Interview with Ramona Gibbs about Flyover Zone’s Project to Model Her Father’s ‘Fountain Group’ Sculpture

Interviewed by Prof. Bernie Frischer

Prof. Bernie Frisher: Tell us a bit about yourself: where do you live, what do you do, what is your connection with the American Academy in Rome?

Ramona Gibbs: I live in Peoria, IL.  I’m following the same path as my mother, father, paternal grandfather, and maternal grandmother, all of whom were artists.  I work in watercolor and acrylics.  Along the way, I’ve taught English and Visual Literature and edited art textbooks.   I learned about the American Academy in Rome through my mother, who was a sculptor in Rome during the same time my father was in residence at the Academy as a winner of the Prix de Rome (1936-38).  They met at a chamber music concert at the AAR’s Villa Aurelia.  My connection with the American Academy in Rome is the fact that if it were not for the Academy bringing my parents together one evening in 1937, I would not have entered the world some seven years later.

BF: Please tell us about your father. I guess you were too young to have known him when as a soldier in the US armed forces he died in France during World War II. Where did he come from? What sort of artist was he? What was the impact on him of his fellowship at the American Academy in Rome? 

RG: My father was born in Rosemont, Pennsylvania, in 1908 and began formal study in sculpture with Albert Laessle at the age of sixteen.  He studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts with Charles Grafly and Walker Hancock and later with Carl Milles during a summer at the Cranbrook Academy of Art.   He won the Prix de Rome at age 27.  Upon returning from the American Academy in Rome, he taught sculpture in the College of Architecture at Cornell University, during which time he and my mother, Maurine Montgomery, were married.   When the U.S. became involved in World War II, my father helped the war effort by working at the Boeing Plant in Seattle.  However, being very patriotic, he felt that was not enough, so he asked for voluntary induction into the Army and was inducted in 1943.   I was born before my father shipped overseas, so he was able to come home for my baptism.  Unfortunately, I was too young to have memories of that one-time meeting.  My father died in battle in France the day after Christmas, 1944, at the age of 36.

My father’s work covered many subjects, including portrayals of classical and allegorical themes, athletes, and workers, often emphasizing human strength and the beauty of the human form.  His style was representational, ranging from somewhat naturalistic portrayals of athletes to idealized subjects in the classical tradition, with a number showing an influence of the Art Deco style.  The influence of the sculptors with whom he studied can also be seen. 

My father’s fellowship at the American Academy in Rome impacted his career in a number of ways.   He completed many works there, including the clay model that later resulted in Fountain Group.   He made this smaller model, his Triton Fountain,as part of a collaborative project with Robert Kitchen, a landscape architect.   The object was to design a hypothetical new front courtyard for the AAR.  My father then changed the model’s design somewhat, enlarged the piece, and cast it in plaster with the vision that someday it would become a working fountain.

Other works he created at the American Academy were exhibited in the U.S.  They include his Weightlifter, which, along with his later Bust of Ezra Cornell, was chosen for the New York State Exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.   In 1940, his Hercules and the Hydra was shown in the International Sculpture Exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  In 1941, his Weightlifter, along with his later Harvest, was included in the Annual Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.  His St. Martin and the Beggar was chosen  by Anne d’Harnoncourt, director and CEO of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, for placement at the museum and awaits future installation. 

In 1945, my father was posthumously awarded the Gold Medal of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Fellowship Society at their annual exhibition for a group of five sculptures, two of which he had created while at the AAR: Victory (Spirit of America) and St. Martin and the Beggar.   Spirit of America was also included in an exhibit entitled Man and Horse at Brookgreen Gardens, South Carolina, in 2008 and in an exhibit on the art of collecting at the Peoria Riverfront Museum in 2015.

Other sculptures included in the posthumous Gold Medal exhibit but created after his return to the U.S. were Riveters, Bow Bender, and Aspiration.

My father continued to make other important works after he returned home. As an example, in 1941-42,  he was awarded a commission by the Treasury Section of Fine Arts to execute a sculptural mural in wood for the Dundalk Branch of the Baltimore, Maryland, Post Office.   The mural, entitled Welding, can still be seen there.

In 1946, his depiction of a man with a scythe, entitled Harvest,wasincluded in the Annual Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts as a memorial to my father.

An additional impact on my father’s artwork would have been his rich academic and cultural experiences and travel during his time at the Academy.  From 1936-38, he traveled extensively in Italy, Sicily, France, Germany, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Greece, Egypt, and Palestine, writing home about the art, architecture, and other cultural aspects of those countries.

BF: Apart from the Fountain Group at the Peoria Riverfront Museum, are any of his works exhibited in the United States?

