James H. Chillman, Jr. was born in Philadelphia in 1891; he attended the University of Pennsylvania (William Ward Watkin’s alma mater), where he studied architecture and fine arts, and the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts, before moving to Houston in 1916. There he began a career at the Rice Institute, serving as professor in the Architecture Department, art historian, and artist. In 1919 Chillman, a Classicist and Renaissance scholar, received a Furnham Fellowship in Architecture at the American Academy in Rome, and took a leave of absence to spend three years in Italy. In Rome he met his wife, Dorothy Dawes, an artist who specialized in interior design. Upon his return to Houston in 1922 he resumed his appointment in the Architecture Department, and became the founding director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. He divided his time equally between working as the museum director and working on the faculty at Rice.
Chillman’s puckish sense of humor made him the perfect person to design the reliefs of student life at the Institute which were carved into the Chemistry Building (now Keck Hall). These carvings can be found in the capitals in the cloister alongside the Chemistry Lecture Hall, and include a caricature of William Ward Watson and an allusion to dreaded freshman class Chemistry 100. (Extra points for those of you who can identify the difference between the reliefs as executed and the original designs.)
Described as a sparkly and inclusive wit, Chillman made it his goal to help Houstonians learn to enjoy art. He developed exhibits of local artists, notably the Houston Artists Annual Exhibition, and annual touring exhibitions organized by the Southern States Art League which brought art works to communities throughout Texas. In the 1950’s he wrote and aired a very popular radio show called “Art is Fun” which discussed art relating to Houston, popular currents, and new art, all aimed at getting the Houston community interested in art. Chillman worked at the Museum of Fine Arts until the early 1950s, and he was Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Fine Arts at Rice into the early 1970s. He died in 1972 after 55 years of service to the Rice and Houston community. A more thorough examination of Professor Chillman’s life and work can be found in this article published in the Cornerstone, the Rice Historical Society newsletter. The guide to his papers in the Woodson Research Center can be found here.