Alice Robertson Carr: The Seattle Years

  • By Fred Poyner IV
  • Posted 12/05/2018
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20683

Alice Robertson Carr (later de Creeft, 1899-1996) came to the Pacific Northwest early in her life and as a young emerging sculptor is credited with two public monuments for Seattle's Woodland Park in the 1920s. She continued her career in art outside the United States, emphasizing studies of animals and horses as her subjects in the sculpture medium. She resettled in Santa Barbara, California, as a practicing sculptor and arts teacher following her return to the U.S. in the late 1930s.

Early Life on the Move and Art Studies

Alice Robertson Carr was born in Roanoke, Virginia, on October 3, 1899, to Margaret MacDougall Carr and William Watts Carr. In 1909, when she was 10, the Carr family, including Alice's two brothers and a sister, moved to Montana to homestead near Great Falls. Her early life both in Virginia and Montana involved horses: Carr would ride Shetland ponies bareback with her two brothers. The horse would remain a consistent subject of her art throughout her life. It was in Montana that Carr began to work in sculpture as a medium with the assistance of a local sculptor: "I was modeling clay from the bank of a pond, I was taken to call, as a child prodigy, on Charlie Russell in his studio in Great Falls ... I remember only the little bear in beeswax he had just finished" (Carr to Beckworth).

The Montana homestead was a short-lived stay, however. After fixing up the site, Carr's father swapped it for $500 and a Stanley Steamer automobile, then relocated the family twice more: first to an orchard in the state of Washington and then to Seattle, where Carr and her siblings completed grade school. After finishing high school, Carr departed the West Coast in 1919 for the Art Students League in New York, where she studied drawing under the tutelage of George Bridgman (1865-1943) and sculpture with Alexander Sterling Calder (1870-1945). Her first art exhibition was held at the Studio Club of New York in 1920, where she won an honorary award for one of her sculptures.

Carr continued her art studies with the Czechoslovakian-American sculptor Albin Polascek (1879-1965) at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1922 and 1923. As it happened, an earlier sketch she had made for an architectural show offered an opportunity to return to the West Coast and establish a studio of her own on Madison Street in Seattle.

First Woman Awarded a Public-Sculpture Commission in Seattle

The genesis of Carr's first public-sculpture commission, for a project titled The Fountain, was the result of two separate yet concurrent efforts for new public-park projects in Seattle during the 1920s. The first effort was to construct a public fountain funded by a $5,000 donation from the estate of the late Father Francis Xavier Prefontaine (1838-1909). The other project was to create a new rose garden as part of Seattle's Woodland Park, an effort begun by the Seattle Rose Society and endorsed by the Seattle Parks Board of Commissioners on October 4, 1922.

Representatives of Prefontaine's estate had been in discussion with the Seattle Chamber of Commerce and members of city government since 1906, in an effort to see a new fountain installed somewhere in the city as part of a new park. Alice Carr's drawing of a reflecting pool and fountain was viewed as a good design that could serve for this memorial fountain, envisioned as part of the development of the proposed two-acre Rose Garden. In addition to authorizing the land for the project, the parks department also contributed $1,200 toward the $10,000 project's total cost. The Lions Club contributed another $5,000, with $1,300 raised by the Seattle Rose Society and several other rose clubs. By June 3, 1923, a total of $7,500 had been raised, along with donations of many rose plantings to fill the grounds.

The original plan for this fountain was for it to be located at the north end of the garden and dedicated to Father Prefontaine, with all elements sculpted by Carr. A semicircular basin would front a bas relief frieze 24 feet long and six feet high. The model Carr had designed over several weeks depicted seven life-size figures in various poses. Two figures appeared to be crowning a central figure with a laurel wreath, while those on either side danced and cavorted. On opposite ends of the pool's basin two robed female sculptures were poised. The figure on the left was bent over and gazing into the pool, while the figure on the right sat on a set of stairs fronting the frieze, both feet draped over the edge into the water. The final scene was intended to be complemented by two memorial panels to Prefontaine placed on either end of the frieze relief. This fountain would serve as "the focal point in Seattle's great public rose garden" ("World's Rose Lovers ...").

