Monthly Archives: March 2009

Katherine Ward Lane Weems

Elephant frieze on Harvard's Biology Lab building

Elephant frieze on Harvard's Biology Lab building

Katherine Ward Lane Weems (1899 – 1989) was the daughter of the president of the board of trustees of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.  Among her mentors were John Singer Sargent and Anna Hyatt Huntington, who both had studios nearby. Anna Hyatt became an inspiration and introduced her to leading figures at the National Sculpture Society. In 1926, Lane won a Bronze Medal at the Philadelphia Sesquicentennial Exposition, and the Widener Medal at the Pennsylvania Academy.

In 1933 she was given the commission to create a frieze of elephants on the red brick facade of the Harvard University Biology lab. This was accomplished by chiseling the exterior of the building with a pneumatic drill, creating a linear frieze with over 30 animals across the building’s top story, installing three bronze doors, and creating a pair of larger-than-life bronze rhinos for the front steps. Her other commissioned monuments still on view in Boston are the six dolphins at the New England Aquarium and the fountain at the Boston Esplanade Plaza.

Lane married in 1947 but continued to exhibit under her maiden name. She was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and became a full academician of the National Academy. In 1965 a permanent gallery was established at the Boston Museum of Science to show her small animal bronzes and drawings, and in 1987 the museum established the Katherine Lane Weems Chair in Decorative Arts.

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Anna Hyatt Huntington

huntington_joanofarcFar from unknown, Anna Hyatt Huntington’s truly stupendous body of work has nonetheless been consigned to the back shelf (if not exactly the dustbin) of history.

Anna Hyatt (1876-1973) was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and initially studied with Henry Hudson Kitson in Boston. According to one source Kitson threw her out after she identified equine anatomical deficiencies in his work. She studied later with Hermon Atkins MacNeil and Gutzon Borglum at the Art Students League of New York, but briefly; and remained largely self taught. Anna’s father was a Harvard professor and prominent naturalist, and it was through him that Anna learned much about animal anatomy, her favorite sculptural subject.

The prolific artist married Archer Milton Huntington in 1923, and the couple used Huntington’s massive railroad fortune to fund many philanthropic endeavors, among them the Hispanic Society of America, New York, and Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina.

Huntington’s  larger-than-lifesize equestrian monuments secured her reputation, and many can be seen in New York.  “José Martí” is in Central Park, and “Joan of Arc” (pictured) faces Riverside Drive at 93rd Street. The grand plaza of the Museum of the Hispanic Society of America is home to the dramatic “El Cid”, as well as marble bas-reliefs of Don Quixote and Boabdil, the last Moorish King of Granada.

Sculptors Marjorie Jay Daingerfield and Katherine Ward Lane Weems both studied with Huntington, and she was the friend and collaborator of sculptor Abastenia St. Leger Eberle (whom she affectionately called “Stennie”) and a colleague of artist Elizabeth Norton.

Huntington received numerous awards during her lifetime, including the Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur in 1933 for “Joan of Arc”.

Bonded…or faux?

pigmentsI am often asked what “bonded bronze” and “bonded marble” (or, for that matter, “cold cast” marble, bronze, etc.) are. Be aware that they are not real bronze, or stone. I consider these to be a faux finish on plastic resin, since they are made by mixing bronze or marble powder with the first (and very thin) layer of resin when casting polyurethane or other resins in a mold. They are not weatherproof, since polyurethane resin degrades when exposed to UV radiation or even seasonal (think: midwestern) temperature fluctuations. Nor are they very sturdy (treated carefully, most of my plaster pieces have actually held up better over time).

So, buyer beware. That inexpensive “real” bronze sculpture may not be what you think.

Bessie Potter Vonnoh

vonnoh1Bessie Potter Vonnoh (1872-1955) was a St. Louis native who studied in Chicago with sculptor Lorado Taft from the age of 15. She later assisted Taft in works he created for the World’s Columbian Exposition and received a separate commission for an eight-foot figure, “Art”, for the Illinois State Building at the fair. At the age of 22, she opened her own studio in Chicago.

