The Airbrushed Archives: Uncovering Cecilia Terone's Story in Art and Letters - Pink Flamingos

The Airbrushed Archives: Uncovering Cecilia Terone's Story in Art and Letters

Embarking on a new venture always comes with its share of surprises, but I hardly expected to stumble upon the treasure trove of history that was delivered to me amongst the crates full of vintage prints. It began when I was sorting through some of the smaller boxes sent by my stepmom, Judy Mayes, which contained mementos and business records from Pink Flamingos—our family’s vintage print venture. The boxes had been stored at my dad's old business, Florin Tractor Parts, and though they were a bit dusty from their long hibernation, the contents inside were remarkably well-preserved.

angled shot of one of Cecilia Terone's letters set atop some of her 1943 lithographs

Among these artifacts, I found a collection of letters that immediately piqued my curiosity. They were correspondence between my mother, Victoria Suzanne Mayes, and Cecilia Terone. Born Cecilia Genevieve Weidhaas on July 26, 1916,  Cecilia's life was a canvas stretched across the tumultuous backdrop of the 20th century. The letters began mere months before the passing of her husband, Alfred, in October 1979, opening a window into her world and the dialogue she shared with my mother.

After looking through some of the correspondences with others from that era, I developed an appreciation for Cele’s penmanship—clear and elegant, a rare quality that made delving into these letters a smooth journey. All of her letters to my mother were signed "Cele". Reading through these pages, I felt a mix of excitement and gratitude. Here was a vivid, personal account of an American woman artist’s life and experiences, preserved in her own hand, now entrusted to me as I set out to continue the legacy of celebrating vintage art.

 Washington Square, NYU, 1936

 Washington Square, NYU, 1936 (photograph by Berenice Abbott: source)

Born into a world where economic hardship was the norm, Cecilia and her husband, Alfred, found themselves at the mercy of the Great Depression's ruthless grip. Trained in art education at NYU, they faced a barren job market that left art teachers, especially married couples, with few prospects. It was against this backdrop that their journey as commercial artists began.

Their medium of choice, the airbrush, was a modern marvel at the time, allowing them to produce works with a unique blend of precision and fluidity. The Terones' art became a fixture in the 'art' showrooms of Fifth Avenue, offering original designs that captured the essence of the era. Cecilia's work, from the elegant depictions of societal ladies to the intricate floral arrangements, echoed the Art Deco movement's influence and the public's desire for beauty amidst bleakness.

Aerograph super 63 vintage airbrush model

Aerograph super 63 vintage model airbrush. Source: By I, Baselmans, CC BY-SA 3.0

Cele's letters offer a candid account of the struggles and triumphs of their artistic endeavors. They speak of the early days, creating originals and reproductions with stencils by night, their labor punctuated by the hum of the compressor—an interruption in the silence that eventually drove them to a loft space on 23rd Street. There, the volume of their production increased, but the financial rewards diminished, a common tale for artists of the time.

An image of a man and a woman in a New York studio painting a tropical flower and bird picture using airbrushes. The setting is the 1930s.

Imagining Cele and Alfred creating their airbrushed artwork in their New York loft on 23rd Street.

In New York, they had made their mark with original designs that caught the eye of a frame maker keen on showcasing unique artwork to better sell his frames. But as the whispers of war grew louder and the economy tightened like a vice, their prospects dimmed. The Terones were compelled to seek new horizons. Borin Art, with its innovative Vivitone process and high-quality lithographs, offered not just employment but a new canvas for their artistic aspirations. This move marked a significant shift in their lives, from the airbrushed lofts of NYC to the heart of America's Midwest, where they would leave an indelible mark on the era's commercial art landscape.

original 1943 Borin Art mailer showcasing some of Terone's artwork

Borin Art advertisement mailer showcasing florals and colonial figures by Cecilia Terone.

Borin Art Products Corp, based in Chicago, was active during the 1920s to 1940s and specialized in producing high-quality lithographs. These lithographs were notable for their artistic quality and the use of the Vivitone etching process, which involved applying each color with an intaglio plate. This process allowed the prints to retain the depth and blended colors of the original artwork. Borin Art Products Corp's lithographs appealed to a broad audience, featuring artwork that was attractive to both men and women.

The company's prints included works by well-known artists as well as artists directly employed by Borin. For instance, there were prints by R. Atkinson Fox from the 1920s and works by the Terones, who produced original airbrushed artwork that was then mass-produced by Borin​. These prints were often used on movie sets and TV shows like "I Love Lucy." Today, prints from the Terones, in perfect condition, typically sell for about $30 to $50 each​.