But while the new Rose Garden site offered one suitable location for the Prefontaine memorial fountain, it was determined by the estate planner and Board of Park Commissioners that a better site for the memorial could be found in a small triangle of land in downtown Seattle bounded by Yesler Way, 3rd Avenue and Jefferson Street, which had been deeded by the Yesler estate to the city in 1889. On August 27, 1924, Park Board Resolution No. 45 was introduced by Board President Orison J. C. Dutton (1868-1944) to establish "Memorial Park" on the Yesler triangle land and allow for the site's development as a park to include the "erection of tablets, etc." ("Park Board Minutes," 266). The resolution was passed at the next Park Board Commissioner's meeting on September 10, 1924.

Further discussions in 1925 between Mayor Edwin Brown's office, the Park Board, and the Yesler estate resulted in the Yesler triangle site being finally agreed to by all parties as the lone location of a memorial to Father Prefontaine. Local architect Carl Gould (1873-1939) was commissioned to design the memorial's reflecting pool and fountain, along with sculptor James Wehn (1882-1973) who contributed minor details such as two turtles in stone as decorative elements. The Prefontaine Place memorial fountain was dedicated in 1926.

However, it was not to be a wasted effort for Carr. Well before the location of the Prefontaine memorial was finally resolved, the Lions Club, which had been a major financial backer of the original project, proceeded to commission Carr to see that a new fountain sculpture was completed at the Woodland Park site. The Rose Garden Society saw the grounds of the garden planted with the last of its roses in the fall of 1923. Carr's panoramic relief was then cast into concrete, painted white, and set behind a semi-circular fountain and pool on the north boundary of the garden in 1924.

Carr's fountain design had changed in several ways from her original sketch. The central trio of figures now appeared as a gathering of Three Muses, accompanied by women and children on either side with a pair of deer and a roaring lion. The number of figures had also been expanded from seven to 11, with the adult figures portrayed as women. Gone from the original design were the two statues of women perched on the basin's edge at either end.

The sculptor's choice of presentation for the figures recalls similar works seen in Greek and Roman classical friezes of antiquity. They are nude or semi-nude; the Muses embrace arms, while the dancers sway to the sound of unseen panpipes. The ends of the relief still offered plaques with text, dedicating the fountain on behalf of the Seattle Rose Society.

While Carr is not publicly credited on The Fountain sculpture in the Woodland Park Rose Garden, the relief has retained its original beauty to the present day. Equally important for the sculptor, it helped to pave the way for her next sculpture commission. Like the rose garden relief, the source for that commission came from a local sponsor and as another public memorial.

Commissioned to Sculpt Harding Memorial

The death of President Warren G. Harding (1865-1923) on August 2, 1923, spurred a nationwide call for new memorials in his honor by the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) and the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks (BPOE) -- both groups in which Harding held honorary leadership positions. In Seattle, Elks Lodge No. 92 initiated a new public effort to have a statue of Harding installed in the city's Woodland Park. Harding had visited the park just days before to his demise to address an assembled crowd of 30,000 boys, including many who belonged to the Boy Scouts of America. Only six days after his death, the Elks filed a petition for the erection of the statue at Woodland Park, with was granted by the city's Park Board.

Carr received the commission to complete the sculptural elements of the new memorial, which included both a 22-foot long relief in concrete and two additional bronze statues of Boy Scouts placed on either end. The memorial structure was designed as a bandstand by local architect Daniel Huntington (1871-1962). Board of Parks Commissioner Hill was designated to work with the Elks on a committee for the new memorial on October 15, 1924. At the next meeting of the Parks Board one month later, the financing provided by the city was set at 10 percent of the memorial's total cost, or $850, whichever figure was less.

