Nathan Krevitsky circa 1935-40

Nathan "Nik" Krevitsky (1914-1991)

By Hanna Houser and Dona Vitale

Editor’s Note: As we begin 2024 Pride Month, we want to remember that in the post-World War II period, the “Lavender Scare ” marked a decades-long effort to repress and condemn the LGBTQ+ community. Under the guise of “national security,” self-appointed moralists, including many elected officials, worked to purge anyone suspected of homosexuality from government jobs and other positions of power or authority. To avoid intimidation and arrest, most gay men and women took care to keep their identities secret from employers, acquaintances, and sometimes even friends and family, while seeking community in selected urban areas where they could live with greater anonymity and freedom. [1]

1950 Census record for Nathan Krevitsky and other building residents.

Nathan Krevitsky — a multidisciplinary artist, dancer, producer, educator, war veteran and “life-long bachelor” — seems to have found his first such community when he left his family home in Rogers Park to pursue his artistic career and attend graduate school at Columbia University in post-WWII New York City.

On the 1950 census, Krevitsky and fellow tenants who occupied more than 10% of the 118 apartments at 435 West 119th Street, across from the Columbia campus, openly identified as same-sex partners. We do not know whether these declarations were an organized movement or a set of spontaneous individual decisions, but each was an uncommonly brave act at a time when most same sex couples would have described themselves as “roommates” or “lodgers,” and carefully guarded their privacy. [2]

But then, and for the rest of his life, Nathan “Nik” Krevitsky forged his own identity without regard to personal or professional labels imposed upon him by others.

Son of Immigrants Becomes a Dancer, a Teacher and a Soldier

Born in Chicago on February 9, 1914, Nathan Krevitsky was the sixth of eight children of Joseph and Ida Krevitsky, Russian-Jewish immigrants who came to the U.S. from Kyiv, Ukraine in 1904 and 1906, respectively. [3]
In 1925, when Nathan was eleven, the family moved to 6627 North Greenview Avenue, which would be the family home for half a century. Three years later, a whimsical article in the Chicago Tribune reported “Jacob (sic) Krevitsky, the obliging butcher,” had painted the fire hydrant in front of the house a bright red and was the envy of the block. [4]
By 1930, Nathan was 16 and lived on Greenview with his parents and six of his seven siblings: Louis, age 25; Anna, 22; Fannie, 20; Mary, 18; Herman, 14; and Charlotte, 9. [5] The eldest daughter, Lillian, was married and no longer living with the family.
Nathan, Anna and Fannie, the three never-married children, eventually inherited the family home after the death of their mother in 1956. By then, Nathan no longer lived in Chicago, but his name remained on the property deed until 1976, while Anna and Fannie lived there together the rest of their lives.

Nathan as "Mona" in Merger for Millions, University of Chicago 1934

Like three of his sisters, Nathan attended the University of Chicago in the early 1930s, where he was active in the all-male Blackfriars theater club. In 1934, he played the role of Mona, “a fair young co-ed,” in a satirical comedy titled “Merger for Millions,” that spoofed a short-lived proposal to merge the University of Chicago with Northwestern. In addition to appearing on stage, while at college, he used his talents as a visual artist to design promotional posters for other student theatrical productions. [6] He graduated in 1935.

Nathan’s first job after graduation was as a dancer employed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a New Deal program set up to provide jobs for artists during the Depression. [7] After the WPA job ended, he joined forces with two female dancers in the program, appearing on stage as Nik Krevitsky. The trio choreographed and danced together for several years and became well known in Chicago as practitioners of the emerging new art of modern dance. [8]

Around this time, while he continued to dance, he kickstarted a career in arts education when he began working as an art supervisor for the Chicago Board of Education, as reported on the 1940 Census and his World War II draft registration.[9]

During the summer of 1941, Nathan combined all his artistic interests with a job on the faculty at the Bennington School of the Arts, teaching dance alongside renowned modern dance choreographer Martha Graham, who became his lifelong friend. [10]

But, already that summer, World War II was raging, and Nik put aside his performance aspirations to serve his country after the United States was attacked at Pearl Harbor. He enlisted in the army in 1942 “for the duration of the war,” but apparently never served overseas. [11]

During his state-side assignments, he was able to keep up his artistic activities. A December 1942 news item about his brief Thanksgiving furlough home reported that he had already reached the rank of sergeant and was working on a “special assignment” painting murals at his Alabama army base. [12] He also took part in Servicemen’s art shows while stationed in San Francisco.

