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“A statue, the College seal, a mural” by Marcia Goldberg ’73 A.M.

It is a fact that much public art has lost identity as work by specific artists. Even when the artist includes his or her name, it does not take long before it is forgotten. Over the years the art becomes merely one of many elements in a particular environment, not the achievement of an individual. It is the relationship of object and place we remember, certainly not the artist nor the artist’s ideas in creating the work. This article connects three Oberlin landmarks with the former students who created them.


Artist: Emily Ewing Peck (Class of 1877)
Work: Statue of General Shurtleff
Location: S. Professor St., on bank above Plum Creek

Emily Ewing was born in Randolph, N.Y., in 1855. Two years after graduating from the Literary Course at Oberlin she married fellow student John Fisher Peck. He had received both his A.B. and A.M. from Oberlin and had been appointed tutor of Latin and Greek in the Preparatory Department. Emily may have taken the College’s linear drawing course as an undergraduate and perhaps she worked with oil or watercolors, but it was not until a two-year visit abroad in the 1890’s that she became seriously interested in sculpture. She studied first in Geneva and then in Paris, the center for sculptural activity in Europe, where there was a considerable colony of American artists. She joined a studio and had her work accepted for criticism by the great Auguste Rodin. Over a half-century later her daughter, Helen Peck Lyon, recalled a visit to the master: “One of my girlhood memories is of our driving out to Mendon (sic), where he lived, in a fiacre, with a clay bust carefully propped between us, covered with its wet cloth. Then into his studio we went with it, and the man who looked so gruff and abrupt, was actually so kindly. He always began by making encouraging remarks. . . ‘This is good—you have done that very well—perhaps this other could be improved a bit—so—’."

European training conferred a special aura upon Emily. Throughout the 19th century study abroad gave the American artist status in the eyes of the public at home. Combined with her skill in portraiture, she achieved at least a local reputation. She was, after all, probably Oberlin’s first sculptor, and as such it was recognized that she performed a service to the community in introducing the art form to those who had not the cultural benefits of travel. As in many other towns and villages, the opportunities for viewing original sculpture firsthand were extremely limited. The alternative at Oberlin were the exhibitions of photographs of world art collected and arranged by faculty members Adelia Johnston and Charles B. Martin.

There is no evidence that Emily Peck received any commissions for works she sculpted in the years following her return to Oberlin in 1896. She seems to have sculpted for study or pleasure alone. Her portraits were of relatives and friends. The probable fate of some of these is suggested in this passage from the Reminiscences of Charles B. Martin: “The best portrait of President Fairchild was a bust modeled in clay by Mrs. John Fisher Peck. As there were no funds to cast it in bronze or carve it in marble, the bust was destroyed.” As the local expert on classical sculpture, Martin’s opinion was highly valued. But before the portrait bust was destroyed, photographs were taken and copies made available to admiring students and alumni.

While permanence for her works would undoubtedly have brought satisfaction, Emily had the desire to go beyond mere portraiture and use it as the means of expressing a high ideal. Listening one morning to her small daughter recount stories she had learned in school, Emily was particularly impressed with one of the tales, a lesson in loyalty, courage, heroism. “This story set me thinking,” she later related, “that it is the beautiful things in real life that are the best material for art. Wherever there are human beings there is beauty of some sort that could be fixed and made lasting in story, or verse, or color, or form. We might somehow save the lovely things that occur everywhere.”

It seemed to her that there were those in Oberlin whose lives represented the ideals she wished to express and once she committed herself to the work she selected a model. She chose her friend Giles W. Shurtleff (A.B. 1859, Sem. 1862), then at the end of a long association with the College. While a student in the Seminary and a Latin tutor in the Preparatory Department, Shurtleff had entered the Army in 1861 immediately after Lincoln’s request for volunteers. Captain of Co. C, consisting of Oberlin students, he had been captured and had spent a year in a prison camp. Following an exchange of prisoners he had returned to Oberlin and rejoined the Army. In 1863, the Ohio governor asked Shurtleff, J. B. T. Marsh and John M. Langston to organize the first “colored” regiment in Ohio. He became its commander and the regiment took part in the long seige and victory at Petersburg.