Cecilia's work, however, was more than a mere means to an end; it represented the ingenuity and adaptability of artists facing the adversity of their times. Alongside Alfred, she trained a staff of women in Chicago, reproducing their art with airbrush and stencils—a poignant reminder of the era's gender dynamics and the role of women in the art world.

copy of original beautytone print ad from 1943, showcasing some of the prints for sale
1943 advertisement from the May Company of the "beautytone" prints.

The narrative of Cecilia's art is intertwined with the stories of her colleagues, such as the skilled Webster, whose flamboyant flamingos adorned gold boards with flair. Yet, despite the commercial success, Cecilia's reflections reveal a dissonance between the commercial art they produced and the fine art to which she aspired. Her soul yearned for the old masters that filled her childhood home, even as she mastered the art of the popular print.

As World War II ushered in change, Cecilia's life took new directions, but her artistic soul never waned. Her later years saw her passion bloom in the realms of antiques and doll repair, showcasing the versatility and enduring spirit of a true artist.

Terone Antique Doll Hospital Letterhead

Cele's letters additionally provide a fascinating glimpse into the economics of art and living during the Depression Era and beyond. Here's a summary of the various prices and timeframes mentioned throughout her letters:

  • Artwork Pricing: Cecilia detailed the declining compensation for their artwork over time. Initially, they were paid $1.00 apiece for larger pictures, but this decreased to 75 cents, then 60 cents, and finally to 35 cents during the uncertain economic conditions of the time. This decline reflects the broader economic challenges artists faced during the Depression Era and underscores the value of their work against the backdrop of financial hardship.
  • Workshop Rent: The rent for their loft on 23rd Street, where they moved to minimize noise complaints, was $30.00 a month. This price is indicative of the 1930s and early 1940s, during which the cost of living was significantly lower than today, but still considerable for artists earning such small sums per piece.
  • Wages: The wage they offered to the "girls" they hired to help produce the pictures was between $3.00 and $5.00 a week, which was a common low wage for the time. Later, when they moved to Chicago to work for Borin Art Products, the wages for their staff increased to $12.00 a week, and Cecilia and Alfred's own salary was raised to $90.00 a week for the two of them, reflecting slightly better economic times or the larger scale of the Borin company.
  • House Rent: In Chicago, Cecilia mentioned renting a house for $75.00 a month, again pointing to the era's cost of living and the affordability of housing during that period, particularly in the context of their earnings.
  • Inflation and Comparison to Modern Times: Cecilia amusingly compares past and present prices, mentioning bread that was once 12 cents a loaf having increased to 65 cents, illustrating the rise in cost of living from the late 1930s to 1980. I noted this week (December 29th, 2023) that the store brand bread is $1.36.
  • Product Pricing Over Time: In a 1981 letter, Cecilia reminisces about the original sale prices of their artworks. She enclosed a brochure from 1942 showing their 15"x18" designs that sold for $2.98 each, and a large cockatoo painting that was priced at $5.77. These prices offer a window into the market value of decorative art during the early 1940s.
  • Artwork as Collectibles: By 1980, Cecilia notes that pictures once sold for $15.00 framed were then valued at $150.00, a tenfold increase, demonstrating the growing collectible market for vintage prints and the nostalgia-driven appreciation of their value.

Cecilia's reflections on pricing provide not only a record of her own art's valuation but also serve as a marker of the economic conditions of the time, from the depths of the Great Depression to the inflation rates of the 1970s and 1980s. Her letters are a testament to the fluctuating worth of art in the American economy and a personal account of the financial realities faced by artists in those eras.

These letters are more than historical artifacts; they provide a tangible link to the past and showcase the resilience and creativity of artists like Cecilia Terone. This deeper understanding of her life through her writings has enhanced my appreciation for her prints. Sharing her story aims to extend this appreciation to others, fostering a new-found respect for her work as a female American artist.

Letter from Cele Terone on Terone's Doll Hospital letterhead, set on top of several of Cecilia's 1943 beautytone prints

For those interested in exploring Cecilia Terone's prints, a select assortment is available, including the 1943 Beautytone florals and vintage depictions of women and couples. You can access this collection by clicking the link accompanying the image below. Initially characterized as "colonial," these pieces align remarkably well with today's "cottagecore" aesthetic, gaining renewed relevance in contemporary design.

Link to Terone Beautytone collection
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