LOCK HAVEN - The large, striking ceramic mural near the box office in LHU's Sloan Fine Arts Center has been the subject of great interest on two campuses recently.
The eight-foot-square mural reflects the river and town. It was created in the late 1970s by renowned ceramist Frans Wildenhain, yet there is no plaque or sign identifying it as one of his art works.
It was, in fact, one of Wildenhain's last pieces, possibly his very last, according to Dr. Bruce Austin, a professor at Rochester Institute of Technology where the artist had taught.
WENDY STIVER/THE EXPRESS
Rick Lilla, LHU professor and media librarian, and Bernadette Heiney, information technology librarian, are seen with the recently rediscovered mural by Frans Wildenhain in Sloan Fine Arts Center.
While organizing an exhibition of Wildenhain's ceramics from the mid 20th century, Austin ran across a reference to the mural at Lock Haven University.
"I read a couple of cryptic notes about a Lock Haven mural in Fran's mid '70s sketchbooks," Austin said, "but they didn't reveal much beyond noting the city."
A suggestion from one of Wildenhain's former colleagues centered the search on LHU, and Austin contacted Bernadette Heiney, information technology librarian, for help in pinpointing its exact location.
But, many at the local university are unaware of the mural's importance, since it stands anonymously in the box office lobby.
Even the LHU Art Department did not definitely identify the mural, Heiney said.
Knowing of Wildenhain's interest in medical science as well as in art, Heiney decided to search Ulmer, where she and a student walked the halls to rule out the science building.
Austin was so excited about rediscovering the work, Heiney recalled, that he offered to drive the 200 miles from his New York campus to Lock Haven and walk through each building himself, on the hunt for the piece.
In the end, the local art department saved him the trip by pinpointing the mural as the best candidate to be a "lost" Wildenhain, Heiney said. She sent photos, and Austin enthusiastically embraced it as the piece he was searching for.
"I was thrilled," Heiney said. "The discovery of this bold art piece has created a special connection between our two schools."
Rick Lilla, LHU professor, chair and media librarian, characterized Wildenhain's earlier ceramic works as "elegant" in style. The mural in Sloan could almost be called rough by comparison, he said.
Its depiction of a free-form river flowing through a rectangular field of rich blue, is echoed by flowing strokes on a few of the individual tiles that make up the larger background. Rectangles in strong colors stand in contrast to the mural's bends and waves.
The work may not be immediately familiar to the public, even though it graces a wall in the box office lobby. Wildenhain chose to place it so its back is turned to the main gallery.
The artist tended to position his works facing away from main exhibits, Lilla said. They became hidden treasures waiting to be discovered by those courageous enough to wander off the beaten path.
In a sense, the mural's lack of sign or title seems to dovetail with this intention.
Now that it has been rediscovered, the mural is enjoying a new celebrity and will be included in the printed catalogue for the exhibition Austin is curating.
Heiney and Lilla said they look forward to including a copy of that catalogue in LHU's archives.
The exhibition at Rochester Institute of Technology will be on public view from Aug. 20 to Oct. 2 and will include more than 150 of the artist's ceramic pieces. Titled "Frans Wildenhain 1950-75: Creative and Commercial American Ceramics at Mid-century," it will span two galleries, the Dyer Arts Center and Bevier Gallery. Admission is free.
Wildenhain garnered international attention with his creative pottery. He also created several ceramic murals, including large works commissioned by the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Md., Overlook Hospital in Summit, N.J., and Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT).
Born in 1905, he studied with Paul Klee and at the Bauhaus pottery workshop in Dornburg, Germany. There, he met his future wife, Marguerite Friedlaender, who also was a potter.
Following World War II, he emigrated to the United States and joined his wife at the California artists' colony Pond Farm.
He became a founding faculty member of the newly installed School for American Craftsmen at RIT, based on Aileen Vanderbilt Webb's vision, in 1950. Over the next 20 years, he enriched the school's curriculum and its students, advanced the art of ceramics and broadened global appreciation for handcrafted pottery.
Earning prizes for his art at the 1939 International Exposition in Paris and the 1958 Brussels World's Fair, Wildenhain received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1958. He also became a Fellow of the American Crafts Council.
His work is in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution, Everson Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago.
Wildenhain retired from RIT in 1970 and created the LHU mural during his retirement years. He died in 1980.
- WENDY STIVER