He was then aged 32. Thirty-five years later he again put on his army uniform and heavy sword and posed during long hot afternoons in Mrs. Peck’s studio on Main St. She thought his patience during these sessions the crowning grace of his life. The statue of the general was to be part of a group. The second figure was to be a young negro about to take the rifle offered to him by Shurtleff. “The interest which each man has in the other should be shown in the slight inclination of the bodies toward each other, but their supreme interest is in the action to which the general is pointing, to which both are looking.” The analogy was to Petersburg, but the intended battle was symbolic. Emily had spent a long time searching through books for a motto that would express her meaning, finally choosing “Freedom cannot be given, it must be achieved.”

Locating a model for the second figure which suited her conception proved difficult. In the meantime the clay figure of Shurtleff was cast in plaster and exhibited at Spear Library in September of 1898. At the reception Mrs. Peck had the opportunity to explain what the finished work would look like and she expressed her feelings that it should be in bronze and placed out of doors.

That winter she left Oberlin for Chicago to work and study, expecting to complete the group in the near future. Among the portraits executed in the following years were those of President William Harper of the University of Chicago and Jane Addams, founder of Hull House. But the general’s companion never appeared.

Shurtleff died in 1904 and his widow decided to make the plaster portrait permanent. On Memorial Day 1911 the statue in bronze was dedicated. Set on a granite block, it was placed on the lawn below the house that had been his home, overlooking an area intended for a village parkway. The unveiling was the main event of the activities of that day. The general’s small granddaughter, who had whimpered with tedium during the ceremonies, pulled on the drapery enclosing the work.

There were, no doubt, few who disagreed with Mme. Johnston, the authority on art matters, that it was a perfect likeness of Gen. Shurtleff. It was a graceful depiction in metal of an older gentleman of dignity and moral strength. But of Emily Peck’s original conception there was nothing. She had intended the portrait to be a means to an end but it was now the end itself. The portrait alone could not carry the ideal she wished to express. Without the second figure the relationship of the carefully chosen phrase to the statue was lost. The sculpture had become a monument to a specific hero. Mysteriously gesturing north Shurtleff was no longer preceptor pointing to Petersburg and destiny. He assumed rather the position familiar in public sculpture of the 19th century, that of the orator, a remnant of left-over neo-classicism. The left hand which was to have held the rifle, physically uniting it with the other figure, now held an unexplained rolled document.

Since the appearance of the plaster cast in Spear Library in 1898, the statue has been the mute participant in periodic mischief. In the winter knitted caps have been placed on its bare head. Graduating seniors have posed with the outstretched right arm over their shoulders. The College Archives staff feels the statue has been looked upon with affection and not ridicule. But it troubled Shurtleff’s daughter, Laura Shurtleff-Price (1893), who wrote to the College in 1950: “…a terrible worry to my sister and me … I don’t think that statue, with outstretched hand and meaningless should stand there to be laughed at. It should be preserved somewhere as the statue of a long ago Oberlin graduate done by another long ago Oberlin graduate. But it should be in an inconspicuous place and there should be some explanation what Mrs. Peck intended to do.”

Somewhat belatedly this grievance is redressed and we remember for awhile the ideal sculpture it was to have been and the name of the artist whose initials are carved modestly and discreetly at its foot.


Artist: Julia Gridley Severance (Class of 1900)
Work: College Seal
Location: Original design, above doorway to first floor lounge, Wilder Hall

Julia Severance in her studio c. 1922

Julia Severance in her studio c. 1922. The print in center of those hanging above her is “Poplars,” a soft-ground etching of 1918 now in the collection of the Library of Congress, A musician as well as an artist, Julia played the violin in the Conservatory Orchestra. Note the small sculpture of a girl tuning her violin.

