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 artists
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 Colleges
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 1890s 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 goodyou have done that very wellperhaps this other
could be improved a bitso."
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
Oberlins 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, Martins
opinion was highly valued. But before the portrait bust was destroyed,
photographs were taken and copies made available to admiring students
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 Lincolns 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. Pecks 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 generals 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 generals small granddaughter, who had whimpered
with tedium during the ceremonies, pulled on the drapery enclosing
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 Pecks 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
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 Shurtleffs
daughter, Laura Shurtleff-Price (1893), who wrote to the College
a terrible worry to my sister and me
I dont 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
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,
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 Severances carriage or Julias 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 Colleges 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 Womens 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
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.
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 presidents 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
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
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 70s 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 80s setting off in a friends 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 childrens library
Location: Boys and Girls Room, Oberlin Public
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
childrens 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
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 masters 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 childrens room mural was one of these projects.
Pat did not consult the works of the previous decade, though she
may have benefited from the projects 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 childrens library
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 librarys 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.
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 Severances etchings will
be exhibited at Mudd Learning Center in May 1976.