Melissa Merli: Taft was ahead of his time
'Alma Mater' only a 'small part' of sculptor's career
Krannert Art Museum's Robert LaFrance believes he would have really liked Lorado Taft, whose "Alma Mater" sculpture was welcomed back to the University of Illinois campus this past week after extensive restoration.
A Renaissance man, Taft (1860-1936) was one of the leading sculptors of his time and a teacher, writer and critic.
Known to the masses, he wrote hundreds of newspaper articles about all kinds of things, mainly other sculptors and art.
But the thing that surprised LaFrance most about Taft was his openness toward women, immigrants and minorities.
He employed them in his Midway Studios in Chicago, calling them associates.
And Taft, a UI alumnus who spent his boyhood in Champaign, did that a decade or so after returning from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris — where women were generally not allowed even to study.
Just model for the male students.
With obvious excitement, LaFrance points to a photograph in the galley proofs of a forthcoming book about Taft that he co-edited.
The 1920 picture shows a group of artists including Taft in his Chicago studio. One, a woman, is sculpting a nude torso of a man for the "Fountain of Time" for the Midway in the Windy City. A male model, stripped down to the waist, poses for her.
"This is at a time when women had just been given the right to vote and when there was great prejudice against women, immigrants and other minorities," LaFrance said.
"Taft also had African-American students at the Art Institute of Chicago and African-American associates. This was rare in the late 1800s and early 1900s."
LaFrance, curator of pre-modern art at Krannert Art Museum, is the lead editor of "Lorado Taft: The Chicago Years," to be published Oct. 1 by the UI Press.
The author, the late Allen Stuart Weller, had started the book but was unable to complete it before he died in 1997.
The former UI art professor, dean and Krannert Art Museum director had given a copy of his manuscript, though, to Henry Adams.
Adams, who for just a year was an art history professor at the UI, went on to teach elsewhere and to develop a distinguished career, LaFrance said. Adams realized he was too busy to work on the Taft project and brought in independent scholar Stephen P. Thomas to help.
A few years ago, Adams and Thomas met LaFrance in Chicago at a conference session on Taft. After learning there about the Taft project, LaFrance offered to co-edit the book.
Adams and Thomas realized the Krannert curator — actually an expert in European art — was best poised to be lead editor because Taft's archives and many of his artworks are at the UI.
Mr. Weller had authored an earlier book on Taft; it focuses on the artist's five years in Paris. The new book will cover Taft's years in Chicago — essentially the rest of his career.
Just a few pages in it are devoted to the UI's "Alma Mater." In contrast, the iconic statue received lots of ink — real and virtual — this past week.
"The 'Alma Mater' is just a small part of his career," said LaFrance, who in person witnessed the reinstallation of the beloved Alma on campus. "I'm trying to lay out the rest of his career in a clear way."
LaFrance also has shed some light on Taft in another way: He curated a semi-permanent installation of a dozen or so of the artist's works in the Kinkead Pavilion of Krannert Art Museum. It owns 150 works by Taft.
"Basically, after Taft died the UI purchased for a nominal fee the contents of his studio," LaFrance said.
The Krannert installation shows Taft's working process via his "sketches" — the small models Taft sculpted in clay or plaster.
"Most artists do drawings first," the curator said. "Taft didn't work that way. Taft sketched in clay. Then he would make larger models before making a full-scale model in clay or plaster."
Taft would have a foundry cast the full-scale model in bronze, or he would hire a carver to carve it in stone or marble.
"Taft personally carved only one marble sculpture, the head of a little girl that's in storage at Krannert Art Museum," LaFrance said.
Taft also collected plaster models of famous sculptures. His dream was to show them at his "Dream Museum."
It never happened.
All of that and more is covered in the 288 pages and 122 color and 101 black-and-white photographs in "Lorado Taft: The Chicago Years." The UI Press plans to sell the hardback for $39.95 — a good price.
UI Press Director Willis "Bill" Regier said the press was able to make the book affordable because it received financial support from the UI Library, the Spurlock Museum and Krannert Art Museum.
"It's sort of a campuswide project, with the Press bearing most of the expense," Regier said. "It's a hugely collaborative project."
As for LaFrance, Regier said he's impressed by his "act of devotion" to Taft and Weller by completing the project — after it had languished for years.
The book — one of several publications to LaFrance's credit — is not the only thing he's finishing up here.
The 47-year-old curator and scholar's last day at Krannert will be May 15. He began working there in 2006.
On July 15 he will become director of the David Owsley Museum of Art at Ball State University. An heir of the Ball family, Owsley was an art collector and curator who gave the museum several thousand art works.
"It's a great job and it's truly a great collection," LaFrance said.
His wife, Areli Marina, a UI associate professor of art history, will stay here, at least for the time being.
Jonathan Fineberg, a UI professor emeritus of art history, has received a national "best show" award from the International Association of Art Critics.
Fineberg, who lives in Urbana, was a winner in the category of best presentation in an alternative venue for organizing "Alice Aycock Drawings: Some Stories are Worth Repeating," at the Grey Art Gallery, New York University, and Parrish Art Museum in Watermill, N.Y. It traveled to the Santa Barbara Art Museum in California.
The awards honoring exhibitions that opened in calendar year 2013 will be handed out May 12 in New York.
News-Gazette staff writer Melissa Merli can be reached at 351-5367 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Her blog is at news-gazette.com/blogs/art-and-about.