Women’s History lives on at CCAD

For more than 40 years—since 1981, when Congress first proclaimed the week beginning March 7, 1982, would be “Women’s History Week”—the U.S. has paid special attention to women’s contributions during the month of March. Thirty-five years ago, that recognition was extended to the entire month. But Columbus College of Art & Design has recognized women’s contributions since our very beginning—after all, our founders were women. 

It started with “Parlor Talks,” which were held for more than a year around Columbus to discuss the arts in the city. As this was happening, the Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts (what we now know as Columbus Museum of Art) received a Certificate of Incorporation, on May 7, 1878. (The gallery’s trustees were all men, at least one of whom, Alfred Kelley, was married to one of CCAD’s founding mothers, Mary Seymour Wells Kelley.) 

From the Parlor Talks came the more formal Women’s Art Study Group, which began meeting on Oct. 19, 1878 in the Kelley Mansion. The study group’s founders were Mary Seymour Wells Kelley, President; Mary N. Bliss, First Vice President; Elizabeth Jane Edmiston Noble, Second Vice President; Mrs. Charles Osborn, Secretary; and Sarah Jane MacMahon Huntington, Treasurer—this group of five became the Columbus Art Association, which would go on to incorporate the Columbus Art School through the Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts.

The place now known as Columbus College of Art & Design was established back in 1879 as the Columbus Art School, and the school’s good reputation quickly spread—so quickly that Lucy Hayes, wife of U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes, studied here in our second year. 

But who were these women who founded CCAD? Frankly, there’s a lot we don’t know. As was the practice at the time, they were officially known as Mrs. Husband’s First and Last Name, and the kind of info-tracking and record keeping we know today was not available back then. CCAD Archivist Brenda Foster has provided us invaluable help in learning more about these five, but even her most dogged digging couldn’t unearth one of our founder’s first names. But here’s what we can say about them: 


Mary Seymour Welles Kelly

Mary Seymour Wells Kelley (or Welles Kelley—the record isn’t clear) was born Nov. 10, 1799 in Albany, New York. She married Alfred Kelley on Aug. 25, 1817, and birthed 11 children—but only six grew to maturity. The Kelleys moved to Columbus in 1830, and built their Columbus home six years later. Two years after that, on April 25, 1838, the Kelleys donated land for the first “free school” for Columbus children. That school was built by the Columbus Female Benevolent Society in a portion of the former YMCA at 34/36 S. Third Street, and operated until it was superseded by the present system of public schools. Kelley served as president of the Columbus Art Association from 1878 to 1879, and was a member of the women-only Saturday Club, which prepared scholarly discussions. 

Ruth Young White’s 1936 book We Too Built Columbus, which highlights the accomplishments of women in Columbus from 1797 to 1936, celebrates Kelley, the group’s first president, as “an especially gifted and cultivated woman … (with) artistic appreciation and vision” that led to the formation of the Columbus Art Association, which, White writes, was “destined to play a large part in the city's cultural life.” Kelley died in Columbus on May 19, 1882.

Elizabeth Jane Edmiston Noble was born in Columbus on May 5, 1827. Her widowed mother, siblings, and nurse all died in a cholera epidemic in 1874. Noble married Henry C. Noble, an attorney. Mr. Noble later established an alcove in honor of his family at the Columbus public library. In December 1891, after Henry Noble died, Elizabeth Noble helped to form what is now known as the Moritz College of Law library at The Ohio State University with a 1,500-volume donation from her husband’s personal law library. Mrs. Noble also was a member of the Soldiers’ Aid Society during the Civil War, helping soldiers with clothing, food, and other supplies, as well as providing support to traveling soldiers. She died on Aug. 7, 1895.

Mary N. Bliss

Mary N. Bliss was born in 1819 and died in Columbus, on Oct. 22, 1889. She and her husband, Dr. Ezra Bliss, arrived in Columbus around 1875. After her husband’s death, Bliss built a house, known as Hubbard Place, on property belonging to her father, William Blackstone Hubbard. Bliss also established the Hubbard Alcove—a dedicated book collection—for the Columbus public library on June 4. 1874. Bliss succeeded Kelley as President of the Columbus Arts Association, serving in the role from 1879 until her death in 1889. She bequeathed $10,000 (roughly $305,000 in today’s dollars) to the Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts for an endowment fund. 

Sarah Jane MacMahon Huntington was born in northern Ohio on Dec. 12, 1833, and spent most of her life in Columbus before her death on June 20, 1924. She wed Benjamin Newton Huntington on Sept. 3, 1862; had one son, who was born and died on Feb. 13, 1840; and was a devoted member of Trinity Episcopal Church. Sarah Huntington was part of the Women's Club movement, which organized book clubs and was instrumental in creating the first circulating library; after the local Women’s Club dissolved in 1871, Mrs. Huntington was Secretary and Treasurer of the library association that formed in its place. In 1903, Sarah Huntington, who also published two volumes of poems, wrote Fragments, Pen Pictures and Memorabilia, a book containing records of important events that happened in Columbus during early years of her residence. 

Mrs. Charles Osborn served as Columbus Art Association’s Treasurer in its first year and was a member of the Women’s Club. Further information about Mrs. Osborn, including her first name, is unknown at this time.

Although the study of art and art history remain core parts of a CCAD education, the college has transformed significantly since those early years. Among our milestones of note: CCAD graduated its first class of students in 1885, changed our name to Columbus College of Art & Design in 1959, celebrated our first class to earn a bachelor of fine arts in 1970, became independent of the Columbus Museum of Art in 1981, erected our giant Art Sign sculpture in 2001, and launched our first master’s degree program in 2010. In 2016—137 years after five women built our foundation—Melanie Corn, EdD, was selected as CCAD’s first woman president and leads the college to this day. 

Since its early years, CCAD has grown increasingly diverse, embracing the concept of Intentional Inclusivity as core to The CCAD Way. CCAD students come from all over the world. Unlike our well-to-do founders, many of our students—about 40% in all—qualify for Pell Grants (federal need-based aid available to low-income students). CCAD students embrace a broad range of sexual identities and span the spectrum of gender—60% of our student body identify as female, 24% as male, and the remaining 16% do not identify as either male or female. A significant proportion of our students, 29%, identify as people of color. 

While CCAD students today may seem to have little in common with the women who founded the college 140-plus years ago, these people, separated by generations, share a common goal of changing their circumstances—and the world—for the better. We are grateful for the vision of our early founders and enthusiastic about the history-making work our community engages in today.

From left: Nolan Gleich, Rina Andreatta, Angela Sapp, and Emily Sirota. Photo courtesy of Angela Sapp.


Learn more about Columbus College of Art & Design’s history here. Visit CCAD’s digital archive at this link, or pay an in-person visit to our Packard Library, in the lower level of the Joseph V. Canzani Center.