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  • This is one of several sketches bearing Bill Blass’ name that may have been done while the designer was a local student.

  • This possible Bill Blass sketch is on lined notebook paper that might have been used by a student.

  • This possible Bill Blass sketch appears to have been graded A+.

  • This possible Bill Blass sketch, features a stylized "By Bill Blass" in the style of the designer's early signature.

  • This possible Bill Blass sketch is on lined notebook paper that might have been used by a student.

  • This is one of several sketches bearing Bill Blass’ name that may have been done while the designer was a local student.

Thursday, March 28, 2019 1:00 am

On a mission to verify possible Blass sketches

COREY MCMAKEN | The Journal Gazette

After reading last month's History Journal about fashion designer and city native Bill Blass, a New Haven man has been on a bit of a journey.

The column reminded Kevin, who asked that his last name not be published, that he had something of interest stashed away in his home: sketches that were allegedly made by Blass in school and had been left in his mother's house. Blass graduated from South Side High School in 1939 and died in 2002.

Kevin says he collects items that have interesting stories – coins, signs, even some marbles that James Dean might have played with – with or without evidence to back them up. That's how he came across the sketches some time ago.

He was told that the sketches were found by a friend of Blass' sister Virginia, who was helping her clean out her mother's home after her death in 1951. Virginia gave the sketches to this friend as a “thank you” for his help.

Kevin bought the sketches from the man, who is now dead and whose name Kevin does not remember.

He has been to the Allen County Public Library's Genealogy Center to research Virginia and her mother, Ethyl. There, he confirmed with census records that they lived in Fort Wayne and were related to Bill Blass as sister and mother. He even dug up photos of Virginia Blass in a South Side High School yearbook from the 1930s.

But the unclear provenance has made it hard for Kevin to do anything with the sketches. He has tried before to get them displayed, but he didn't get anywhere with the effort and set the drawings aside. He insists he just wants to see them displayed in Fort Wayne for the public to see, but a part of him also wonders if they are worth anything.

Until the authenticity is proven, “it's just something an old man told me,” he says.

After last month's column, he brought the sketches to The Journal Gazette newsroom to show me.

The 10 pencil sketches are yellowed, protected only by newer-looking plastic sleeves. Some are on lined notebook paper, the sort that might have been used in school. They show women in various outfits and several are signed “By Bill Blass.” One bears an “A+” grade and geometric doodles on the side, suggesting it may have been for a class.

I reached out to Todd Maxwell Pelfrey, executive director at The History Center, on Kevin's behalf several weeks ago. He said the center has nothing from Blass to compare the sketches to, but he recommended Kevin reach out to a university with a design program.

Indiana University had done a retrospective exhibit on Blass, who left a $1 million gift to the university. So, Kevin sent the university scans of the sketches.

Kate Rowold, associate dean of IU's School of Art, Architecture and Design, worked with Blass and his staff while curating the exhibition. While making it clear that she was not able to judge the authenticity of the drawings, she told Kevin in an email that they appeared to be in Blass' style from his youth. She pointed out that the stylized signature seen on several of them is one the designer used in his early years.

Rowold suggested Kevin contact the Bill Blass Group in New York, which maintains Blass' archives. They turned Kevin away when he called, but he asked me to give it a shot.

Theresa Hiner, senior sales director for the Bill Blass company, took my call and said she would be willing to take a look at the drawings. So I sent her several scans.

She got back to me on Monday to tell me “as far as we can tell those drawings are ones that Mr. Blass had done.”

As you can imagine, Kevin is thrilled. Though it is too early to say the drawings are verified, all he had to go on until now is a story he was told when he bought the sketches.

“You always hope the story is true, and this time it was,” he says, calling it a great day.

An organization like The History Center would want to look more closely at the chain of ownership, Maxwell Pelfrey said this week when I updated him on the progress Kevin has made. But it is a good sign that two professionals have said the sketches look like they could be legitimate.

“I mean, if you have someone from IU saying, 'This looks like his stuff.' And someone from the Bill Blass archives itself saying, 'This looks like his stuff,' and then you don't think there's any reason why (the unnamed man in Kevin's story) would have fibbed” that's the sort of scrutiny historians employ to prove things, he says.

The History Center this week made its own high-quality scans of the sketches for research. Maxwell Pelfrey says the scans are now preserved in the center's digital archival collection and will be used for educational purposes, even if the sketches themselves are never put on display.

Kevin says his next step is to try and get the drawings appraised and insured. He might even get them framed.

If anyone has suggestions for Kevin or can help fill in the gaps in the chain of ownership, call me at 461-8475 or email cmcmaken@jg.net and I will pass information along.