Vonnoh developed themes of intimate mother-and-child groups, dancing girls, and elegant ladies. The sculptor herself called these groups “Potterines.” Vonnoh was noted for her portrait sculpture, and created a bust of Sherman for the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., in the spring of 1910. She and her husband, the notable painter Robert Vonnoh, lived in New York City from 1901 and showed their work together there and across the country in a series of joint traveling exhibitions.

Plaster Senior Seminar

plaster_boxWhen you’re searching the hardware store for materials, you’ve probably wondered: What’s the difference between all these plaster varieties, anyway? Here are my empirical observations:

Patching Plaster: Sold in all hardware stores, this can be used in a pinch but sets up very quickly as it has been designed for patching interior sheetrock and lath-and-plaster walls and ceilings (it’s too expensive, anyway, in the quantities needed for sculpture).

Plaster of Paris: A soft , coarse plaster which is OK for hobby molds and readily available in most hardware stores. It is about half the price if you buy in bulk from a building supply place.

Molding Plaster: A fine, hard plaster for architectural work and good for most sculpture and molds. Usually available only in bulk (100 lb bags) from building supply yards (see my list of materials suppliers for one in Boston).

Hydrocal: A plaster formula developed for hobby, sculpture, and molding use. It is extremely hard when fully cured and also has good “green” hardness before the cure is complete. The cured surface is very white, dense, and fine, and accepts faux finishes and paint very cleanly. Available at some art supply shops, or online from a number of bulk distributors.

Temperature: It is true that cold water can make your plaster mix set up more slowly, and hot water makes it set up more quickly. This is all relative, however, and factors like ambient temperature and humidity are also important.

Tinting: Once you are familiar with plaster varieties and mixing, you can go on to do crazy things with plaster, like tint it. Use a good quality water-based pigment (I use gouache) thoroughly mixed in the water before the plaster is sifted in. Use a lot, or the resulting tint will be very, very pale after the white plaster has been added. Or, pour plaster into a mold and brush swirls of pigment across the wet surface for a marbled effect (used to create those fabulous plastic-flamingo-and-seashell-encrusted Florida souvenirs of my childhood).

Surface decoration: Plaster readily accepts all kinds of surface decoration. Brush water-based pigments directly on damp plaster and you have–voila!–a fresco. Use waxes or linseed oil mixed with metallic powders for a faux-metal finish on plaster that is thoroughly dry. Or paint on it with whatever is your preferred medium. I have pieces painted with oils, gouache, watercolor, acrylics, and encaustic-like waxes that look great after 20 years. Butcher’s wax (in an orange and white can from the hardware store) is the best I’ve found for waxing the final piece, necessary to preserve your beautiful surface from dust and dirt. Make sure the surface is absolutely dry and the wax is warm and spreadable when you use it, so it doesn’t leave cold white lumps behind.

Anne Whitney

la_modele1Anne Whitney (1821-1915) ran a girl’s boarding school in Salem, Massachusetts. She sculpted many notable figures in Massachusetts history, among them a full-length Samuel Adams for the National Statuary Hall complex in Washington, DC.

Whitney had many portrait commissions throughout her lifetime, including Harriet Beecher Stowe and Lucy Stone. “La Modele” (pictured) is a portrait of a former slave made for a Boston patron. The work is now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Vinne Ream Hoxie

farragut_vinnie3Vinnie Ream was the first woman and the youngest artist to ever receive a commission from the United States Government for a statue.

A self-made woman from a modest farming family, Ream was awarded a commission for a lifesize Carrara marble statue of Lincoln by a vote of United States Congress in 1866 when she was 18 years old. Legend has it that Lincoln, having heard that Vinnie was a “poor girl struggling to make her way” consented to sit for her, and no other sculptor.

Ream also sculpted the first free-standing statue of a Native American, “Sequoyah”, for Statuary Hall at the Capitol. She also built the first major monument to a U.S. Navy Officer, Admiral David Farragut, which stands in Farragut Square, Washington D.C.

