Bywaters Special Collections Artists Profile: The Lady Blacksmiths – Velma Davis Dozier & Esther Webb Houseman

Featured in the exhibition Texas Women Artists: Selections from Bywaters Special Collections, on the 2nd floor of Hamon Arts Library.

Velma Davis Dozier and Esther Webb Houseman met while taking a metalworking class from Thetis Lemon, a talented artist herself, at the College of Industrial Arts (now Texas Woman’s University) in the early 1930s.  While driving back and forth together from Dallas to Denton the two would talk about having their own studio and gallery space where they could do their own work at their own pace and without the disruption of a class bell. In 1933, they opened the Dallas School of Creative Arts located at 2714 Greenville Avenue in a building owned by Velma’s father. With the help of Lynn Ford, brother of Texas architect O’Neil Ford, they learned to make their own furniture for the reception area. The first year of operation did not show much profit, but Esther and Velma were determined to make their new school a success. Excellent instruction, a well-equipped classroom, and creative advertisement soon gained the attention of the Dallas community. In 1934 the Dallas Times Herald reported: “Miss Velma Davis and Miss Esther Webb are two young Dallas women who have established the Dallas School of Creative Arts on Greenville Avenue, and have equipped it with one of the finest laboratories in the Southwest for the practical making of jewelry, textile designs and all sorts of hand-wrought articles in silver, copper, pewter and other metals.”

In order to encourage a larger student enrollment, Velma and Esther, in addition to metalworking, also taught leather crafts, textile and fabric designs, sculpture, painting, etching, and wood engraving.  The early days were hard.  One year they only made a 15 cent profit which they took to Woolworths on lower Greenville Avenue and treated themselves to jelly beans, sharing their purchase with other Dallas artists including Otis Dozier, William Lester, Perry Nichols, and Everett Spruce.  Determined to make a better profit, Velma and Esther soon moved their enterprise upstairs to 2714 ½ Greenville Avenue and on September 29, 1935, the Dallas School of Creative Arts held its first open house and invited the public to visit the facility complete with laboratory and gift shop.  In addition to open houses, the school hosted an exhibition opening of thirty Dallas artists that included works by Charles Bowling, Jerry Bywaters, Harry Carnohan, Otis Dozier, Alexandre Hogue, E. G. Eisenlohr, William Lester, Perry Nichols, Nina Peeples, Allie Tennant, Olin Travis, and Maggie Joe Watson. The open house guest-register page reads like a “Who’s Who in Dallas Art,” containing signatures of Harry Carnohan, J. B. Martin, Verde Ligon, and twenty-nine other luminaries. It did not take long for the school to become a center for all sorts of activities – classes, exhibitions, parties, and in general, good times with other artists.  In addition to the classes and social activities, Velma and Esther continued to do their own work.  Jerry Bywaters, art critic for the Dallas Morning News, announced they received “first in metalwork” at the first annual Dallas Decorative Arts Exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts in 1935.

In 1940, at the Dallas Art Carnival, Velma and Esther sold their metalwork and cunningly hired a large burly man to wear a sandwich board that said “Lady Blacksmiths Unfair to Organized Blacksmiths!” In that same year they designed and created a catalogue that advertised their “hand wrought” work including copper salt and pepper shakers, vases, ash trays, bowls, trays, and their “copper miniature” line – at $3.60 per dozen – of small pots, vases, and tea sets no higher than 1 ½”.  The year 1940 also marked the end of their school.  Wartime prices were making it difficult for both artists to find metals for their work.  Each kept the tools she wanted, but the rest were sold to defense workers and to their former professor, Thetis Lemmon, in Denton.  Esther married John Houseman, and Velma and Otis Dozier were married at the Dallas School of Creative Arts.  In 1945, after the war was over, both Velma and Otis, and Esther and John, returned to Dallas.  Urged by local crafts people to reopen their school, Esther and Velma decided to do so but with a new name – The Craft Guild of Dallas.

The Craft Guild of Dallas continues to operate today.

Image: Dallas School of Creative Arts, ca. 1937
Courtesy of Esther Webb Houseman Collection, Bywaters Special Collections, Hamon Arts Library, Southern Methodist University

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