Artists of Lanesville - WALKER HANCOCK, Sculptor
The range and variety of Walker Hancock’s sculpture is truly remarkable, and all of it is created with his characteristic artistic integrity. He prefers to call his work “sculpture for architecture” rather than “architectural sculpture.” He has completed countless portraits as well and still receives commissions for them.
The sculptor’s favorite is the thirty-nine foot War Memorial in Philadelphia’s Thirtieth Street Station. When the tall, winged angel grieving over a dying soldier figure was finally finished, Mr. Hancock said he hoped travelers from all walks of life would find it moving, yet austere enough to hold its place properly in the architecture of that great station.
The piece presented a tremendous challenge because, as he said, ‘‘There was great danger of falling into sentimentality on the one hand or lack of emotion on the other. Such matters can only be decided by one’s individual feeling. Nothing can be written about them.”
Leaders in the arts and literature have sat in Mr. Hancock’s granite studio by the quarry pit, people such as Booth Tarkington in 1934, who said to him, “Never criticize yourself while you are working. Wait until it’s all done, then stand back and criticize it.”
Robert Frost, the much loved American poet, came to sit for Mr. Hancock in 1950 and walk the paths in the woods there. The bust was finished in time for the poet’s birthday at the end of the week. President Dwight D. Eisenhower sat for him in Washington, D.C., and so did Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, and Chief Justice Warren E. Burger. He has sculpted other famous people from history such as President Abraham Lincoln for Washington Cathedral, a full-length heroic-size figure of General Douglas MacArthur, a head of President Woodrow Wilson and a seated figure of President James Madison. The list is long.
Born in St. Louis on June 28, 1901, Mr. Hancock had always wanted to be a sculptor, and became convinced when in kindergarten he successfully modeled a bird’s nest with eggs. A few years later he attended art school on Wednesday nights and Saturdays all day. His studies finally took him to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, where his teacher, a person he admired and respected, was the taciturn Charles Grafly. “But he was worth it,” the sculptor said.
While at Lanesville in his early days, Mr. Hancock came for meals at Mrs. Frisbee’s at Folly Cove, Warren Poland’s home. To his pleasure he discovered as many as ten artists and writers at the table for dinner the first day. He enjoyed the conversation and when it seemed indicated, he related what he thought was an interesting story. Suddenly, to his amazement, Mr. Clymer, himself an artist, slammed both fists on the table and said in a loud voice, “Cut out the hot air and pass the beans!”
Mr. Hancock was combining studies with Mr. Grafly both in Philadelphia and in Lanesville in the summertime. One year, Mr. Grafly left him in charge of his studio with permission to work on his own projects. Immediately, Mr. Hancock did a head of Toivo Helberg, a Finnish boy, his “first really serious finished head.” With it he later won the Widener Memorial Gold Medal. Of course, when Mr. Grafly returned, he examined his pupil’s work, saying nothing good or bad. But picking up a small piece of clay, he put it lightly above the left side of the forehead of the bust before silently walking off. Mr. Hancock thought it over a long time, then sent it out to the competition without the change. “But do you know, I think he was right,” he commented recently.
That same winter the sculptor completed a portrait of Waino Natti, the first young man he met when he came to the village. That sculpture won the Pris de Rome and earned him three years at the American Academy there. Going to Rome always had been his dream. Despite Mr. Grafly’s urging to stay at the studio, he sailed to Italy and Rome to what he called “a whole life and a whole world.”
When Mr. Hancock returned from Rome he stayed in New York City for a while, then came once more to Lanesville to build his granite studio here in 1930. He could not forget the village nor its people. While the granite blocks were being shaped and set in, he took his meals with a few Finnish families who lived nearby, such as the Gusti Stenbergs and the John Erkkilas. At times, he stayed with Mrs. Idah Austin, a former dietitian who later operated Folly Cove Inn.
Mr. Hancock was immediately “adopted” by the whole village. He is so enthused about the smallest thing done for him and so appreciative. He always has had a sense of humor, a quick smile, just enough so one senses also the fine-tuned awareness and serious nature of the artist he is.
When his studio was finished at “Deep Hole,” as the quarry is called, he invited the boys who swam in the pit to come back after supper to sit out on the granite terrace in summer until mosquitos drove them inside. In winter they gathered around the fireplace to listen to classical music. He also shared with them his “discoveries” of art treasures in Italy, a subject entirely new to them, for it was not taught in the schools. In return the boys brought in Finnish records of folk songs and dances. They also gave him the Finnish equivalent of his own complete name, calling him “Kavelia Kasikikko”. His old friends still greet him that way.
While in Rome the first time, Mr. Hancock completed a statue of Aphrodite for an estate in Chicago, and had it carved by the famous Piccirilli Bros. of Philadelphia, the stone carvers who did the Lincoln Memorial figure for Daniel Chester French.
