Will Vawter
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John William Vawter, better known as Will Vawter was born in Boone County, West Virginia on April 13, 1871.  He was mostly a self-taught artist, but did attend the John Heron Art Institute in Indianapolis and the Art Students League in New York.  He first started doing illustrations for the Indianapolis Sentinel in 1891 and soon appeared in many other newspapers and magazines.  He also worked on a children’s book, “The Rabbit’s Ransom” with his sister.  He then met James Whitcomb Riley in 1893 and became his illustrator for the next thirty years. 


During his time working with James Whitcomb Riley, he met Mary H. Murray.  She was interested in James at first, but when she realized he did not return the feelings, she turned her attention to Will Vawter.  They were married around 1906.  As a result of working so closely with James Whitcomb Riley, Will began picking up some of his bad habits including drinking.  Mary decided to do something about it and when she discovered that alcohol was not sold legally in Brown County, she moved them there.  They purchased 57 acres in 1908 on Town Hill, a half mile south of Nashville.


The local residents loved Will, but they did not accept Mary.  They saw her as “eccentric and bitter” (Letsinger-Miller, 38).  She filed many lawsuits against anyone who offender her in any way.  Will threatened to leave her if she continued to file lawsuits.  In 1923, he divorced her.  She kept the farm and he rented two rooms in downtown Nashville.  He used one room for his living quarters and the other for his studio.


Will became interested in oil painting and was soon as accomplished at oil painting as he was at illustrating and print-making.  He won many prizes and the Hoosier Salon and had his own exhibit there in 1932.  His new studio became a great tourist attraction and onlookers constantly were watching him at work.  Finally he began locking the door to keep them out so he could concentrate on his work. He also began painting from inside his car so he could work in peace away from people watching him.  He used the ceiling of the car to clean out his paint brushes while he worked.


Will soon began spending time with long-time friend Ola Genolin who was the town’s first druggist’s widow.  Many of his friends were afraid he would let her get away, so they sort-of conned him into proposing to her.  They were married in September 1923.  They built a studio and home northeast of town and traveled frequently while Will kept on painting.  He loved the movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and went to see if seven times at the Nashville movie house. 


Will Vawter was great with kids, but never had any of his own.  He often played checkers and chess at Miller’s drug store in Nashville.  Then in 1926, when T.C. Steele died, Will was the one who took Steele’s ashes to his burial site.  He was well loved by all and was a charter member for the Brown County Art Gallery Association.  His death was quite a shock to the residents of Peaceful Valley.  John William Vawter died suddenly of pneumonia on February 11, 1941.




Letsinger-Miller, Lyn. The Artists of Brown County. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994. 37-42.


Nesbit, M. Joanne, ed., Barbara Judd, comp. Those Brown County Artists: The Ones Who Came the Ones Who Stayed the Ones Who Moved On. Nashville: Nana’s Book, 1993. 219-220.

County Art Colony

The Brown County Art Colony was formed in the early 1900s by artists who were attracted by the undisturbed picturesque landscape known as Peaceful Valley.  T.C. Steele was the first to become a resident of the county when he purchased 200 acres near Belmont. Adolph Shulz is considered to be the founder of the Brown County Art Colony.  He began visiting Brown County in 1908 and in 1917 became a permanent resident. Both Adolph Shulz and T.C. Steele influenced other artists and many began building cabins and moving to the area.  Will Vawter and Gustave Baumann were among the first to make Brown County their home.  Other artists such as Charles Dahlgreen, Lucie Hartrath, and L.O. Griffith came from Chicago and by the early 1930s there were at least eighteen artists with permanent homes in Brown County.  Artists such as C. Curry Bohm, Edward K. Williams, Ada Walter Shulz, Carl Graf, V.J. Cariani, Gustav Baumann, Will Vawter, Dale Bessire, Georges LaChance, Marie Goth, Leota Loop, Adam Emory Albright, Olive Rush, and Alexis Fournier flourished and created the Brown County Art Colony nearly 100 years ago.


Letsinger-Miller, Lyn. The Artists of Brown County. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994.


Will Vawter


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