Post-War: Renewed Dedication to Life as an Artist and Educator

Once the war ended, Krevitsky left Rogers Park for good, trading the Windy City for the city that never sleeps. In New York, he attended graduate school, earning a doctorate in Arts Education from Columbia University in 1954, while teaching at the school, working as a dance critic and showing his visual art in Detroit and other locations around the country. [13]

In post-war New York, Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollack, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko were gaining notoriety, and Nik evolved his own style incorporating their ideas. His works drew from his background in dance and an emerging interest in the use of new materials to create what he later came to call “pictures, not paintings.”

As early as 1950, he was interested in studying crafts and their role in fine art. He became engaged in several councils and committees focused on the craft movement and soon was recognized as a leader in the field. Over his career, he developed a multi-media technique he called “Stitchery” as well as a unique “Sublimograph” printing process, both of which combined fine art and craft techniques into his work. [14]

After obtaining a doctorate in Arts Education, Krevitsky taught at several universities, continuing to break down the boundary between craft traditions and fine art. 

While teaching at San Francisco State University, he even produced, directed and designed scenery and costumes for a Stanford University production of Igor Stravinksy’s opera, Oedipus Rex, which was narrated in English but sung in Latin.

Tucson Daily Citizen Photo, March 11, 1961.

“The Busiest Man in Town” Builds a Full Life in Tucson

By 1960, Krevitsky was a recognized national expert in arts education when he made his final move to serve as Director of Art Education for the Tucson Arizona Public Schools.[15] 

To accept the new job,  he traded busy cityscapes for the Arizona desert, where he settled in for the final three decades of his life. Almost immediately on arrival in Tucson, he was a popular subject of news features as a member of the local artistic and philanthropic community.

A 1961 profile introduced him and his first Tucson home in an article headlined “His Home Reflects Artist’s Amenability to New Ideas.” In it, the reporter admired his then-new mid-century modern home and compared his eclectic decorating style to his eclectic career as artist, educator and writer. [16]
From 1960 to his death in 1991, he was featured in dozens of solo and group exhibitions across the country, authored magazine articles and books on stitchery and other craft techniques, [17] and illustrated at least one children’s book. [18]

At home in Arizona, he thrived in a local community that appreciated his artistic talent and passion for education, reinforced by regular newspaper articles about his participation in art shows, charity events or activities related to his work as the city’s leading proponent of art education in the public schools. He became well-known in Tucson both as Dr. Nathan Krevitsky, arts educator, and Nik Krevitsky — artist, philanthropist, sought-after social acquaintance and dear friend.

He bought and renovated an abandoned church property, the San Pedro chapel, making his home there and converting the chapel itself into a studio and art gallery. [19]

Photo from "The amazing, eclectic KREVITSKY" by Charlotte Lowe, the Tucson Daily Citizen, July 5, 1989.

Dr. Krevitsky retired from the Tucson Public Schools in 1977 but continued to pursue new artistic challenges. In 1984, he perfected a new method for making art prints that he called “sublimographs” by adapting a long-used commercial printing technique to create fine art. [20]

In 1989, a profile by Arizona Citizen reporter Charlotte Lowe recognized just how eclectic his career had become. She began the article by labeling him “artist/educator/dancer /writer/designer/craftsman/critic/historical preservationist/collector/illustrator/lecturer/entrepreneur.” [21]

Two years later, on April 18, 1991, Nathan “Nik” Krevitsky died at his Tucson home. He was 77 years old.

In his memory, Ms. Lowe, by then using the byline “Citizen Art Critic” wrote a heartfelt tribute in which she added to her 1989 description, calling him “a ringmaster in the arena of art,” and “a catalyst in countless areas of art and education,” but claimed even that was not enough.

“But of course,” she wrote, “he was more than that. Krevitsky was at the core of the community. He was family.” [22]

For a selection of Nik Krevitsky’s art as well as a glimpse at some of the artifacts that made up his collection of Pre-Columbian artifacts, visit the Tucson Museum of Art and search the collection. For a sample array of his artistic techniques, see Dance of Joyuntitled sublimographs from 1975-84 and VooDoo Stitchery (1964)