By contemporary accounts a  lively and energetic woman with many interests, Vinnie Ream was one of the first women to be employed by the Federal Government during the Civil War, as a clerk in the Dead Letter Office of the US Post Office Department. A First Day Cover stamp was issued in honor of Vinnie and her statue of Sequoyah. Ream also volunteered at Washington, DC-area hospitals for returning Union soldiers, and at the age of thirty married Richard L. Hoxie of the US Army Corps of Engineers.

Harriet Hosmer

thomas_hart_bentonHarriet Hosmer was born in Watertown, Mass. in 1830. Denied entrance to medical colleges on the East Coast, she visited friends in St. Louis and took anatomy classes at Missouri Medical College. Hosmer then traveled to Rome, where she studied sculpture and soon set up a studio of her own. Her work, mainly executed in marble, became very popular with European royalty and American visitors to Rome like Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hosmer’s twice-lifesize bronze monument of Thomas Hart Benton (left) was unveiled in St. Louis in 1868. At the peak of her career, Hosmer employed more than 20 (male) artisans in her Rome studio, and had to defend her reputation from claims that these artisans were the real creators of her work.

Trade Secrets

mouth_blogMolds: The big secret of the sculpture trade

The question I get asked most is, “Can you teach me how to make molds?” and my answers are always evasive. Not because this is a huge trade secret, but because making a good mold is a painstaking engineering project. It is critical that it be done right or your original artwork may be ruined beyond repair. It is not something that can be taught in an afternoon. It is necessary to personally use the materials to experience their properties—something that can’t be learned from reading a description alone. I learned how to make basic plaster molds during several semesters in undergraduate sculpture classes. Then I did foundry work and learned about latex molds and casting in plastics. I highly advise anyone interested in moldmaking to take a good class. The Polytek Company in Easton, Pennsylvania offers these from time to time. They also have videos on moldmaking which I’ve never seen, but I would welcome feedback from readers who have.

Armatures: The other big secret of the sculpture trade

The question I get asked next most often is, “Hey, how does that big piece of clay stay in one piece?” and the answer is: an armature. I start with a great big heavy piece of wood for the base and screw into it sections of 1” metal pipe from the hardware store to form a minimal (very minimal) skeleton that is smaller than the final size of the piece. Using aluminum armature wire or stainless steel fence wire, I secure chunks of pink contractor’s styrofoam to the armature to bulk up the piece in a lightweight fashion before piling on the clay (I read recently that Bernini’s studio used straw and horse dung over a wood frame, so we’ve come a long way). The object is to provide an extremely stable structure for a lot of extremely heavy clay, plaster, or whatever. Louis Slobodkin’s “Sculpture: Principles and Practice” (Dover Books) has wonderful illustrations of armatures that speak volumes about armature engineering (and was done before the days of Styrofoam, for any purists out there). This book is also extremely valuable for showing beaux-arts sculpture practices in their entirety, including plaster moldmaking.

Emma Stebbins

bethesdaEmma Stebbins is the sculptor of  “The Angel of the Waters” (1873), also known as “Bethesda Fountain,” located on the Bethesda Terrace in Central Park, New York. According to Central Park historian Sara Cedar Miller, Stebbins received the commission for the sculpture as a result of influence from her brother Henry, who at the time was president of the Central Park Board of Commissioners. Henry was proud of his sister’s talent and hoped to have many examples of her art in Central Park.

Angel of the Waters was created to celebrate the clean, healthful water from New York’s Croton Aqueduct, completed in 1842, with an oblique reference to the biblical “healing waters of Bethesda”. The fountain complex is widely considered to be one of the great works of nineteenth century American sculpture.

Stebbins’ bronze statue of educator Horace Mann was installed outside the State House in Boston in 1865.

Stebbins worked for most of her life in Rome. She was the longtime companion of actress Charlotte Cushman, and part of the circle of expatriate women celebrities and artists which included Harriet Hosmer, Edmonia Lewis, and others. Stebbins is buried at Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.