When Emily Peck exhibited her plaster model of the Gen. Shurtleff statue in Spear Library, it undoubtedly got close attention from one student who was to become an artist herself.

Four years earlier, in the summer of 1894, James Severance had escorted his wife and daughter from Chicago by boat to Cleveland and then by hired carriage for the trip to Oberlin. He and his wife had been students at the College and James had stayed to teach after graduating from the Seminary. Their daughter, Julia, had been born in Oberlin. James, mechanically gifted with a strong interest in agriculture, had invented harvesting machinery and had left the academic world to manufacture this equipment. He was returning to Oberlin a successful and astute businessman to succeed Gen. Shurtleff as Secretary-Treasurer of the College.

The Severances planned to build a new home on their property at 10 South Professor,1 had had the previous building on the lot removed, and were getting estimates for the erection of a new house. It was designed by a Chicago firm and was to be of stone. Dutch Colonial was and still is an unusual architectural style for Oberlin. The gambrel roof and the thick 18" walls of patterned stone set it apart from its predecessors on South Professor. It created discussion in the village, and the long sloping roof protecting a wide verandah prompted a local wit to place on the Severance lawn a sign reading: “This is not a railway station.” The interior decoration too would be different. Instead of the current dark rich clutter of Victoriana, it would be light and airy with white painted walls banded with simple plain moldings. Cool blue Dutch tiles would form the hearth and surround the fireplace.

When the family arrived work had already begun on the barn at the rear of the property. The stone pattern for the house would be “tried out” over the rubble walls of this building until Mr. Severance was satisfied it was suitable. Like a simplified, smaller version of the house, it was to become within a few years something more than the barn for the Severance’s carriage or Julia’s motor-car. A structure at right angles to the south end was to be added with a skylighted roof for the favored northern light. Built-in cupboards would line the walls for tools and supplies. The center space between the studio and the carriage room would be given a fireplace with flanking benches. And the artist, for whom all this luxury was designed, would carve in the brick in curved art nouveau letters a friendly greeting to visitors.

The studio was more than indulgence to an only child. The Severances were proud of Julia and had encouraged her talents. She had studied at the Chicago Institute of Art, the Cleveland School of Art and had taken courses in the College’s Department of Drawing and Painting. Eva M. Oakes had arrived in Oberlin the same year as the Severances to take charge of that department. A former Oberlin student, she had studied at the Art Students League in New York and intended giving the serious Oberlin art student adequate preparation to enter advanced courses at any good school. The Oberlin training was sufficient for Julia to later enter sculpture classes at the Art Students League. After further study in Italy she returned to her own studio, meticulous and confident in technique.

For more than 30 years it was a busy active place. It was here that she sculpted a small round-faced boy and little girl with long curls for Prof. and Mrs. Clarence Ward.2 She was particularly fond of children and made their portraits one of her specialties. It was here she held occasional exhibitions of her works: the series of Florida etchings that had been purchased by a New York hotel, the sculpture that had won first prize at the Cleveland Women’s Art Club. It was here her book club gathered around the fireplace to read aloud Jane Austen. And here, her students from the modeling class at the Kindergarten Training School came for tea.

In 1910, the architect of Wilder Hall, J. L. Silsbee of Chicago, asked her to design a modern version of the College Seal in bas-relief as part of the decoration that would appear over the entrance to the assembly room (now, the first floor Main Lounge). She was to follow the College By-laws adopted in 1852 which restricted her to the circular form “with two enclosing circles displaying upon the enclosed field a representation of a field of grain with a College building, within the margin below, the motto, Learning and Labor, and in the margin above, the name of the College.”

The College seal adopted in 1852

The College seal adopted in 1852.

