Nude study of Stowitts,
by Nicolas Muray, NYC, 1922.
Stowitts at easel
in Paris, 1926.
Stowitts with boys visiting
Boston Museum of Fine Arts, 1931.
Stowitts in benefit performance,
Monte Carlo Opera House, 1923.
Stowitts as the Satyr,
"The Magician," Metro, 1926.
Centerfold of Folies Bergère
program, Paris 1924.
Stowitts in Cambodian
Temple Dance, Paris, 1921.
Stowitts with bronze sculpture of his
Balinese lover, Los Angeles, 1944.
Nude study of Stowitts
by Nicolas Muray, NYC 1922.
Stowitts made his entry into the world on June 26, 1892, born
in his parents' humble apartment above a hardware store in Rushville,
Nebraska. The family then settled in the Black Hills of South
Dakota, a geographical region sacred to the Sioux Nation. His
father found work as a clerk for a gold mining company in Lead
where Stowitts attended public school. He studied the classical
curriculum of the era - Virgil, ancient history, mathematics,
German and English literature. His education as an artist took
place outside the classroom, in the Lakota encampments beyond
Lead, where Jay's true friends lived. These Native American people
allowed the blue-eyed, blond youth into their world where he experienced
the pace of "Indian Time", and learned the power that
dwells in nature and mythology.
Following his graduation from high school the Stowitts family
completed their western trek and settled in Los Angeles. The Golden
State provided a richness and diversity of life which became both
point of departure and a point of return for his fantastic career
in the arts. With meager savings and promise of scholarships,
Stowitts entered the University of California at Berkeley in August,
Across the Bay, "The Jewel City" was rising phoenix-like
from the devastation of earthquake and fire. It was in San Francisco
when Stowitts became captivated by his first glimpse of ballet
at a performance of Danish ballerina Adeline Genée and
her partner, Alexandre Volinine, with whom, ironically, he would
one day compete for accolades. Stowitts began private ballet class
immediately thereafter and learned the basic rudiments of classical
technique. Like Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis and America's other
great dance pioneers, he worked with what was close at hand. By
his senior year Stowitts was an accomplished dancer, performing
in theaters and private homes of ambitious society hostesses.
Anna Pavlova discovered Stowitts dancing at the Greek Theater
in Berkeley in the summer of 1915 and invited him to join her
ballet company. He canceled graduate studies at Harvard and embarked
on an adventure of excitement and romance that took him to the
major stages of the Americas and Europe where stardom awaited.
He left Pavlova's company to settle in Paris and pursue a solo
career. Now a star in his own right he appeared in London, Stockholm,
Madrid and New York. In Paris Stowitts starred in the 1924 Folies-Bergère
with dazzling costumes by Erté.
Few dancers have the courage to retire in their prime, especially
when "trained down to racehorse shape," as Stowitts
described himself. Even fewer have the courage at age 33 to launch
themselves in an entirely new medium. By 1925, he was creating
a career for himself as a painter from his studio on Montmartre's
Avenue de Clichy. From his experiments with palette and brush
ambitious collections of paintings soon followed: The Golden Age
of Dance; The Fall of the Angels; and The Work of Stowitts for
Fay Yen Fah, costumes and stage designs for a Chinese opera.
In 1926 Stowitts made his first film, "The Magician",
for Metro Studios. With earnings from this venture he was able
to underwrite an odyssey to the East where he lived and painted
in Indonesia and India. He returned to Paris in 1931 and accompanied
his Asian collections on a tour of major museums in Europe and
the United States. In Hollywood he was The Sun God in Garbo's
"The Painted Veil" for MGM in 1934.
Next he completed 55 paintings of nude athletes entitled American
Champions which he accompanied to Berlin for exhibition during
the 1936 Olympic Games. The paintings caused a sensation, attracting
crowds and critical acclaim in the German press. The depiction
of Black and Jewish athletes, however, offended Nazi sensibilities
and the notorious Alfred Rosenburg closed the exhibit. Using his
last funds to ship the paintings safely back to America, Stowitts
became stranded in Berlin where he remained for more than a year
before returning to California at the end of 1937.
The German interlude marked the end of his career in the public
spotlight as war wreaked havoc on cultures he knew and loved.
Stowitts grew a beard befitting a sage. And so he was. His scholarly
background in mathematics and symbolism inspired Stowitts to use
the language of sacred geometry to illuminate in paint invisible
energies of higher consciousness. Stowitts then began painting
The Labors of Hercules and chose Steve Reeves as his model. Sadly,
the artist became too ill to compete the work. (Ironically, Reeves
would go on to fame and fortune in Italy in film roles, including
Hercules, and other mythological heroes.)
Stowitts died peacefully in February, 1953. His body was cremated
and the ashes spread to the four winds as he wished. The paintings
he had created over a lifetime were hidden away, deep in museum
storage and private collections, where their brilliant colors
and records of vanishing cultures offered silent rebuke to the
materialism they were meant to protest. Recounting the accomplishments
of Stowitts is not the entire record of his remarkable story,
even though art occupied the greater part of his life. Like Walt
Whitman before him, (and Richard Rodriguez today), Stowitts was
uniquely American, and richly deserves a place of honor in our
national pantheon of homosexual heroes whose contributions to
humanity remain timeless.
Photographs Courtesy of The Stowitts Museum
and Library Copyright 1998. All rights reserved by Anne Holliday
Stowitts Museum and Library.