RG: The following are included in permanent collections:
Triangle.  1935-36.  Plaster,  73 x 29 x 32″.  Offner Center, Brookgreen Gardens, SC.
St. Martin and the Beggar.  1936-38.  Marble,  34 3/4 x 34 1/2  x 3 1/2″,  Philadelphia Museum of Art, awaiting installation.   
Sea Creatures (Relief).  1936-38.  Plaster,  21 1/2 x 75 x 2″.  Offner Center, Brookgreen Gardens, SC.
Charles W. Burr Portrait Medallion.  1941.  Bronze, 10 1/2″ diameter x 1 1/2″ depth.  Franklin Inn Club of Philadelphia. 
David Riesman Portrait Medallion.  1941.  Bronze, 10 1/2″ diameter x 1 1/2″ depth.  Franklin Inn Club of Philadelphia.
Welding.  1941-42.  Tulip poplar, 54 x 43 x 4″.  Wood relief in Dundalk Branch of U.S. Post Office, Baltimore, MD, commissioned by Treasury Section of Fine Arts.
Welding.  1941-42.   Plaster cast of above wood relief, 54″ x 45 1/2″ x 4 1/2″.    Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts collection, Philadelphia.  In exhibit entitled  Art for Society’s Sake (November 15, 2013, to April 6, 2014), but not permanently on view.

BF: What gave you the idea to undertake the project of the Fountain Group?

RG: I wanted my father’s work to be preserved following the sale of his family home and studio, which meant having the plaster conserved and then finding a permanent place for the piece.  The Peoria Riverfront Museum was being planned at the time, and a friend suggested that the fountain should go to the new museum.   Some donors stepped forward to fund the bronze casting, and in 2013 Fountain Group was placed in the new sculpture garden, within sight of the Illinois River.

BF: How have museum visitors reacted to the Fountain Group?

RG: Fountain Group has been very popular and well-loved by the public.  I often hear compliments about it — at least one person has said it’s their favorite piece of art in the city.  Every week, the city outdoor sculpture walk begins with Fountain Group, including the story behind its creation and casting.  Often weddings are held in the sculpture garden, with the fountain serving as a backdrop in front of which the vows are exchanged. 

BF: What is your interpretation of the piece?

RG: To me it shows the forces of nature, specifically the sea and its creatures, which are in perfect balance and harmony with each other.  The fish, merman, and merwoman form the vessel from which the water flows, and the movement of their forms seems to echo the forces of the sea. The first, smaller version of the work, Triton Fountain, contains two mermen rather than a merman and a merwoman, and appears to represent more of a struggle to control the fish and perhaps a more turbulent sea.  Fountain Group suggests less of a dynamic struggle and more emphasis on the beauty of the forms.

BF: Do you think the Fountain Group was inspired by any of the public fountain sculpture your father saw while a fellow of the American Academy in Rome?

RG: My father would no doubt have been struck by the beauty of the many fountains in Rome. The influence of their classical style is evident in his fountain, which shows the same dynamism as can be seen in many of Rome’s fountains, often with sea creatures and shells as part of their subject matter.

BF: Are there other works of your father that might be the subject of similar projects? If so, what would be your top priorities?

RG: Some of his other bronzes would come first, for instance, Hercules and the Hydra, Spirit of America, and Weightlifter.   His Triton Fountain would also be interesting to see in the 3D digital format in order to study the changes my father made in the larger Fountain Group.  

BF: I think that our 3D digitization project is the first in which you have been actively involved. Why did you approve the project–what were you hoping to achieve? Do the results obtained by Flyover Zone give you confidence that your goals will be achieved?

RG: I was hoping that a 3D digitization of the fountain would give those who were not able to see the sculpture in person the ability to experience it as closely as possible to what persons who visited the museum would be able to do.  In fact, with the 3D model, one can see more of the sculpture than even those viewing it on the sculpture garden grounds can see.  I was hoping to achieve a result whereby my father’s work could be enjoyed by many more people, and the results obtained by Flyover Zone certainly give me confidence that my goals will be achieved.  In addition, I hope that this project will serve as a pilot for other virtual projects of this sort. 

BF: It was relatively easy for Flyover Zone to create the 3D model of the statue in its current condition. Much more time consuming was the process of making the restoration model. Why did you think that a restoration model was desirable, and are you happy with the result?

RG: I wanted the work to be seen as it was originally cast in bronze before the weathering took place.  The changes that happen to bronze outdoor sculpture due to climate, atmosphere, etc., impact works to different degrees.  I feel that, in some cases, the variations in color and shading created by the weathering can alter a person’s viewing of the work by breaking up the flow of vision around the piece.  For this reason, I wanted to give people the opportunity to see the sculpture as it was originally intended to be seen.  I’m very happy with the result.

BF: Would you like to add anything else?

RG: Just to say that you and your team were incredibly easy to work with and produced excellent results.  Carter Conaway accomplished the extensive digital photography efficiently with care and kindness, and Mohamed Mahmoud orchestrated the technological changes to create the restoration model with exceptional skill, patience, and congeniality.  Both were exceedingly nice to work with.  Most importantly, I’ve greatly appreciated your help in this project, Bernie, and your expertise and enthusiasm in moving it forward.

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