Within these limitations Julia transformed the 1852 Seal much as the College itself had altered. In the earlier seal a solitary Tappan Hall was set on newly cleared land being cultivated. In the new version the vulnerable [venerable] Hall is sheltered by a heavy stand of trees, while across the road, symbol of an established community, there is evidence of a bountiful harvest. She put the motto and college name in curved letters with sharp edges that cast strong deep shadows, particularly suitable to the high position for which the bas-relief was intended. The design was so well received that the trustees decided to adopt it as the Official Seal and Julia made a reduced version that is still in use. Other copies of the Wilder decoration were made, one of bronze for the president’s office.

There were other commissions for works on campus, among them the Cobb and Rice memorials for the Conservatory.3 In 1926, she translated a group of her drawings of college buildings into etchings.4 Reproductions of these were made and issued as the College calendar of that year and the next. Subsequently, the etchings were reduced in size and printed on postcards and sold in the local bookstores. Years later, boxes of them were discovered, brown with age, in the basements of several of the West College buildings. Brought upstairs and placed next to modern color photographs of the campus, the Co-op generously marked them at a bargain five cents each. The last card was sold in the fall of 1975, more than a half century after Julia had made some of the original sketches.

Plaster version of the 1911 Wilder decoration

Plaster version of the 1911 Wilder decoration

She is remembered as kind and friendly, shy and reserved, a well-organized teacher, straightforward and sensible, gifted in many ways and a good friend. She is remembered in her 70’s demonstrating her lack of stodgy aesthetics by seeing beauty in the descending rows of television antennae beneath her home on a San Diego hillside. She is remembered in her 80’s setting off in a friend’s jeep or the city bus to woodcarving lessons 20 miles away.

Julia Severance left Oberlin in 1940. Her beautiful studio still stands though it has never been used by any other artist. Her memorial bas-reliefs and an Oberlin Inn mural were long ago taken away, replaced by newer decoration. All that remains is her original Wilder decoration of the College Seal and the variations derived from it. Neither name nor initials of the artist appears on these. Such information is now limited to the files in the Archives office and the bound volumes of the Alumni Magazine.


Artist: Patricia Finley (B.A. 1947, M.A. 1949)
Work: Mural for children’s library
Location: Boys’ and Girls’ Room, Oberlin Public Library

It came as a surprise recently to one Oberlin faculty member that when he mentioned the Public Library some of his freshman students had no idea where it was.

New buildings mean new paths and the classes of students who trod the marble foyer of Carnegie Library have been superseded by those who travel up the concrete ramp of Mudd Learning Center. Dropping into the Public Library has become less common as Carnegie has become a less-frequented corner of the campus.

The relationship between Oberlin College and the Public Library is a long one. The Library was open to any responsible person of the town “upon payment of a quarterly tax of 50 cents” in 1886. When the Carnegie building was built in 1908, a fiction room and children’s room were shared with the public. In 1947 the Public Library came into being with its own board of trustees and the right to acquire funds from intangible taxes. It retained its home in the Carnegie building, however, and remained the recipient of College services.

When the Boys’ and Girls’ Room was to be redecorated in 1948 and there was an opportunity of using a large mural in the scheme, the College Art Department was consulted. The execution of the mural was assigned to graduate student Patricia Finley as the major part of her work for the master’s degree. The other part was her thesis, Design and Execution of a Mural. It is an interesting view of the evolution of an art project and a revelation to the non-artist that the long arduous hours of standing on a scaffold applying paint to a 6 ½ x 17 foot wall were perhaps the least demanding of those spent on the work.

The mural as an art form has been inseparably associated with the W.P.A., the project that gave employment in Depression days to artists to decorate federal buildings. Because of this tie it has been assumed by many that the children’s room mural was one of these projects. Pat did not consult the works of the previous decade, though she may have benefited from the project’s popularizing the art form. Nor did she give attention to the Kenyon Cox lunettes close at hand in the Administration Building. Active during an earlier period of great interest in wall paintings, Cox had been one of the most celebrated muralists in the country. His 1915 decorations on the campus, memorials to his father and mother, are typical of the giant allegorical figures prominent in institution decoration of that era. They had little to offer the artist of a children’s library room.