Carr spent the next few months modeling the 27 figures appearing in the relief at her studio, as well as the two statues. Harding was shown in the center of the relief, surrounded by Boy Scouts and other young boys, many wearing the BSA uniform with their hands raised in the traditional three-finger Boy Scout salute. The scene was taken from the day of Harding's speech in the summer of 1923, when he administered the Boy Scouts of America oath of allegiance.

The bronze statues, to be located at each end of the finished relief, were modeled after two different boys, each about four feet tall and wearing the Boy Scout uniform, with the right hand raised in the BSA salute. The entire memorial was installed in early March 1925, on the same site that Harding had delivered his speech: near the center of Woodland Park, just north of the children's playgrounds. On Saturday, March 29, 1925, the Elks presented the Harding Memorial to the city of Seattle, while an assembled crowd of 2,000 boys recited the Pledge of Allegiance as part of the dedication ceremony.

The commission had proved to be a monumental effort for the sculptor, and one that she would not repeat again as far as a public sculpture for the city. Carr recalled:

"I finished in time, but so tired that I spent a good part of my payment on a jaunt with an acquaintance, Kathleen H., to Honolulu, where my cherished Naval Captain Uncle, with the combined Atlantic and Pacific fleets, were gathered -- a fairyland summer for a young girl with a weakness for brass buttons!" (Carr to Beckworth).

In the late 1970s, public calls for the removal of a decaying memorial were finally answered. The City of Seattle Parks Board endorsed a development plan for the Woodland Park Zoo that required the memorial to be removed to create a new African Savanna exhibit where the memorial once stood. Only the two bronze statues survived; relocated by the BSA's Chief Seattle Council to the council's Camp Parsons in Jefferson County and the council headquarters on Rainier Avenue in Seattle.

Departure for Art Abroad and Return to the U.S.

Carr's completion of the Harding Memorial in 1925 coincided with an inheritance from the will of her recently deceased grandmother. The benefits allowed Carr to go abroad to further her studies in sculpture.

In Paris, she studied under Antoine Bourdelle (1861-1929) at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. She also worked at the École des Animaliere with the French sculptor Édouard Navellier (1865-1944) whom she called "a fine animal sculptor" (Carr to Beckworth). She exhibited work both at the Salon de la Society Nationale des Beaux-Arts and the Salon d'Automne in 1927.

That same year, she joined the sculptor José de Creeft (1884-1982) in Spain. He was undertaking a monumental commission involving more than 200 direct carvings in stone at the gardens of La Fortaleza on the island of Majorca. Over the 18 months it took de Creeft to compete these direct stone carvings of column capitals and fountains adorned with a wide variety of animals, Carr assisted him as his studio assistant. The two sculptors were married at St. Paul's Church, in London's Covent Garden, on March 15, 1928. (Thereafter she went by Carr de Creeft).

Throughout the 1930s Alice Carr de Creeft spent time with her husband living in New York, France, and Majorca, Spain. She exhibited at the Northwestern Artists exhibition in Seattle in 1929, and at the Stockbridge Art Exhibition in Massachusetts in 1930.

Carr's work in sculpture was balanced by a desire for a family. She had a son, William, born in Paris in 1932; and a daughter, Nina, a year later in 1933. When the Spanish Civil War erupted in 1936, Carr and her two children were forced to leave the country and go back to the United States without José. They arrived in New York aboard the British battleship HMS Repulse.

When the couple was reunited, they lived for several weeks with Dugard Carr, the sculptor's younger brother, at his home in Gibbstown, New Jersey. The family then relocated to Santa Barbara, California, in 1937, with Jose eventually returning to New York to pursue his own sculpture work and solo exhibitions. The couple divorced in 1938. Now living close by her mother and sister, Carr established a permanent studio and taught art in Santa Barbara for the next 58 years.

