Monday, April 29, 2013

Author Spotlight, Bob Priddy

The Art of the Missouri Capitol by Bob Priddy and Jeffrey Ball 
 After fire destroyed Missouri’s capitol in 1911, voters approved a bond issue to construct a new statehouse. The tax to pay the bonds produced a one-million-dollar surplus, leaving a vast amount of money to decorate the new building. A special commission of art-minded Missourians employed some of the nation’s leading painters and sculptors to create powerful and often huge pieces of art to adorn Missouri’s most important new structure.

Q:  Did it really take you ten years to write this book? 
 Give or take a decade or three, I suppose.  I know the precise day that I first saw the Missouri Capitol and got my first exposure to its art.  I was on my way back to my hometown of Sullivan, Illinois with my classmates after our senior trip to the Lake of the Ozarks and we stopped at the Capitol. We took the standard tour that included the Benton mural in the House Lounge.
A little more than seven years later I became the news director of a Jefferson City radio station and began covering events from time to time at the Capitol.  One of our listeners had a copy of the 1928 final report of the Capitol Decoration Commission and gave it to me. That would have been in the late 60s. It was my first exposure to the scope of the art in and around the building.  I noticed several of the paintings had been done by artists from Taos, New Mexico wondered how that came to be. 
The mayor of Jefferson City in those days was John G. Christy, who had been the Speaker of the House when Benton painted his mural. I had heard him tell of his efforts to have the mural painted over when he saw how vivid it was. And when Benton died in 1975, I recorded Christy telling me that story.
By then I'd become the news director of the Missourinet, a statewide radio network and I covered the House when the legislature was in session. The House press gallery is right below Schladermundt's "The Glory of Missouri at Peace" window and directly across from Hoffbauer's "The Glory of Missouri at War" mural.  Since moving to the Senate twenty or so years ago I have occupied a seat at the press table on the Senate floor, right beneath one of Richard Miller's senate paintings.  So I’ve been surrounded by the art for a long time.
My sister-in-law and her family lived in Albuquerque and I decided that I would go up to Taos one day while we were visiting her and see if I could find any relatives of the Taos artists.  I wound up recording interviews with E. L. Blumenshein's daughter and Oscar Berninhau’s daughter.  I also got in touch with Buck Dunton's son who sent me some photographs of his father working on "The First Train to Tipton" painting. 
Somewhere during all of this a thought had begun to grow that somebody needed to write a better book than the 1928 report that didn't really tell us anything about the artists or how they'd been chosen and how they created these works. But I didn't have any idea how to go about doing the research.
A few years later I met Jeff while he was working with the School of Art and Archaeology on the collection of preliminary works the Capitol artists had submitted for commission approval. We exchanged some notes and kept in touch.   And then in 2001, Tom Sater--who was in charge of the restoration of the Senate chamber--suggested we combine our efforts for a book on the construction and decoration of the capitol. 
Somebody had to be the writer and since I stayed in this area while Jeff went off to teach art in out-of-state colleges, I became the one who put fingers on keys and saw letters appear on a screen. But we still had so much research to do because none of the major records of the decoration commission survived.  So, most of the decade was spent ferreting out information. 

Q:  Do you have any favorite stories that came out of that research?
 Loads of them. People sometimes ask me to take them on a tour of the art and when I do it takes at least three hours to visit most of the major interior decorations and tell stories about them.  I call those tours "Gilligans."  You know---after the crew of the Minnow that went on a three-hour tour.  No way can we do that here. But some stories kind of stick out. 
Some of the most remarkable canvases in the building are the rotunda murals by Sir Frank Brangwyn, who was the United Kingdom's foremost muralist for the first third of the twentieth century.  They're remarkable because of their size AND because Frank Brangwyn was never in the building. He painted these huge canvases at his studio in London. They're also remarkable because he was dealing with some significant perspective issues because of the vertical and horizontal curvature of the rotunda walls.  The story also has a melancholy part to it, too. 
When the first paintings were unveiled in January, 1921, a state senator from Jefferson City who admitted he knew nothing about art got all puffed up and tried to block any more funding for any more decoration.  That was a fun story to tell because he wound up tangling with a woman who was the art critic for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat.
The story of General Pershing's speech at Lafayette's tomb, which is one of the few paintings not in the book (at least I haven't found it), interested me because it's a painting about an event that did not happen and the portrait uses the body of someone other than Pershing.  
The story of the "Signing of the Treaty" bronze grouping on the river side of the Capitol is an interesting one, too, because the original plaster statue was well traveled and almost thrown away before it was cast in bronze. It captures a second in history that Thomas Jefferson thought was the most unconstitutional act of his Presidency---the signing of the Louisiana Purchase Treaty. 
Q:  What pieces are your favorites in the Capitol building?
I suppose my previous answer goes to that.  My problem, though, is that I've been so submerged in this stuff for so long that I don't know whether I like something because of its artistic merits, the historic event or person it portrays, the story of the artist and the way he created the piece, or the controversy the work generated.  

I'm in love with the Capitol as a whole, with the story of its construction and its decoration, and with the stories of the people who made all of it happen.  So it's really hard to separate the elements into favored categories.

Q:  What do you want readers to get from the book?
 Lots of things. I want people to appreciate our capitol for the gem that it is and the gem it can be. I want people to understand the greatness of the art that makes it unique among the nation's capitols. I want readers to learn the significance of this decoration project; the commission didn't just go out and hire some artists and sculptors and tell them to do this painting or carve that figure.  The commission hired some of the foremost painters, sculptors, and stained glass and tapestry artisans in America whose names remain familiar in the entire history of this country's art. Only a few people who visit the capitol know what they're seeing or understand that they are looking at the works of some of this country's greatest artists.  
Most of all, I hope readers, including the public officials who have bought and will buy this book, will develop greater pride in this greatest symbol of our state. This building has been neglected for years: paint is peeling; lighting is bad, bronze sculptures are in need of restoration.  The very steps people walk on are cracking. But it is more convenient to ignore these conditions than it is to invest in making repairs and restoring this great symbol to a dignity and a grandeur it deserves.
Capitols are intended to represent the strength, beauty, and dignity of their states.  They're supposed to be uplifting symbols to the people, inspirations to the citizens, and representations of the strength of democracy. 
Our building needs help becoming those things.  I hope this book helps others discover their pride in the building and gain the courage to bring it back to the glory the builders and original decorators gave us. 

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