Her sources were to be more classic. A Gothic tympanum suggested a composition that would hold its own with the heavy architecture of the room. In selecting a lintel and arch form she achieved the necessary stability and acquired as a bonus, a psychologically suitable shape, a portal. A 16th-century mille fleur tapestry in the Allen Art Museum collection supplied the solution to the problem of enlivening the background with a flat pattern of flower shapes. Renaissance frescoes gave her an appreciation for amplitude of form. The librarian had suggested that illustrations from familiar fairy tales would most successfully appeal to the broad age group that made up the library’s visitors. Pat chose three stories that offered a wide variety of shapes and patterns. But there was a period of self-criticism when she recognized that her drawing might be weak, or that her vocabulary of form was limited, and that it was necessary to restudy structure of natural forms.

The mural was not to be true fresco (buon fresco) in which color is applied to wet plaster and becomes integrated with it. There was not time to develop the necessary special technique. Besides, the application of paint on a dry surface (fresco secco) allowed the use of more vivacious colors, appropriate to the spirit of a room for children and necessary to balance the large architectural forms in the room. An appendix to her thesis, “Psychological Experiments with Illustrative Materials for Children,” reveals her investigation of suitable color and design.

Renaissance painting taught her the value of composing with tone. She learned that later she could do almost anything with color and the composition would still hold together.

And then, in spite of all the sketches, preplanning, the re-educating of eye and hand, once she stood on the scaffold and had put in the under-painting there were new considerations. “…the greatly increased size, the new material, and new surroundings demanded their own particular solutions which could not possibly have been foreseen in a sketch.” She acknowledged the fact that an intellectual solution was not the same as a productive application of the solution.

The materials used in the 110 ½ square-foot mural were 20 tubes of various pigments, brushes varying from 3/16" to 2", two coffee cans (one for clear water, the other for brush rinsing) a muffin tin for mixing water with pigments, a cake of soap for brush cleaning, a package of paper towels, a 4' x 6' scaffold. It is a modest list of supplies when compared with the pleasure it has given the children who have used the room for the past 27 years.

Following her graduation and marriage Pat studied at the Cincinnati Art Academy and taught painting classes at the Cincinnati Museum of Art. Sculpture had become her main interest. There were some years of work as an art librarian there and in New York, a bronze in a Newark Museum show, and then a shift to a new field, that of Jungian analysis. An article on her use of graphic techniques in her work appeared in the October 1975 issue of Art Psychotherapy.

Recently, there has been some concern for the library mural. The drawback to fresco secco is that it is impermanent. Pat chose casein colors for their clarity and durability and she chose correctly. It is only after 25 years that paint weakness and loss became obvious in one area, the upper right corner. Anxious to preserve what has become an essential part of the room, Librarian Eleanor Owen ’59 B.D. is hopeful a way can be found to repair the mural.

During her storytelling sessions she has frequently called attention to the work and noted with satisfaction the delight of a new word and concept to a small child. Having lived with the mural since its inception she has observed that what began as a learning experience for Patricia Finley has become that for others.

1 Now 68 South Professor and the home of Emeritus Economics Prof. Ben and Gertrude Lewis.

2 Their children Champ ’33 and the late Helen Ward ’32.

3 I was unable to locate these relief plaques. The large bronze relief portrait of James Severance who was treasurer for more than 20 years, is now stored in the Archives.

4 Julia Severance’s etchings will be exhibited at Mudd Learning Center in May 1976.

Goldberg, Marcia. “A statue, the College seal, a mural.” Oberlin Alumni Magazine 72 (January/February 1976): 8-12.

Related Documents

Photograph of Oberlin Collegiate Institute seal.

“Seal of Oberlin College.” Oberlin Alumni Magazine 7 (July 1911): 353.

 
 
Oberlin College Seal -