When Executive Director Anne Brennan guided patrons through the space, she spoke about Chant as if she knew her personally, spinning a narrative so rich and captivating that it seemed a work of fiction. Chant was born in Yeovil, a quiet town in Somersetshire, England, in 1865. Her father commanded a merchant sailing ship, plying between England, India and the Far East. His family joined him, and in 1873, they emigrated to the States, settling in Hawley, Minnesota, where Captain Chant took a job with the Northern Pacific Railroad. The winters were bitter cold. When Chant’s mother died in 1878, her father moved the family to Minneapolis to find a new wife. Elisabeth, 13, was the oldest of nine children. After graduating from nursing school to appease her stepmother, Chant enrolled at the Minneapolis School of Fine Arts, where she met Margarethe Heisser. After the Spanish-American War, during which Chant served as Chief Nurse, she and Heisser opened an art studio on Hennepin Avenue, which became the meeting place for the Minneapolis Arts and Craft Society. She made friends with prominent artists, thriving in what was then considered to be the cultural epicenter of the country, and eventually sailed to England, where she spent two years painting and studying her homeland. Chant’s father died in 1908, then Heisser, just two months later. “The rapid succession of blows must have been devastating to the sensitive Chant,” Brennan speculated, “and it’s quite possible they ultimately contributed to a genuine mental breakdown in the years following her subsequent move to Massachusetts.” Her siblings had her arrested in 1917, and the court declared her insane. She was treated for manic depression in Rochester, Minnesota. When she moved to Wilmington, she did not speak about her family. She died in 1947, and was buried in the Walker lot at Oakdale Cemetery. Until about a decade ago, her past was shrouded in mystery.
In 1992, Saint John’s Museum of Art (now Cameron Art Museum) began organizing an exhibition that would feature dozens of Chant’s works, all donated by Henry MacMillan and Hester Donnelly, her former students. Brennan, then Curator of Collections, was asked to create the content for the exhibition catalogue. “We knew very little about her,” she says. But the influence she exerted was almost everywhere to be seen. Her pupils became the driving forces behind the city’s blossoming cultural scene. Donnelly had been one of the founders of Saint John’s Museum. Claude Howell, who wrote extensively about Chant (his first art teacher) established the Art Department at UNCW. MacMillan was one of the incorporators of the Lower Cape Fear Historical Society. He was fascinated by Chant, and spent years of his life searching for clues about who she was before coming to Wilmington. As is evident by the letters she wrote him when he was away at camp one summer, 50
Salt • November 2013
Chant cared deeply for her students, and encouraged them to take their studies seriously. The prose is every bit as poetic and vibrant as the teacher. “Through [MacMillan’s] research, we knew that her ancestors were from Yeovil,” says Brennan, but she was working with bread crumbs. “I nearly lost my job over this project because I was so late with the production.” On a research trip to Minnesota, Brennan “poured over microfilm and old newspapers” and found articles about Chant in The Minneapolis Journal, most of which referenced the studio on Hennepin Avenue where she and Heisser would entertain guests on Saturday afternoons. Like MacMillan, Brennan was unable to find the missing links to Chant’s mysterious past. In a letter addressed to MacMillan from Minneapolis, a librarian likened Chant to a Daphne du Maurier character. “The flight that anyone could take with [Chant] is so rich,” says Brennan. A novelist might have easily filled in the blanks of Chant’s life, but Brennan needed facts. “I could not put this to bed. I had to know where she was born.” She ultimately went to England. Brennan recalls the three-hour train ride from London to Yeovil, and being struck by the rustic beauty of the verdant countryside. “It was a rainy day,” says Brennan, and sheep dotted the green rolling hills like wild flowers. She paints the scene as Chant might have described it, with exquisite attention to detail and a heightened awareness of the present moment. She arrived at the Yeovil Library at 3 o’clock in the afternoon and, having stated her purpose, was told to go to the Register of Deeds office, which closed in one hour. “This was not a research trip,” says Brennan. She would need to catch the train back to London that evening. “Run,” said the librarian. At the Register of Deeds office, 3:45 p.m., she remembers the fake philodendron in the lobby, and the young couple — “they were just kids” — trying to get their marriage license before 4 o’clock. Fortunately, Brennan was next in line. When she told the Register of Deeds about her research on Elisabeth Chant, and asked if he might be able to find her birth records, Mr. Shire, whom Brennan describes as an ancient man with a weary spirit and a pasty complexion, looked up at Brennan with “this ever so tiny spark of life.” He disappeared into a back room for a small eternity, then came back holding a large book. “This is the entry I think you’re looking for,” he said. Elisabeth Augusta Chant was born in Yeovil, Somersetshire, England to Captain James Chant and Elisabath Rowe Wills on March 10, 1865.
Back in Wilmington, Brennan was sitting in her basement office at Saint The Art & Soul of Wilmington
The Art & Soul of Wilmington