For two years Mr. Hancock was a captain in the Army Intelligence Fine Arts and Archives Division, one of a team of ten special officers assigned to the European area north of the Alps for the purpose of preventing damage, where possible, to great works of arts hidden by the Germans. Sometimes paintings were discovered in castles, caves and even in remote hospitals. In one vast salt mine, 1,800 feet deep, Captain Hancock located his greatest find. Besides paintings by the great masters, there were treasures such as regalia dating back to the fifteenth century, the coffins of Frederick William I, first king of Prussia, his son, Frederick the Great, and also a vast library of that era. The last huge box of treasures was hoisted up the mine shaft to the surface on V-E Day, 1945. All treasures were later sorted and returned to their owners or to cathedrals as indicated. Captain Hancock left Germany in December 1945 and returned home to join his wife, Saima Natti, a former schoolteacher, whom he had married December 4,1943.
One day, while demonstrating sculpture in Rockport at a church fair, Mr. Hancock began a portrait of his friend, Russel Crouse, the playwright, and decided to finish it later at his studio. The sculptor has often worked on a larger scale such as the heroic group for the St. Louis Memorial Building and works for Kansas City’s City Hall.
In August 1952, led by General Omar Bradley, the War Memorial for the 1,300 employees of the Pennsylvania Railroad who had died in the service was unveiled at Philadelphia’s Thirtieth Street Station with great ceremony. People have written from all over the country to tell Mr. Hancock about their own feelings on viewing the angel figure with the soldier. It’s an emotional experience, and there’s much pride, too, that the Lanesville sculptor created such an art treasure.
The Academy’s Gold Medal of Honor, the highest award given, was awarded to Mr. Hancock in Philadelphia on May 20,1953 during the National Cresson Day awards event at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Only five people had received the award in the previous thirty-three years.
Mr. Hancock, his wife, Saima, and their little daughter, Deane, returned to Rome in October of 1956 when he had been appointed sculptor-in-residence at the American Academy. While there he superintended the high-relief carving of his communication theme in white marble on black for the Bell Telephone Company, Montreal, Canada. Just previous to traveling there, he had finished a nine-foot statue of Admiral John Paul Jones, American Navy, for Philadelphia’s Fairmont Park.
Governor Percival P. Baxter of Portland, Maine, sailed to Rome while the sculptor was in residence to sit for him. Done in bronze, the statue is the first to be in the Maine State House. Meanwhile, at Brookgreen Gardens, South Carolina, his sculptures had been grouped in a section called “The Hancock Oval.”
For thirty-eight years Mr. Hancock taught at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, on leave from 1956 to 1957 and again from 1962 to 1963.
Although the sculptor emphasizes he was only the consultant for the 300-foot wide carving on a section of the 800-foot high dome of granite comprising Stone Mountain, Georgia, left unfinished by Gutzon Borglum and then Augustus Lukeman in 1928, Mr. Hancock spent many months and completed many studies in his studio to “clean up the carving.”
The panel on the mountain includes the heads of General Robert E. Lee riding his horse, Traveler (Lee’s face alone is twenty-one feet tall), General Stonewall Jackson and the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis. Granite had to be cut into new dimensions to finish the men’s heads, the heads of their horses and upper part of their bodies so the “arc of the finished sculpture would blend into the natural bald granite outline of Stone Mountain.” Mr. Hancock gave “emphasis to essential features while avoiding a stark realism where it would be inappropriate.” Dedication Day was May 9, 1970 with Mrs. Hancock and Deane there. Some of his neighbors flew down also.
In 1980 the sculptor completed a work called “Air” for the Civic Center in Philadelphia, in the garden in front of Exhibition Hall. The figure seems to hover over the global earth below, his arms and legs gently stretched out in a beneficent gesture. “The problem was to make it a powerful figure, yet in a gentle mood,” says Mr. Hancock.
The sculptor was working on a portrait of the late Vice President Hubert E. Humphrey in 1981, to be cast in plaster then carved in marble. He finished the seated figure of President James Madison for the new building of the Library of Congress and had it carved in the Italian village of Pietrasanta where stonecarvers have lived for hundreds of years.
In between his portrait busts, his commissions for sculpture for architecture and models for upcoming works, Mr. Hancock has somehow found time to complete forty figures, each about eight inches high, all studies of basketball players. The sculptor explained saying more action of the human body can be studied in basketball than any other sport.
At Washington Cathedral, Washington, D.C., the sculptor has completed the central figure of Christ in Majesty high in the reredos. On the north side there is a small chapel called the Good Shepherd, and there Mr. Hancock has a sculpture “The Shepherd.”
Working on the heroic bronze of President Abraham Lincoln has given Mr. Hancock great pleasure and inner satisfaction. The statue was dedicated in February of 1984 in Washington Cathedral. The Great Emancipator is portrayed as he appeared to the people when he spoke his famous farewell in a cold drizzle in Springfield, Illinois on February 11, 1861. “His speech was only nine sentences long,” the sculptor points out.
When the Reverend Richard Bamforth of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church of Rockport returned from the dedication exercises for the Lincoln figure, he described the event to friends, concluding, “After thinking over all the compassion, warm feeling for his fellow man, and great dignity expressed in the Lincoln statue, I felt that the same attributes could well be applied to the sculptor.