Carl Milles Gems from the Cutting Room Floor

Cameras started rolling Monday for the Center’s new film celebrating Swedish American sculptor Carl Milles, premiering May 22nd at A Global House Party at Cranbrook and Millesgården. Centering on materials in the Archives, the day’s shoot featured handwritten correspondence, photographs, sketches, scrapbooks, and oral history recordings that help illuminate the story of the man behind the many iconic sculptures dotting Cranbrook’s campus.

The film production crew captures closeups of materials featured in the film.

In preparation for the day, I mined several collections in the Archives that document Milles’ twenty years as artist-in-residence at Cranbrook and his work in America during that time. In the process, I made a few delightful discoveries. While most of these treasures were expertly captured by the film production crew (Elkhorn Entertainment), there were a few that just could not be accommodated in Associate Curator Kevin Adkisson’s masterful, but already dense script.

One of these items is a notebook from the Nancy Leitch Papers. A student of Milles’ in the early 1940s, Leitch, like many of Milles’ students, became friends with both him and his wife Olga while at Cranbrook. The brief diary-like entries in Leitch’s pocket-sized book date from 1945, and are an intimate glimpse of daily activities, remembrances, and artist philosophies recounted from shared experiences and conversations with Carl and Olga. A loose paper tucked inside and titled “Carl” is a bonus, containing hasty notes recording his birthday, recommendations of where to visit in Italy (Café Greco in Rome, the cathedral in Orvieto), and words of wisdom, such as, “It is better to be an artist even though you are poor.”

Part of an entry made by Nancy Leitch in her notebook. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.
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De Profundis: Olga Milles’ Drawings of the Soul

Olga Milles lived in the very depths. In her art, almost exclusively devoted to portrait painting, she sought to draw out the character from the depths of her models and to find the soul behind the façade. Using a variety of techniques including charcoal, crayon, pastel, watercolor, tempera, and oil in her work, Olga was considered an artistic prodigy and developed her talent from a young age, yet her art is largely unknown. In 1988, twenty-one years after her death, Cranbrook Art Museum hosted an exhibition in collaboration with Millesgården, Olga Milles Emerges, to exhibit examples of her art from both museums’ collections.

In the foreword to the exhibition catalog, Staffan Carlén, former Director of Millesgården, describes her as having an intuitive talent that produced factual character studies of extreme precision, with an “overwhelmingly melancholic” tone. In reading Inger Wahlöö’s account of Olga’s life, based on correspondence at Millesgården, Carlen’s interpretation of Olga’s artwork can almost be read as a profile of Olga herself:

“Sparseness of shadowed areas and stretched areas disrobe the faces and make them appear in a serious, introverted nakedness. Her efforts are primarily directed towards interpreting the character of the soul. This she did with great coloristic refinement, and with tenderness in the form. In her drawings, there is consistently a sensitive enlargement of the mouth, sometimes in interaction with the dreaming mood of the eyes, sometimes as a tension-filled contrast of unconscious sensuality.”

Staffan Carlen, Olga Milles Emerges
Print of Drawing of Carl Milles by Olga Milles, 1917. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Born Olga Granner in 1874 in Leibniz, Austria, she had two brothers and two sisters. She had a deep loyalty to her family, whom she visited for several months every year, except during World War II. Having been born and raised in the Catholic church, she initially aspired to become an art teacher in a convent. However, in early adulthood, Olga questioned what it meant to be disobedient to the church and broke away, while cultivating an increasingly ascetic life.

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Swedish Sculptors-in-Arms: Soderlind and Milles

The Nona Bymark Soderlind archival collection consists solely of one scrapbook, yet its contents provide an intriguing glimpse of the woman to which it is dedicated. In doing so, it also illuminates a brief but prolific period in the history of the Academy of Art and reveals a personal side to one of Cranbrook’s most celebrated Artists-in-Residence, the sculptor Carl Milles.

Nona Bymark Soderlind, circa February 1936. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Born Eleanora Maria Bymark on July 16, 1900 in a small Swedish immigrant community just outside of Minneapolis, Minnesota, Nona attended the Minneapolis School of Art (1920-1922) on a full scholarship, where she studied sculpture under Charles S. Wells. She later attended the University of Minnesota where she studied under the painter Samuel Chatwood Burton. In 1927 Nona returned for a semester at the School of Art, around the time she had her first child with husband Dr. Ragnar Soderlind. The Soderlinds had three young boys (two, eight, and nine years of age) when in 1936 Nona boarded a train to Detroit to study under Carl Milles.

Nona Bymark Soderlind works on a sculpture in Carl Milles Studio, 1936. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

A February 13th letter from Richard Raseman, Academy of Art Executive Secretary, confirms Soderlind’s visit to campus and includes details of associated tuition and living costs required for the minimum period of study with Milles. Cross-referenced with items in her Academy student file, it is evident she had been invited by Milles to study for a month and arrived on the 18th. Perhaps it was Milles’ 1936 commission for Vision of Peace, in St. Paul, Minnesota that had first brought them in touch with each other?

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