A Legacy of Animal Portraiture in Sculpture

Carr's love of horses led her to her creating many notable sculptures of them over her career. Racehorses captured her imagination, and she modeled these with realistic detail and accuracy. This affinity for horses as her subjects captivated Carr and helped her to continue in the medium:

"The previous summer I had fallen in love, passing up the coast by San Simeon, with a desert bred stallion, Zamal, and modeled him; a neighbor had fallen in love with the model and by buying it, had made it possible for me to have a bronze of it as well. With Zamal and a bronze of an old thoroughbred mare, Madelon, I had done in Paris and had cast by Valsuani (for $24!!) I had two bronzes to show to breeders, and my first commission in the East was Needles, retired long since to stud at the Bonnie Heath Farm in Ocala, near my brother's home. Bonnie Heath made up his mind at once, an admirable trait in a client ... then on I had three bronzes to show" (Carr to Beckworth).

Many of Carr's horse sculptures were made as commissions for private collections. However, others became noteworthy as acquisitions in museums nationwide. Her bronze sculpture titled Secretariat was accomplished from the life model of the Triple Crown-winning horse in 1973, and later accepted into the collection of the Smithsonian Institution. To supplement her income, she taught sculpture at the Santa Barbara Art Institute in the 1970s.

Carr did other work in sculpture, ranging from designs for parade floats in the Tournament of Roses parades in 1937 and 1938 to a mother-and-child sculpture titled Maternity for the collection of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. Eight different galleries also exhibited her sculpture throughout her career, including the De Silva Gallery and the Cody Gallery, located respectively in the California towns of Montecito and Los Olivos.

Yet it was her equestrian sculptures that are perhaps the most recognized in her body of sculpture work. Dr. John Richard Craft, director of the Columbia [South Carolina] Museum of Art and Sciences, has described her work and its devotion to the subject:

"Similarly in her small bronzes Alice Carr de Creeft has adhered to a tradition that admires the host of those aspects of the horse which have served man in many areas since prehistoric period. Sometime[s], like a Han artist or on a Phidial Parthenon relief, she traps the momentary action ... again, she has the horse at rest ... or, like a Charley Russell sketch, she has that stop-action second on the Western range" ("It's an Animal World ...").

On August 2, 1996, Alice Robertson Carr de Creeft passed away in Cedar Falls, Iowa, at the age of 96. Her contributions to the art world include distinction as the first woman sculptor of Seattle to have a commissioned relief installed in a public park and the first public sculpture by a female artist for the city.


Sources:

"World's Rose Lovers to Worship at Seattle Shrine," The Seattle Times, June 3, 1923, p. 62; "Beautiful Bandstand on Spot Where Late President Spoke Will Commemorate His Address to Boys," The Seattle Times, January 11, 1925, p. A-12; Park Board Minutes, August 27, 1924, Board of Park Commissioner Minutes, August 1921-December 1925, vol. 8, p. 266, Series 5800-01, Minutes of the Board of Park Commissioners, 1890-1991, Seattle Municipal Archives, Seattle, Washington; "Guide Map to Woodland Park," 1939, Maps folder, Series 8600-02, Woodland Park Zoo Brochures and Publications, 1930-2004, Seattle Municipal Archives; John Richard Craft, "It's an Animal World ...," in Alice Carr de Creeft, Bronzes (undated pamphlet), copy in possession of Fred Poyner IV, Issaquah, Washington; Nina Ward, email to Fred Poyner IV, March 31, 2016, in possession of Fred Poyner IV; Alice Robertson Carr to "Mr. Beckworth," n.d., copy in possession of Fred Poyner IV; Fred Poyner IV, Seattle Public Sculptors -- Twelve Makers of Monuments, Memorials and Statuary, 1909-1962 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2017); Who's Who in Art: Biographies of American Artists Active from 1898-1947 ed. by Peter H. Falk (Madison, CT: Sound View Press, 1985), 103; Chris Petty, Dictionary of Women Artists (Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1985), 123.


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