Trapped in the middle

E. Spencer Schubert is a Kansas City sculptor who says he was “honored” when Speaker of the House Steve Tilley asked him to create bronze busts of Dred Scott and of Rush Limbaugh. He’s found himself within a fecal hurricane about the Limbaugh bust.  But he’s holding his course.

Almost 150 years ago there was a woman sculptor from Missouri named Vinnie Ream.  She was working in her office in the basement of the U.S. Capitol on a bust of Abraham Lincoln, the last likeness from life made of him.  She was close friends of Kansas Senator Edmund Ross who refused to make his preference known as the impeachment vote neared for President Andrew Johnson. Anti-Johnson forces descended on Vinne and demanded she deliver Ross’ vote. She refused and was thrown out of her studio in the capitol. Ross was one of the eight senators (including Missouri’s John Brooks Henderson) to vote against impeachment.

Schubert, whose bust of baseball legend Buck O’Neil was unveiled a few days ago in the Hall of Famous Missourians, might be feeling some heat from some people who want to get to Tilley through him. We don’t really know. We haven’t talked to him. His statement makes us believe some people have focused on him for some reason. They’re shooting at the wrong target.

Schubert is only the fourth sculptor chosen to put some of his works in the HOFM. It’s a pretty big deal to be asked to do work for the hall.  The controversy has motivated him to put out a statement  noting:

“As a sculptor, I decided long ago that criteria for accepting commissions would be whether or not they are artistically interesting.  I knew this would be an interesting project due to the fact that there are some strong opinions on either4 side about Rush. Those strong feelings challenge me to create a portrait that each viewer sees the way that they want to see it.”

To be chosen to have your art work placed permanently in a public building is a great distinction for any artist.  It is almost a form of immortality.  Art in private homes or commercial businesses often is transitory and sometimes becomes an unwelcome problem for descendants or future owners of the business. It can wind up in the back of a closet or in an attic or even in the trash depending on the arbitrary tastes of those who possess it next.  But public buildings are different. Art in public buildings is pretty close to permanent.  It is a great honor, a recognition of your talent and your achievements in the field when your art is added to a public building.

When the capitol was new, the original decoration commission approached England’s greatest muralist, Frank Brangwyn, to paint four giant murals. Although Brangwyn had never been to Missouri and never would come to Missouri and had trouble remembering where the state capitol was (he sometimes referred to his paintings as being done for “the parliament house in St. Louis”), he was excited about accepting the commission because it would be in a prominent public building.

When the artists of Taos, New Mexico were asked to provide lunettes for the Missouri Capitol, they jumped at the opportunity, knowing it would expose their works to large numbers of people who visit public buildings.

It’s been that way for the other sculptors who have done busts for the HOFM.  It’s a big honor. And to have your sculpture in a building that was decorated by some of the greatest sculptors and canvas artists of the first half of the twentieth century, well, that is a tremendous recognition.

Artists judge the topics of their commissions differently from the way the general public judge the topics. While some might see Rush Limbaugh as a creep and others might see him as a giant in broadcasting and politics, Schubert sees an interesting subject. Thomas Hart Benton  noted at the height of controversy about his great House Lounge mural that artists create images and the public decides how it wants to see the work. That’s what Schubert is saying when he says he wants to create a portrait “that each viewer sees the way they want to see it.”

See the work not the creator. You might not respect the person behind the image but the person behind the work of art does deserves respect.

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3 thoughts on “Trapped in the middle

  1. This is truly an embarrassment….and makes our state a laughingstock …! As a taxpayer, I object to having a national disgrace taking up valuable space…. I’m afraid this artist will be known as simply the one responsible for the mess. You’d think the sculptor, would have some sort of integrity, or, crisis of conscience, and return the money. Our esteem would be enormous…were that to happen..

  2. Not to be a stickler, Mr. Priddy, but sculptor Vinnie Ream was in fact born in Madison, Wisconsin where, I think it’s safe to say, any similar hall of fame would be accompainied by no small amount of controversy.

    • You are correct, Mr. Hague. She later also lived in Kansas before moving to Columbia, Mo., where her home still stands.

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