Painter Merv Corning’s World Of NFL Portraits, Planes And More
Merv Corning knew he was thought of as “the guy who paints old planes and football players.” The exhibit, “Reflections: The Artistic Spirit of Merv Corning” on view virtually at the Canton Museum of Art demonstrates his work extended beyond those two subjects.
Cleveland Browns Hall of Famer Ozzie Newsome [Gift of Tula Corning in loving memory of Merv Corning/Canton Museum of Art]
Corning's realistic, highly detailed paintings, watercolors and lithographs reflected the influence of one of his favorite painters, Andrew Wyeth.
"Frenchy and the Pastry Chef" [Gift of Tula Corning in loving memory of Merv Corning/Canton Museum of Art]
Born in Santa Ana, California, in 1926, Corning showed an early interest in art. World War II interrupted Corning’s senior year of high school. At age 17, he joined the Merchant Marines where he remained until the end of the war.
Corning’s art career launched when he began working as an illustrator for a Bay Area drugstore chain after returning from the service. He moved to Los Angeles in 1949 when he landed a job as a men’s fashion artist for a major department store.
Corning eventually joined a professional group of artists who pooled their talents forming the corporation Studio Artists. It was early in his time at Studio Artists he received a commission that changed his career.
“He started working on the ‘Heritage of the Air’ series for the Leach Corporation, depicting World War I pioneering airmen in combat action. There were 45 total in the series. He did numbers four through 45 and other members of the Studio Artists did the first three,” said Canton Museum of Art curator of exhibits Christy Davis.
[Christy Davis/Canton Museum of Art]
These paintings, which were eventually featured in a special exhibit at the Pentagon helped gain Corning wider recognition and led to an even bigger opportunity.
In 1966,Corning began a close association with the National Football League, which continued until his death in 2006. The NFL commissioned Corning to paint a series of portraits of League’s great players and other important figures associated with the game. Many of these works hang in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton.
[Christy Davis/Canton Museum of Art]
As Davis began assembling the NFL portraits section of the exhibit, she drew on loans from other museums as well as works from Canton’s own permanent collection, which included a painting she knew she had to include.
“When I saw that we had the (Cleveland Browns) Marion Motley , I knew that that had to be featured because he's from Canton. He played a pivotal role in our local landscape with professional sports, but also with the National Football League’s reintegration of football,” Davis said.
Browns Hall of Famer Marion Motley [Gift of Tula Corning in loving memory of Merv Corning/Canton Museum of Art]
Davis said that the NFL also assigned Corning another prestigious task.
“He was the Super Bowl artist for every Super Bowl game program starting in 1977. Looking at what the NFL is now, that's pretty impressive.”
After retiring as president of Studio Artists in 1968, Corning was able to devote his full attention to his fine art career.
"The Bath" [On loan from The Westmoreland Museum of American Art/Canton Museum of Art
“Reflections” focuses primarily on Corning’s work as a watercolorist. The exhibit also features something special that the painter’s wife Tula donated to the Canton museum along with her collection of her husband’s paintings in 2017.
[Christy Davis/Canton Musuem of Art]
“We have Merv Corning’s studio recreated in our gallery space. Part of that is the furniture that he used in his studio, which is also the furniture that he used to stage his still lifes. One of the activities that we have in the gallery is to look at his studio setup and then look at the paintings and pick up where you can see that furniture represented in the painting,” Davis said.
"Amish Garden" [Gift of Tula Corning in loving memory of Merv Corning/Canton Museum of Art]
Davis came to know about Corning during her time at the Pro Football Hall of Fame where she worked before coming the museum. She said curating this exhibit gave her a much better appreciation for the breadth of his work.
“He has such a broad representation of style theme, and his whole retrospective of his career as an artist is represented in this exhibit. It’s impressive. You have landscapes, you have portraiture, you have aviation, animals, everything. He was just a well-rounded, talented artist, “Davis said.
[Canton Museum of Art]