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IL Sculpture Program

Establishing The Sculpture Program at the University of Illinois

The provision of instruction in art at the University of Illinois in Urbana began in 1871 with courses in freehand drawing. Instruction in clay modeling was offered in 1874. Then at a meeting of the Board of Trustees in 1877, Dr. John Milton Gregory, the first Regent (President) of the University, recommended the establishment of a School of Art and Design. A century later this history would be detailed in the catalog for the 52nd Annual Faculty Exhibition for the Art Department.

Dr. Gregory was instrumental in establishing a program in fine arts at Illinois. He gathered a collection of plaster casts in Europe, representing examples of ancient and modern sculpture. These casts were the central focus of the new Art Gallery opened in 1875 at University Hall. The exhibit and gallery were unique to this region at that time and received national acclaim. Preparing the exhibit required repair of many casts that were damaged in shipment from Europe. A young Lorado Taft from Urbana helped to repair the casts and prepare the exhibit. This experience, combined with Dr. Gregory’s lectures on art, had a major influence in encouraging Taft, as he was to become one of the nation’s leading sculptors. Many of Taft’s works, such as the Alma Mater, are prominent at the University of Illinois.

In 1875 James Kenis was appointed as instructor in clay modeling and architectural ornamentation. In 1877 Lorado Taft succeeded Kenis for a time, even before he had received his degree. Forty years later Taft continued his connection with the University by giving an annual series of lectures. This lecture series became endowed and today brings artists to the University under the LoradoTaft Lectureship.

During the 1930′s degree programs were established in painting, art education and commercial and industrial design. While clay modeling had been offered at the inception of the University’s art program in 1874, its primary purpose was to familiarize architecture students with ornamentation rather than as a program in sculpture. By 1940 there still did not exist a formal sculpture curriculum at Illinois nor did the Art Department have a sculptor on staff to teach sculpture classes. There was interest in the subject, however, and requests for instruction on the part of students. The Art Department began seeking a sculptor to develop a sculpture program in 1941. Professor Charles Dieteman of the Art Department recommended Marvin Martin, with whom he had studied at Denver University in the 1930′s. Martin was among a small but energetic group of young Colorado sculptors who were gaining recognition for their work on a local and national level. Marvin Martin was offered a teaching position at the University of Illinois in 1941. However, the start of World War II resulted in the appointment being postponed. Finally in 1944 Martin came to Illinois and he began building the sculpture program. Classes were first held in the basement of David Kinley Hall. As enrollment grew, larger studio space was provided in the basement of the Architecture building. Sculpture classes included clay modeling, casting, wood and stone carving. In 1960 the Art Building was dedicated and extensive new studio space at last became available for all the programs in the Art Department. The sculpture program expanded to include new courses in welding, metal casting and ceramics. Martin developed and promoted a formal sculpture curriculum, and the Bachelor of Arts in Sculpture was established in 1961. Following an exhibition on Cape Cod, Martin unexpectedly died from a stroke in July 1963. The approval of the Master of Arts in Sculpture followed shortly thereafter in 1963.

Marvin Blackburn Martin was born in Fort Worth, Texas in 1907. Soon thereafter the family moved to northwestern Colorado on what was then some of the last public domain land opened for homesteading. His interests in art developed as a result of natural talent and his capacity to appreciate the visual power of the region’s wild landscapes. As his artistic skills developed during high school and with encouragement of teachers and family, he decided to pursue art as a career. He entered the Kansas City Art Institute in 1925 where he was subsequently awarded scholarships and served as an assistant instructor. He also became an illustrator for the Kansas City Star newspaper and served as staff artist. During this period Martin enrolled in sculpture classes at the Institute and thus found his calling and a lifelong commitment to sculpture.

During his formative years Martin traveled to Mexico and across the United States to further his exposure to sculpture and to meet artists. He settled in Denver, Colorado in 1930, opened a studio, and turned his attention to creative work. In 1933 the Federal WPA (Works Progress Administration) provided opportunities for people from diverse fields including artists. Martin found employment under this program and completed several major projects during this period. Among works completed during this time was a six-foot sculpture of the sea god, Neptune, housed at the University of Colorado in Boulder; a large relief panel in the Denver municipal court depicting Colorado’s gold mining era; a memorial to the Ute chiefs at Ignacio, Colorado; and smaller pieces at the State Museum in Springfield, Illinois and at the University of Wyoming.

Martin received national attention in 1935 when he installed two large sculptures on the facade of the Boulder High School. Rival citizen committees formed to both remove the pieces and to defend the work. The State Patrol was called to control traffic as people flowed into Boulder to view the controversial sculptures. From 1935 to 1938 Martin was instructor in sculpture, life drawing, and ceramic design at the University of Denver. In 1939 one of his works was exhibited at the World’s Fair in New York City. In 1941 Martin completed two large relief panels commissioned for the elementary and junior high school in Carol, Iowa. While at the University of Illinois, in addition to teaching art and sculpture classes, he produced many pieces for exhibits and commissions. Today Martin’s works are found in private collections and on public display at various institutions and organizations.

Marvin Martin (1907-1963) was a dedicated teacher who valued the development of creative inspiration and technical skills in his students. During his tenure at the University of Illinois, the sculpture option grew from a series of service courses to a formal degree program offering students the opportunity to develop skills to embark on careers in art and sculpture.

(written by Glen Martin, June, 2001)