He painted still lifes, then landscapes, then clouds, then barns and circus scenes.
His eerie interiors began in 1938, when a group of art patrons and businesspeople, headed by the Rev. Melvin L. Welke, president of the Cedar Rapids Art Association, banded together to sponsor Cone for a sabbatical. It was his first break from teaching in 19 years.
Cone set up shop on the top floor of the Granby Building at Second Street and Third Avenue SE. By February 1939, Cone had completed a dozen paintings and some charcoal drawings.
When a Gazette reporter asked him what project he was working on, he said, “Thunder with that word ‘project.’ You just keep painting. The first thing you know, you paint a good painting.”
Ghosts not ‘trivial’
During that year off, though, Cone had developed an interest in ghosts.
“I don’t think a ghost is a trivial matter,” he said. “People all over the world know about ghosts. A ghost is international.”
Pointing to three ghost paintings in his studio, he said, “I have never seen a ghost. But I like ghosts.”
In one of them, “Anniversary,” a floating ghost stands by an open stairway door. Cone thought it was the best of his ghost paintings.
In October 1939, the Art Association’s gallery in the Carnegie Public Library featured the results of Cone’s creative year — 38 new works plus 10 more, including ones from Cone’s five weeks in Mexico and two of the ghost paintings. A similar painting, “Haunted House,” also was displayed.
A Cone exhibit in Omaha’s Joslyn Museum in 1945 was noted for its display of his Uncle Ben paintings.
“There’s a feeling of subdued drama in the mood of these empty rooms — empty, that is, except for Uncle Ben,” an Omaha World-Herald reviewer wrote. “Uncle Ben is an old-fashioned family portrait in massive frame, and he appears, with his long beard, in all of this series. His expression varies from picture to picture, now sly and crafty, now mellow and amused.”
By 1947, Cone had pretty much abandoned his paintings of clouds and barns to focus on rooms with strange lights, eerie portraits hanging on the wall and ghosts like the one in “The Doorman.”
A January 1950 exhibit at the library gallery featured Cone paintings owned by Cedar Rapidians, with Cone adding his more recent works, including his haunted houses.
“I have been painting haunted houses for the last 10 years,” he said. “I paint them mainly for shows, not to sell.”
After that, Cone again moved on, this time to abstract paintings that, he said, “won’t be haunted houses.”