Selections from Autobiography

Frank Wilcox


Our sculptor teacher, Herman Matzen, was perhaps the most popular in many ways, at least some of us found him the most entertaining.  The good man loved to talk in a confidential way, he being what we would now call an intro-extrovert.  He was moody and confided the reason for his moods.  In spite of his size and physical power he had a strongly feminine side which was shown in his apparent inability to remember he was on a supposedly cooperative staff![1]  The fact that they had built a special studio for him may have had something to do with this, for he could be very persuasive where it counted.  Once when his entertaining talks took all my students away, I remonstrated in the office.  Being very young I felt trampled upon, and the directress told me to discuss the matter with the hard-headed chief of the design department.

This man, Louis Rorimer, looked at me narrowly and then told me to forget the whole matter, saying that the sculptor was fundamentally a reasonable man and would probably be completely upset if he realized what he had done.  At the same time he admonished me to make my class so interesting that it should not happen again.  I might say that my class consisted entirely of girls who preferred the fatherly approach, rather than my self-conscious authority.  The little kittens had the cheek to tell me that Mr. Matzen knew all about it and had said they had a right to go where they learned the most!  I replied that I had heard all about his European travels before.[2]

Such things are laughable in retrospect, and may appear pathetic when one considers what may ensue in later years.  He was a good man but volatile.  Once he became very angry with me because I would not set a price on a job I did for him.  This was to draw a frieze to be cut on the base of a monument, and consisted of figures creeping through brambles to symbolize the struggles of the common herd.  When this was finished I was studying it and a patrolman commented that the man who had done it must have been “fond of the ladies.”  He explained by stating that women outnumbered men in the design.  Naturally, I counted the male figures and found the numbers exactly equal.[3]

The special building where Mr. Matzen had his studio was divided into several rooms consisting of a big three story studio, two ordinary rooms, a casting room and a balcony where he worked and could look down into the larger department.  Here Mr. Sinz and Mr. Ernst the caster did all the heavier work that was done professionally in the place.  Years later Mr. Sinz was to come into his own, the proof that honest and modest effort has its reward.[4]

The free and easy atmosphere of this place disregarded to a degree the austerity of the other building and most of its regulations.  It was a place of refuge and a place for consolation.  I doubt whether the administration realized how much of an inspiration the place and its inmates had for us students, for here we could feel the spirit of the old guilds, and witness art put into actual use in a dignified way.  It made us aware of the dignity of architecture, the beauty of design and the charm of all natural form.

As we boys got older we discovered that the sort of local government in this place afforded many an enjoyable stag party, quite unsupervised by the regular school, and here we met professional men whom we could know and admire without feeling patronized.  It was here that I gained a temporary notoriety by having my whole bust and head cast from life, although this proved to be an ordeal.  Thus I know what I looked like as a stripling.  Here also I was permitted a free swing at watercolor but my welcome wore off when I stained the models for the great capitals that came to grace the facade of the new art museum.

Looking back I can see that there existed strong feelings of [word not readable] not to say jealousy among my teachers, so that when I became influenced by Mr. Keller after 1910 Mr. Matzen, the sculptor, took me aside one day and tried to exact a promise from me not to pain any more pictures like one I had put on display.  At any rate I am firmly convinced that both men were honest in their beliefs and in their zeal to teach what they thought right.  Such is a time when the student ought to be wise enough to do his own thinking and not to carry another’s chip on his shoulder.[5]

Mr. Matzen applied the same kind of thinking to sculpture from the model as was used in the drawing classes.  We pared down silhouettes, as the model was turned on the stand, and gave little thought to the actual relation of shadows to the statement of shape.  I felt instinctively that this was wrong, when building up upon an armature, and preferred to model rather than carve.  One day Mr. Matzen looked at my work for a long time with a scowl.  At last his face cleared and , smiling, he said “Go ahead – do it your own way – perhaps you are right after all”.  This concession made me forgive him for everything he had ever said before.  I shall not forget either how he settled my disapproving comments on Michelangelo: “Yes the head is large, but Michelangelo undertood architectural perspective!” He softened this with another anecdote about a German policeman who had heard him comment upon a bust of the Kaiser.  When he said the Kaiser’s head was too big the policeman accused him of lese majeste but modified the threat by adding – “Remember this is only one Kaiser with a big head!”

