Early History of The ISC In Lawrence, KS

Keepers of the Universe by Eldon Tefft

My sister Laura has been an artist since we were kids.  When she was in her early twenties, Poco Frazier whispered in her ear that she was a sculptor.  The poor girl hasn’t been the same since.

Bernard “Poco” Frazier was a professor in sculpture in the architecture school at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Ks. It is telling that sculpture was taught and was a part of the architecture school at that time.   Frazier had studied and worked with Laredo Taft in Chicago.

When they were building a memorial campanile on the KU campus after WWII Frazier was commissioned to sculpt the doors.  When it came time to have the doors cast in bronze he had his longtime student and assistant Eldon Tefft take them to a foundry in Mexico.  This was the beginning of a lifetime of studying bronze casting technique and equipment for Eldon.

Campinella on the KU campus with the bronze doors by Bernard poco Frazier that Eldon oversaw the casting in Mexico.

We forget that for hundreds of years bronze casting technique was considered trade secrets that were never revealed to the artist. The artist brought his model or a plaster cast to the foundry and sometime later they gave him a bronze of it.

Eldon Tefft was a leader among many in academia that tried to change this and make it so that  they could teach student artists the fundamentals of bronze casting.

In 1960 Eldon organized the first National Conference on Bronze Casting and it was held on the KU campus, March 31, April 1,2,1960. This was the beginning of the I.S.C.

From the proceedings that were published after the conference, the focus on bronze casting is clear.  The table of contents reads as a how to for bronze casting; wax pattern demonstration, sprueing, investment and burnout, centrifugal casting demonstration, melt and pour, joining and chasing, patina demonstrations, safety, and experimental casting

The discussions in each of these sections were comprised of academics but also representatives from various corporations and  foundries.   U.S. Gypsum talking about plaster and investment material.  The Bareco Wax company talking about wax.  In the investment and burnout section a rep from the Investment Institute talks about the latest thing in investment, ceramic shell, the standard method now used in foundries all over the world.  In the experimental casting discussion there is mention of Styrofoam casting.

Technique in casting was not only the dominant topic it was the only topic.  There was no mention of sculptural aesthetics.  No personal stories of artistic revelations.  How to pour bronze was the topic and they stuck to the topic.

This beginning for the I.S.C. set a tone for the conferences that followed.  But that tone soon changed as the organization became more cohesive and the ideas that were shared became more challenging.

Shortly after Poco Frazier whispered to my sister that she was a sculptor in the mid-1970s, he died.  She became a student of Eldon Tefft.  She would invite me to the KU foundry whenever she was having one of her pieces poured and so I got to know Eldon.

I watched as my sister progressed in her pursuit of being a sculptor and saw that she often had to choose between having a piece of hers cast or feeding her kids.  Needless to say, my nieces and nephew didn’t go hungry.  My thought was that if we built a foundry at the farm where she lived north of Lawrence she could pour her pieces and feed her kids.

So, I went up to campus and talked to Eldon about building a foundry. I didn’t understand that by this time, the early 1980s, Eldon was considered the expert on foundry design.  Particularly foundry design for the artist.  When I went to talk to him, he handed me a book.  A book that he had written about foundry design.  The next week after reading, I had more questions, he handed me another book.   After three or four more times of plying him with questions he ran out of books to give me and said, “Why don’t you start coming up here and I’ll put you to work.”  There was never any mention of enrolling in a class, becoming a KU student, something I had tried multiple times.  It was only come up and help him with whatever he was doing.  This began a thirty-year relationship with my teacher, Eldon Tefft.  Professor, we called him.

Unfinished sculpture called “the players” by Eldon Tefft. It is a deer and antelope back to back. (Where the deer and the antelope play) a companion piece to the Keepers of the Universe.

I built the foundry at my sister’s farm.  When Eldon retired from KU and before he built the studio foundry for himself that his son Kim still runs I got to cast a number of his pieces.

My later years with Eldon were mostly spent stone carving with him.  He has a trio of stone sculptures along the Kansas River in Lawrence that we would work on.  Over the years of carving on these pieces I would relish the stories Eldon would tell about the early years of the I.S.C.

From the copies of the proceedings of the early conferences that he gave me I gained an appreciation of the historical context in the stories that were revealed in those publications.  From the beginning in 1960 the conferences show the evolution that happened in sculpture in the 1960s and 1970s.  This evolution reverberates to this day.   The changes in sculpture didn’t necessarily happen in Lawrence Ks. but that is where they came together to talk about those changes.

I hope in these blog posts to convey some of that early history. When Eldon gave, me copies of the proceedings of the first nine conferences twenty-five years ago I remember thinking that there was an important history contained in those publications.  Not just an I.S.C. history but one in the broader context of art history.  The changes in sculpture were so huge during those years.  The very definition of “sculpture” was being redefined and much of that redefinition was being discussed at those early conferences in Lawrence.

Keepers of the Universe

All the varied media that we associate with sculpture today, light, sound, kinetics, computer generation, interactive, performance, conceptual, and on and on were topics that were presented and argued about.  Did these new permutations belong under the heading of sculpture?  For and against the status quo was challenged.

Working with Eldon all the years I did it always amazed me that he was in the middle of this upheaval in sculpture.  In his own work, he maintained as a traditional approach as can be imagined.  Bronze casting using solid investment and stone carving using only hand tools.  You can’t get more traditional than that.  And yet there he was organizing and including the most nontraditional methods of expression of the moment.

Those revolutionary years in sculpture have had a lasting impact. These days we don’t recognize a status quo.  The word “sculpture” was redefined and it continues to be redefined.  This is what drives us in our passion for this art.  I hope that by looking back that this can inspire more of that redefinition.

By Karl Ramberg

5 responses

  1. Wonderful story; these manuscripts should be available to every sculptor; what an education. thank you.

    • There are copies of the proceedings in the KU art library at the Spencer museum on campus. I am going to write more about the early conferences. That get interesting as the 1960’s unfold.

  2. I am pleased that you wrote this. I am an admirer of Eldon and, like you, was invited to come up to the studio and hang out…”I might learn something”. And I did, a life long love of sculpture and the process. This lead to meeting Jim Bass thru Nancy Marshall and participating in his pours when we were all invited, for the day to participate. Thanks for bringing back these memories.

  3. Karl, Thank you for sharing. Eldon was a National Treasure, it makes us so happy to see him live through you, your sister and all of the other sculptures he has touched! I look forward to the day all of you make his Keepers of the Universe vision come to fruition. 🙂

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