Sources
  1. For a modern-day assessment of government actions during this period, see“These People are Frightened to Death: Congressional Investigations and the Lavender Scare” by Judith Adkins, Prologue Magazine, Summer 2016, Volume 48, No. 2 available online from the National Archives.
  2. United States Census, 1950, New York City, Enumeration District 31-1048, Harris-Krevitsky HH at 435 West 119th Street.
  3. United States Census, 1920, Chicago Ward 23, Enumeration District 1313, sheet 6B, Joseph Krevitsky family at 2743 N Halsted.
  4. “Jacob Krevitsky Paints Fireplug in Front of Home” Chicago Tribune, 9, 1928, page 3.
  5. United States Census, 1930, Chicago Ward 49, Enumeration District 16-18644, Krevitsky family, 6627 Greenview.
  6. University of Chicago Cap and Gown Yearbook, 1934, Nathan Krevitsky, pages 171 and 173.
  7. “TPS Art Director Arrives,” Arizona Daily Star, August 12, 1960
  8. Numerous Chicago Tribune articles on dance programs and performances, including: “Dance Council Recital Shows Novel Themes,” May 03, 1940, page 21; Chicago Ballet Debuts to Large Audience,” April 28, 1941, page 15; “Good Theater and Art Mark Dance Concert,” May 21, 1942.
  9. United States Census, 1940, Chicago Ward 49, Enumeration District 102-31509, sheet 12A; WWII draft registration, Nathan Krevitsky, filed with Chicago Local Board 57, October 16, 1940.
  10. “Notes of Music and Musicians,” Chicago Tribune, June 29, 1941, page 89.
  11. WW II Army Enlistment Records Index: Nathan I Krevitsky, Service # 36349132, June 13, 1942.
  12. “The Stage” column by Cecil Smith, Chicago Tribune, December 9, 1942, page 29.
  13. “Studio to Show Drawings by Nik Krevitsky,” Detroit Free Press, October 31, 1948, page 19.
  14. For a detailed story of his evolution as an innovative Abstract Expressionist, see “Nik Krevitsky: Action/Abstraction” a story published by the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation online at https://preservetucson.org/stories/nik-krevitsky-action-abstraction/
  15. “TPS Art Director Arrives,” Arizona Daily Star, August 12, 1960, previously cited.
  16. “His Home Reflects Artist’s Amenability to New Ideas,” Arizona Daily Star, November 5, 1961 page 31.
  17. For example “Nik Krevitsky: On STITCHERY,” the cover story in Craft Horizons Magazine, Nov/Dec 1963 at https://digital.craftcouncil.org/digital/collection/p15785coll2/id/3500/
  18. It Happened in Chelm: A Story of the Legendary Town of Fools, by Florence B. Freeman, illustrated by Nik Krevitsky, is available at Amazon.com.
  19. Krevitsky was living and entertaining at the chapel address, 5320 East Fort Lowell Road as early as 1966, (Arizona Daily Star, February 4, 1966, page 23) but in 1969, the “residence and studio” was featured in the Tucson Art Center League home tour and was still describe as under renovation in a process Krevitsky was quoted as calling “Mission Impossible.” (Tucson Daily Citizen, February 15, 1969, page 52.)
  20. “Krevitsky Deep into New Art Form,” Tucson Daily Citizen, March 22, 1984, page 26.
  21. “The amazing, eclectic KREVITSKY,” Tucson Daily Citizen, July 5, 1989, page 41.
  22. “Remembering a friend of the arts,” by Charlotte Lowe, Tucson Daily Citizen, May 9, 1991, pages 22-23. Other Obituaries: Tucson Daily Citizen, April 19, 1991, page 20; “Art Educator Nik Krevitsky Dies at 77,” Arizona Daily Star, April 20, 1991, page 23.

About the author: Hanna Houser

Hanna Houser, a 2024 student intern with RPWHS, is drawn to history because it helps interpret modern life in the context of what came before. Houser was a May, 2024 graduate of Loyola University majoring in Multimedia Journalism with a minor in Political Science. During her school years, she was heavily involved with The Loyola Phoenix, the campus newspaper. Houser first moved to Rogers Park for school and lived in the neighborhood for four years. Prior to moving to Rogers Park, she spent time living on both the east and west coasts. After graduation, she returned east to pursue a career in investigations at a financial investment firm.

About the author: Dona Vitale

Dona Vitale has been involved with the Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society since 2012, and a member of the Board of Directors since 2014. She lived near the Loyola University campus in Rogers Park from 1979 to 2014, when she retired and moved a mile south. She continues to volunteer with RPWRHS, acting as team leader for the Property History Quest (PHQ) project, and created the Noted and Notorious series as way to share the many fascinating stories of mostly unknown neighborhood residents brought to light by the PHQ research team.