So strong was this man’s love for his teaching that after he retired he was heart-broken, especially as a young foreigner of great talen, Alexander Blazys, was imported who carried on a course so in variance with his methods that he was bewildered and disappointed.  There can be no doubt that change must be, yet at its inception people behave as though all that went before is finished.  The new man proved to be an inspirational teacher in a different way but he too had a temperament that could not detract from his real worth.[6]



Towards the end of my studies in school there appeared Royal Bailey Farnum and William Brigham of Boston, the first to teach the Normal Dept. and Brigham as teacher of crafts.  I had little contact with either of these noted teachers but Brigham, then a dashing young personality, undertook at least two pageants in which the whole school participated.  The first was a Spring Festival based upon classic themes with nymphs, dryads, fauns and the like, but the second commemorated the Thirtieth Anniversary of the Institution.

This pageant was called the “Egyptian Court Festival” and was a noted success.  This was a major undertaking involving considerable stage mechanics and it was, in a sense, a sort of tribute to Miss Norton and her interest in Egyptian lore, but particularly for her long term of service to the school.  It was just the sort of thing to crystallize in the minds of students the full significance of art history and classic standards.  It could scarcely be presented today in the same spirit with the present attitude toward creative art.  I recall it was in this pageant that so many of us formed attachments that have endured.  My wife took a major part in it while I and William Welch were supernumeraries. 

This was about the last of the period in which our Board took an active personal interest in us all.  Mrs. Judge Burge, our greatest benefactor, was present with many others.  During the years to follow Mrs. Ben Bole was our strongest prop and remained so until her recent death.  At this writing about all the old Board is gone and their heirs have turned a bit laissez faire.  For the future reading this is supposed to be let it be said our President, although he sponsors our most important scholarship, rules with a hard and not too understanding a hand.  We are now called the Cleveland Institute of Art almost as if it were to wipe out all the old tradition and all the old idealism.[7]

[1] Mr. Matzen worked in the White Studio which was built originally to be connected with the main building.  The temporary buildings intervening were planned by Louis Rorimer, formerly head of the Design Dept.  Both men had been associated in the design of furniture and Rorimer headed the Rorimer Brooks Co.  Matzen’s chief work was done on the Indianapolis Soldiers and Sailors Monument.  He was, at this time, doing large mausoleum sculpture in the studio.  He later worked on sculpture for County Buildings.

[2] Louis Rorimer had been trained at the Boole des arts Decoratife at Paris.  He was eminently successful as a business man and early resigned his teaching in the school.

[3] The Tom Johnson Monument stands on the Public Square.  The figures on the base are in low relief and represent the struggles of the underprivileged and thorny vines symbolize their difficulties.

[4] Walter A Sinz, at this time teacher of sculpture at the Institute of Art, was assistant to Herman Matzen and part time teacher.  He had already had experience as an architectural sculptor and wood carver.  His best-known architectural work was the ornamentation of the museum.  He is, today, one of very few practical sculptors in the city. 

Richard Ernst, a veteran of the Spanish War, was an expert caster and all-round mechanic.  The two men were closely associated in any undertaking by Matzen, and also did free-lance work of their own in the studio and elsewhere.  This work and this studio proved to be very inspiring to many students and several became practical men in the line

Among those whose training was had here were Max Kalish, Joseph Motto, Stephen Rebeck, William McVey, Marshall Fredericks, and many others.

[5] The relations between teachers in the school were normally so friendly that a “tiff” was an exception.  Mr. Keller and Mr. Matzen were both highly tempermental but each sincere in his beliefs.  At this time Matzen, the older man, failed to recognize any merit in post-impressionism.  His own work was idealized realism with a classic touch.

[6] Alexander Blazys was a White Russian refugee who was hired by Mr. Bailey while doing work for a downtown picture theatre.  He had had fine training in Europe.  His best-known work in Cleveland is the bronze group at the north entrance of the Museum.  He called this Cain and Abel but was somewhat resentful that its placement entailed change of title to represent “The City Fettering Nature.”  This was done by William Milliken.  Another piece by Blazys is relief work on the portal of the Church of the Covenant.

[7] I have heard ostensible reasons for the change in the name of the School but cannot quote them precisely; but these have something to do with corporate bodies.  My first impression of this change was that it was done to establish the institutional reputation upon the names of the new administration as a boost to its own entity and dignity.  When I [saw] the President on a train he asked me what I thought about it.  I suggested that the term institution implied a change in mode of operation.  Apparently this has been no part of the plan.

Before her death Grace Kelly, long a teacher at the School and lately art critic of the Plain Dealer resented the change in name and sought public support to her objections.  There was division of opinion on the subject, many thinking the tradition of the institution in the city would be lost and its influence weakened.