Who’s Who in Denton County: Modernist Artist and Art Educator Toni LaSelle

“I find painting and teaching are complementary, although they are opposite in what they require of me. Each has sparked the other.” -Toni LaSelle

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Dorothy LaSelle

Most people familiar with the history of TWU may recognize the name of Dorothy Antoinette (Toni) LaSelle as the Director of the Little Chapel in the Woods Art Project. However, Professor LaSelle’s contributions to TWU are even more far-reaching than that one project. Not only was Professor LaSelle a pioneer in the TWU art department, but she was also a successful modern artist in her own right.

Toni LaSelle was born in 1901 to LeRoy and Mattie LaSelle. She refused to tell anyone the exact day of her birth. However, we do know that she was born in the small town of Beatrice, Nebraska as one of seven children. Beatrice was a town steeped in the fine arts, which surely influenced young Toni. She always had a penchant for drawing and by age eleven, she was taking watercolor lessons with her artist aunt.

Toni attended high school in her home town but left for Nebraska Wesleyan University to obtain her bachelors in English with a minor in Science. Although she reportedly loved her classes and her major, in her senior year of college, Toni was introduced to modernism through the work of the Post-Impressionists and the Cubists. After completing her bachelor’s, Toni went on to the University of Chicago, where she oscillated between continuing with English or pursuing art. Being in Chicago, Toni was surrounded by the arts. She would save up her dessert money to go to the local museums and look at the art work that inspired her. Toni completed her masters in Art in 1926.

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Composition-Still Life. Toni LaSelle. 1947. In the permanent collection of the Dallas Museum of Art.

After her masters, Toni lived in Europe from July 1927 to January 1928, experiencing first-hand the art of Europe. Not long after returning to America, Toni was contacted by the University Placement Bureau to interview for a girl’s college in Texas. Soon, she began teaching at TWU, then the College of Industrial Arts. When a staff-member died in 1930 or 1931, Toni was asked to expand their Appreciation of Art course into the History of Art. In 1935, Toni requested that more than one course in the History of Art be taught. She also arranged for the Bauhaus artist and teacher László Moholy-Nagy to come for a lecture in 1931 and a workshop in 1942.

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Space Composition. Toni LaSelle. 1949. In the permanent collection of the Dallas Museum of Art.

As an art historian and expert on various European modernist artists, Toni would give lectures at museums. She also had a large hand in organizing the 1947 exhibition on Hans Hoffmann at the Dallas Museum of Art.

Until her retirement in 1972, Toni taught classes in design, drawing, painting, and art history. She was an instrumental figure in shaping the art department and establishing the Art History program at TWU. Every summer until 1993, Toni traveled to the artist community of Provincetown, Massachusetts. She died in Denton in 2002 at the age of 100.

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Toni LaSelle sitting in the Little Chapel in the Woods


Sources

Dorothy Antoinette LaSelle: An Oral History. Conducted in 1994 and 1995 by Dawn Letson.

DMA page for Composition-Still Life

DMA page for Space Composition

Wikipedia page on Toni LaSelle.

The Little Chapel-in-the-Woods

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The exterior of the Chapel

The Little Chapel-in-the-Woods is nestled in a small forested area on the campus of the Texas Woman’s University. The small, intimate feel of the chapel as well as the ambiance of the surrounding flora make the chapel one of the most sought-after wedding venues in North Texas.

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Interior of the chapel with a view of the Mother window above the apse

The Chapel was designed by O’Neil Ford and his partner, fellow architect, Arch Swank. The building was commissioned as a project of the National Youth Administration, a subdivision of the Works Progress Administration. The WPA and NYA were enacted by president Franklin D. Roosevelt in order to combat the economic hardships and low morale that were caused by the Great Depression.

The director of the Chapel Arts Project was Dorothy Antoinette LaSelle, also known as Toni LaSelle, an accomplished modernist painter who studied at The School of Design is Chicago, declared to be the “new Bauhaus”. LaSelle taught part time at the Texas State College for Women (now TWU) until 1928 but the position turned permanent when she became instrumental in founding the school’s Art History program.

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Toni LaSelle, faculty photo

The president of the college, L. H. Hubbard, wanted a space where students could mediate and engage in reflective prayer. He wanted a space that students could get away from the swiftly moving outside world and the confusion that came along with so much change, even if only for a moment.

LaSelle oversaw more than 300 female art students who worked on the chapel. Not only did they design the beautiful stained glass windows but also the light fixtures, vestibule floor, mosaics, rugs, doors, and the carvings on the pulpit and pews.

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Designer Marilyn Yates and Dorothy LaSelle in front of the Rose window drawing. Photo from the TWU archives.

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Student working on the drawing for the Motherhood window. Photo from the TWU archives.

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Billie Culwell carving pews. Photo from the TWU archives.

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Adeline Lee weaving carpet. Photo from the TWU archives.

There are eleven stained glass windows in the Chapel. Nine of them, in the nave and the chancel, depict the theme of “Women Ministering to Human Needs” through their various services and professions. On the left side of the chapel is Nursing, Teaching, Science, and Social Service. On the right is Speech, Literature, Dance, and Music. The large window above the altar depicts woman as Mother, framed by yucca plants, a symbol of woman’s resilience and ability to grow and flourish in the harshest environs. Next is the nonrepresentational Rose window. According to LaSelle, it is “an abstraction reflecting woman’s joy in the physical world about her” and it draws specifically on Texan colors and aesthetics. And finally, located in the vestibule, is the small Signature window. This window depicts the builders, donors, and decorators that contributed to the building of the chapel. Included, among many others, are the two architects as well as the president Hubbard.

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The Motherhood Window

The chapel was dedicated in 1939 by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. At the time of the dedication, the chapel was far from complete. Only one window was completely installed. The other windows either had sketches or cardboard in place of the window.

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Interior view of the chapel from the apse

The windows and building were completed in 1941 and since then, the Chapel has lived on as as a place of contemplation, love, and beauty.

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Toni LaSelle inside the Chapel


Sources

Little Chapel-in-the-Woods: iconography of stained glass windows by Dorothy Antoinette LaSelle

Dorothy Antoinette LaSelle: An Oral History interviewed by Dawn Letson

“The Little Chapel-in-the-Woods” by Juanita Duenez-Lazo in Traditions: Texas Woman’s University

O’Neil Ford Narrative History

Wikipedia entry on the Little Chapel-in-the-Woods

Encyclopedia entry on the National Youth Administration

Frieze page on Dorothy Antoinette LaSelle