Carrollton’s Fred Geary was a master woodcut artist
and leading graphic designer in the art deco era. 

Wood engraving by Carrollton, Mo. artist Fred Geary
This wood engraving, “Winter Sport,” may represent skaters on Wakenda Creek east of Carrollton.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2022 issue of Missouri Life magazine.

You may not know the name, Fred Geary, but this Carroll County artist was a nationally important graphic designer in the first half of the twentieth century. He created an impressive body of fine-art woodcuts and wood engravings that are found in museums and libraries across the United States. 

Born in Clarence in 1894 and reared in Carrollton, Fred was the only child of James and Sophie Geary. He was a talented athlete who played high school football and was recognized as a skilled artist. During his senior year, he was the art editor for Carrollton high school’s yearbook, Nautilus, the first yearbook published for Carrollton high school, and he went on to attend classes at William Jewell College in Liberty.

Missouri woodcut artist Fred Geary in his Carrollton High School football team attire.
Fred Geary played football at Carrollton (Mo.) High School. This image appeared in the school’s 1914 yearbook. Inset, Fred Geary works at a desk. Photos courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri

He decided to make art his career and later studied at the Kansas City Art Institute and the Art Students League in New York City, where he fell under the influence of Winold Reiss, a German-born art deco designer and artist. Sometime around 1917, Fred returned to Missouri and accepted a job at the Fred Harvey Company. He worked at the firm’s headquarters in Union Station, Kansas City, for about twenty-eight years, until his death in 1946. His vibrant, colorful designs helped create the brand’s image. 

The Fred Harvey Company was affiliated with Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe (AT&SF), and it operated dining cars on AT&SF trains, as well as hotels, restaurants, and tourist sites in areas serviced by the railway. Fred’s work with the company took him into Kansas, New Mexico, and Arizona, where he worked directly with some of the hotels, restaurants, and tourist attractions. Fred designed everything from menus to playing cards, not to mention tourist booklets, envelopes, and postcards. His colorful and graphic style was influenced by the art deco movement, as well as Native American, Mexican, and Hispanic art. 

While working for the Fred Harvey Company, Fred met and married Estelle Knopf in 1928, who died just five years later. After her death, Fred spent more time in his hometown of Carrollton, spending most weekends at his mother’s house on South Main Street. There he set up a mini-studio in the dining room, where he developed his skills as a printmaker, specializing in woodcuts and wood engravings.

These techniques required that he cut away areas of wood blocks that he wanted to print white and then roll ink onto the uncarved portions. Once inked, Fred placed paper over the blocks and rubbed the backs with objects that transferred his images onto the paper. Fred participated in the American woodcut revival of the first half of the twentieth century, together with such artists as Julius John Lankes, Birger Sandzen, Lynd Ward, and Rockwell Kent. His printmaking style is characterized by dramatic black shadows and silhouettes, as well as complex linear patterns that model form. Many of the prints he created in the 1930s and 1940s focus on rural, working-class midwestern subjects, and Fred was undoubtedly familiar with the work of fellow Missourian Thomas Hart Benton and other regionalist artists such as Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry.

Like these artists, Fred often found beauty in the humble and mundane. He frequently ignored the public facades of homes and pictured backyards where rural people chopped firewood, drew water from wells, and washed clothes. Sometimes he showed the residents of the homes, but more often he represented the quiet material evidence of their presence. Many of these rural scenes have a nostalgic character, as his images of steamboats, antebellum homes, and traveling circuses remind viewers of a bygone era that was slow to disappear from the Missouri countryside. 

Although most of Fred’s work represents Missouri scenes, he also made woodcuts of Mexican and southwestern subjects that refected his more colorful graphic design projects with the Fred Harvey Company. The bright sunlight, bold decoration, and adobe architecture of the southwest produced dramatic contrasts of light and dark that appealed to Geary’s aesthetic sense. 

Nevertheless, Fred seems to have felt most at home in Missouri. The majority of his landscapes are based on scenes around rural Carroll County, where the artist was inspired by the working people, the rolling landscape, and the nearby Missouri River. Fred carved his woodblocks in his mother’s dining room, using plank wood and American boxwood, which he prepared with linseed oil and white paint. He then made line drawings on the blocks before he began the arduous process of carving into them. He sharpened his gouges and gravers with a farmer’s grindstone near the dinner table and hand-printed his own proofs. Most of these impressions were never organized into official editions, a frustration for collectors because it is impossible to know just how many impressions of the various prints are in existence.  

Fine art prints remained a sideline for Fred, as he continued his day job at the Fred Harvey Company throughout his life. By the late 1930s, however, he was receiving attention and acclaim as a printmaker. He joined the Kansas City Society of Artists, the Prairie Print Makers, and the Southern States Art League as he gained respect and praise in the wider art world. 

His artwork was regularly exhibited in exhibitions throughout Missouri and the Midwest, and in 1939, he served on the graphic arts selection committee for the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City where his print On the River was displayed. In 1946, his print The Circus was awarded the prestigious Pennell Prize and was exhibited in the Fourth National Exhibition of Prints at the Library of Congress. 

This national success was bittersweet, however, because by this time, Fred had become gravely ill. He spent the last year of his life under the care of a physician, and he died at his mother’s home of coronary thrombosis at the age of fifty-two. His mother, Sophie Geary, donated her son’s tools, some woodblocks, and more than sixty artworks to the State Historical Society of Missouri in 1947.

Fred had been a member of SHSMO, which had purchased several prints from him in 1945. Fred had no children to promote his legacy, and this Missouri master unfortunately died at the height of his powers never having achieved the fame he deserved. Perhaps in the twenty-first century, posterity will rediscover the impressive body of work he left behind. 


Author Joan Stack is Curator of Art Collections a the State Historical Society of Missouri.

Photos and images courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri and Greg Thompson.