Cool Things - Capitol Sculpture Models
The history of art in the Kansas statehouse is rife with controversy. From the infamous "nude telephone girls" of Jerome Fedeli to the "freaks" of John Steuart Curry, the subject and style of capitol art have been subjected to criticism so vicious that other artists might be glad they lost the commission.
When the state legislature decided in the late 1970s to fill niches on the capitol's second floor with art, they put the Kansas Historical Society in charge. Hoping to break the old adage that history repeats itself, the Historical Society decided to avoid controversy by involving historians from around the state in selecting the four Kansans to be immortalized in sculpture. The Historical Society called for nominations of "persons who are no longer living and who have brought recognition to the state of Kansas through their accomplishments." In late summer 1978, it was announced the chosen figures were politician Arthur Capper, aviator Amelia Earhart, soldier and politician Dwight Eisenhower, and editor William Allen White. With this formidable task accomplished, the Historical Society next turned to the equally daunting job of selecting an artist to carve the four massive sculptures.
Sponsors of the legislation to fund the statuary backed Lumen Martin Winter, who had recently finished eight rotunda murals separated by the niches that were to hold the new statues. Not everyone supported Winter, though. Rep. Fred Weaver of Baxter Springs told the Topeka Journal, "I don't like this man's work. In my opinion, he is a better salesman than artist."
The Historical Society stepped in by announcing it would accept all artists' applications in the form of a resume, ten slides of work, and a budget not to exceed $60,000. Preferred applicants would be "connected with the state of Kansas" and "proficient in metal or stone sculpture of human figures." After receiving about 20 applications, the Capitol Murals Committee (including the Society's executive director) narrowed the field to three finalists—the muralist Winter, plus John Learned and Peter Felten, Jr. The committee next asked the finalists to submit scale models for review.
Winter's supporters apparently considered him a shoe-in, but this was not the case. He was a Kansan but had not lived in the state for many years. John Learned, too, lived out of state in Oklahoma. Peter Felten, on the other hand, was born, raised, lived, and worked in Hays, Kansas. Felten had studied art at Fort Hays State University after a stint in the Navy. Largely self-taught, he opened a gallery in Hays where he gained renown for creating distinctive stone sculptures. He favored limestone (the material of the capitol) but also worked in marble and alabaster. Felten's first commissioned work, a bust of Buffalo Bill Cody, appeared on public display in 1961. He completed "Monarch of the Plains," a massive limestone bison at the Fort Hays State Historic Site, in 1967, and the "Pioneer Family" statue in Oberlin was finished in 1971.
These major installations as well as the artist's strong Kansas ties presented an advantage over the competition. Experience working with sizeable sculpture also helped, as the four statues were to weigh about 2,000 pounds each and stand approximately eight feet tall. "Hardly anyone else does work that large," Felten later said, "so I had a sort of edge." Despite these advantages, Felten did not assume he had the job. He set aside four months to research and create models of the subjects for the competition's final round. Capper, the sculptor later remarked, was fairly easy to capture because "he was such a humble looking man who always stood with hunched shoulders." Eisenhower was a "decision maker" who "always stood in neat poses." While Earhart presented a diversity of possible poses and expressions, White was "a highly animated man" who would prove to be the most difficult subject.
Felten captured the selection committee's imagination with his models, and won the commission. Massive blocks of Silverdale limestone from southeastern Kansas arrived at the artist's Hays studio in May 1979. Felten chose Silverdale because he believed it to be the finest Kansas limestone, uniform and "excellent for statues." For three years, Felten and his assistants carved the blocks into figures representing the four famous Kansans. The finished statues arrived in Topeka in July 1981, and were craned from a flatbed truck to the second floor porch before being moved on rollers into the rotunda. The capitol niches were finally occupied nearly 100 years after they were built.
John Steuart Curry refused to sign his now-famous murals when they became controversial in the early 1940s. Felten didn't sign his capitol artwork either, but for entirely different reasons, explaining, "This is Kansas' work, not mine." These models for his "Famous Kansans" sculptures are in the collections of the Historical Society's Kansas Museum of History.
Entry: Cool Things - Capitol Sculpture Models
Author: Rebecca Martin
Date Created: July 2011
Date Modified: December 2014
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.