In retirement I began shaping "little people" out of Missouri clay that I dug on our farm. When the Fulton Gravel road was improved, the state’s machinery exposed lots of beautiful, white clay. I brought my recreation class out so each student could dig a cupful of clay. I showed them how to crush it and clean it.
A teacher told me about Missouri’s wonderful Cheltenham clay.
I dug, cleaned, wedged and aged some of that clay and could hardly wait to shape "little people." I named these for friends, neighbors or relatives. "Bess" was dipping drinking water from her spring, where a little green frog lived.
Bess was Mom’s friend. "Joe," son of a horticulture professor, was harvesting honey from a bee skep. "Egan" was our preacher.
I numbered the pieces to keep track of what sold and what did not.
The most popular were "Phoebe" and "Hattie." Phoebe gathers goose eggs from a "stolen" nest; she’ll carry them away in her apron. Hattie sips soup from her stirring spoon, leaning over the kettle so any spilled soup will not be wasted.
I’ve made Phoebe and Hattie more than 100 times each!
A customer once said, "Your work reminds me of the work of a long-ago sculptor named John Rogers."
I had never heard that name but was curious.
"Rogers was a turn-of-the century sculptor who sold thousands of pieces at the World’s Fair. People loved his work, and it was not expensive."
I hunted for Rogers’ name in several art books before I knew that my boyfriend’s "Grandpa Oat" had bought one of Rogers’ cast pieces and that it would eventually hang on my wall!
A month ago I found Rogers’ youthful biography in my own treasured encyclopedia, published in 1886. Young Rogers wanted to be a civil engineer, but vision problems interfered. He took a job in a railroad repair shop in Hannibal and finally became its manager.
"Having amused himself in spare intervals by modeling things in clay, he acquired a thirst for art."
Rogers amusing himself, modeling with my Cheltenham clay? Born in 1829 in Salem, Mass., Rogers traveled to Europe, spending time in Paris and Rome, where his self-taught art skills met with acclaim.
He returned to New York and to Italy, where a sculptor taught him an unusual method of casting plaster copies from bronze.
With clay he created small groups of people in typical situations, had those cast in bronze and then produced "endless" plaster copies, for sale cheap.
The names of most pieces were pressed into the plaster.
Rogers made small groups of people doing ordinary things. "Checker Player" and "Slave Auction" attracted notice in New York in 1859.
By 1861, Rogers was known for his detailed artwork of situations arising from the Civil War. His clay pieces were first cast in bronze, and endless plaster copies were made and sold. One of the early favorites was "Coming to the Parson," which sold more than 8,000 copies!
John Rogers was a household name when the Civil War was brewing and until his death in 1904.
No wonder the established artists didn’t care for him; he brought intricate, meaningful sculptures to thousands of homes where plain people appreciated his "messages" in plaster as much as if they had been in bronze or stone!
Grandpa Oat made a beautiful wooden wall rack for "Forced Prayer," a little boy in a nightgown, frowning.
A pencil mark on the bottom made more than 100 years ago reveals the price he paid at the fair: $1!