Beloit College Magazine
Beloit College Magazine
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Beloit WI, 53511-5595
A Graceful Mark on a River City
N. Marie Dries'92
O.V. "Verne" Shaffer'50 doesn't consider himself an artist, not in the expected sense. This, in spite of the fact that his works of art are installed in public spaces and held in private collections throughout the United States. "I don't even like the words 'artist' or 'creativity,'" he says. "In this age of arts and crafts fairs, 'artist' and 'creative' have lost their meaning. So I'll just settle on being called a sculptor." After more than five decades, he is a rarity in the art world-a professional who earns a living from private commissions. With an estimated 1,200 pieces to his credit, he never stops thinking, watching, learning, calculating, innovating, and working.
He approaches each project like an architect, considering the requirements of the site or situation, the budget, the clients' needs, and his own varied solutions. Large projects may take several months or as much as a year to complete. Shaffer always has the last word on what he creates and is often engrossed in two or three overlapping projects simultaneously, an approach that keeps his work exciting. "There is energy that transfers from one piece to the next. I work organically, watching each piece as it evolves and solving problems along the way.
"Planning is a big part of each commission," he explains. "With the creative process, you have to know how to start, how to finish, and how to get through the middle. It is important to sustain the momentum. Quite often it says to you: 'I'm done.'"
He has created delicate copper neck pendants and welded brass buckles, hand-wrought liturgical accoutrements, table-top figurative pieces, wall-sized mosaics of wood, five-story concrete reliefs, and monumental abstract forms that both define and complement the open spaces they occupy. Solid, stylized, dynamic, and often interpretive, his works of art have a grace that belies the humble and weighty materials of which they are made.
"I'm not into 'precious' things, or things that have to be processed, or flat planes, or geometric forms with sharp edges," he says. "I don't really use tools or machinery that go too much beyond my own hands. I prefer to keep things simple and direct so that I can see what is taking place and keep it, change it, or destroy it and move on.
"Using a welding torch is a tactile thing. When people see my work, they know it is unique and that somebody made it."
A Young Artist
As a student at Beloit in the late 1940s, Shaffer excelled in drawing and painting classes. While formal instruction in sculpture was not offered, Shaffer learned a lot about three-dimensional art from his faculty mentor: Franklin Boggs, professor of art and artist-in-residence at Beloit from 1945-1977.
"Frank was very innovative," he recalls. "He would find materials that were not traditionally used as an art medium and say, 'What can I do with this?' That's the way he worked ... asking questions like, 'What can we do with folded paper?' We didn't specialize in specific kinds of art, but we talked about all kinds of art."
Shaffer's other major areas of concentration were biology and speech, and he was an outstanding competitive wrestler. The broad range of study and experiences gave him a strong foundation from which to work.
"I really believe in a liberal arts education for an artist, or for anybody who wants to communicate," he says. "If you are going to try to communicate something, it helps to know how broad a subject it is. Art is a language. Anybody can learn how to use the tools of an artist. The key is in deciding what to do with those tools."
After earning a master's degree in art from Michigan State University, he worked for a lithographic firm and taught at Olivet College in Michigan before taking the directorship of the Wright Museum of Art in 1955. At that time, he met the late Clark Fitz-Gerald, who taught art and sculpture at Beloit from 1952-1956. Fitz-Gerald was experimenting with different kinds of media and had begun using a welding torch to create sculpture. Shaffer-who up until then had worked mostly as a painter-also began experimenting with a welding torch, learning how to "translate ideas into sculpture." In 1959, he took a year-long leave from the College and traveled to Maine, where he assisted with the construction of three large sculptures that Fitz-Gerald was creating on commission.
In 1961-with his experience with Fitz-Gerald still fresh in his mind-Shaffer embarked on a solo art career. For the greater part of it, he worked from his shop on a farm outside Beloit. He also lived for short periods in Maine, Colorado, and Florida. Recently, he resettled in his hometown of Princeton, Ill.
Much of his art reflects his deep Midwestern roots. "I think that where you are born and raised informs your work," Shaffer says, recalling that his association with the late Carl Welty, a professor of biology at Beloit from 1934-1967 and noted ornithologist, inspired his interest in birds, which he translated into a series of works that depict bird forms and birds in flight. In 1987, one of those pieces-Condor Two (1987)-was anonymously donated to the Beloit Public Library as a tribute to Welty.
Sculpture in Beloit
The city of Beloit and Beloit College are among Shaffer's greatest supporters and beneficiaries. Today, more than 20 of his works of art are on public view throughout the city, on park land, and gracing the grounds and interiors of local churches.
A stroll across Beloit's campus offers multiple opportunities to view Shaffer's work. One of the most well-known is Slit (1975), a large two-sided welded brass piece located in the Godfrey Anthropology Building, near the main entrance to the Logan Museum of Anthropology. Winds of Change (1971), a welded brass form perched on a pedestal in front of the Wright Museum of Art, was dedicated in 1975 as a memorial to a former student. Farther north is another brass pedestal-piece, Reach (1965), which represents an encolumned human figure that appears to grasp an owl-the bird of knowledge-in flight. Siren (1987), a welded brass representation of a mythical creature, stretches its six-foot wings near the west entrance of the World Affairs Center. Just inside the front doors of Pearsons Hall stands the colorful Alumni Arch (1990), a window of cathedral glass and welded steel which he created with Franklin Boggs.
Off-campus, in a tidy green park on the western bank of the Rock River in downtown Beloit, is Shaffer's latest monumental installation. The Landing (2004) looms 60 feet high, its twin stainless steel columns undulating up to sharp peaks, reflecting and refracting light off its burnished skin. At the base, silhouettes of people pay homage to the workers who founded and built the city. The sculpture was commissioned in 2003 by Ebbie and Peggy Neese and the Neese Family Foundation (descendants of the family that founded Beloit's Iron Works in the early 20th century). It was dedicated in a formal ceremony during the city's ArtWalk last May.
The Landing is one of several Shaffer sculptures listed in a guide to Beloit's public art, recently published by the city's convention and visitor's bureau. According to Martha Mitchell, director of Visit Beloit, the presence of Shaffer's art has helped shape the city's blossoming self-image.
"The Landing could easily become the symbol of our city," she says. "It honors the people who founded this community and reinforces the idea that this community values creativity and art."
Shaffer's contributions to Beloit were honored earlier this year with an exhibit in the Wright Museum. Beneath the Waterline: An Exhibit by O.V. Shaffer brought into sharp focus the long, painstaking process required for making large public sculpture. Shaffer documented in detail the creation of The Landing, including extensive hand-written notes, numerous architectural drawings and maquettes (artist's models), photographs of the construction, and long cardboard patterns used by a steel fabricator (who welded the vertical columns together under Shaffer's supervision). Visitors to the museum could follow Shaffer's creative process from conception to actualization. They could also handle tools that Shaffer routinely uses, such as a periscope and rotating "lazy susan," which enable him to view maquettes from multiple angles and dimensions, and a motorized grinder, which is used to put texture on stainless steel surfaces.
Now in his seventh decade, Shaffer rises early each morning and heads to his studio, which is carved into a narrow corridor of an old cow barn. The space is furnished with long wooden work benches, welding and construction equipment, and telling reminders of past projects. There, he gets down to business, be it repairing a welded brass incense burner for a church, fashioning a steel sword for his nephew's son, or sketching plans for a new commission. It is a routine that suits him, and one he plans to continue for a long time to come.
"Most people-when they retire from their real jobs-do art as a hobby. Basically, I retired in 1961 and have worked on my hobby for the last 40-plus years. I keep creating art because people keep asking me to. It's fun and it keeps me young."
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