Thursday, August 16, 2012
Alma Mater Group
Location: Near Altgeld Hall, University of Illinois, Urbana, Illinois
Dedication: June 11, 1929
GPS Coordinates: N 40° 06.598 W 088° 13.697
Lorado Taft was born on April 29, 1860, in Elmwood, Illinois, and moved to Champaign with his family when his father was appointed Professor of Geology at the University of Illinois in 1871. When the fourteen-year-old Lorado helped unpack and repair a sculpture collection at the Fine Arts Gallery on campus in 1874, he discovered his passion and life’s work as a sculptor. Taft later received his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the University of Illinois in 1879 and 1880. When he was appointed a non-resident professor of Art at the university in 1919, he gave popular lectures and speeches on art to large and enthusiastic audiences. Throughout his life, Lorado Taft maintained a close relationship with his Alma Mater, which resulted in several sculptural creations crafted by him dispersed throughout the campus.
As early as 1883, letters written by Lorado Taft indicated that he was interested in “giving back” to his beloved Alma Mater, and he modeled a relief of Learning and Labor holding hands. He made a sketch of his proposed Alma Mater statue in 1916 and experimented on the size of the figures to be included. He finished a plaster cast of his conception and brought it to the campus in June 1922. In speaking to his classmates at an alumni reunion, Taft said that the creation of the sculpture “had been a labor of love, a period of happy toil, recalling the wonderful days of the early practice of my art. I have been going to my studio at five o’clock every morning, and these fragrant mornings have brought back memories of similar dewy dawns of nearly fifty years ago when I used to hasten over to my spacious studio in the basement of old University Hall and work in the clay until breakfast time.”
Lorado Taft designed The Alma Mater Group, a sculpture that contained a group of three figures and an armchair. The front and center figure is “Alma Mater,” a standing female wearing an academic robe. Her palms are open, and her arms are outstretched, a gesture of kindly greeting to her children. The University of Illinois’ motto of “Learning and Labor” is depicted in the two figures behind her. “Labor” is a male wearing a blacksmith’s apron. His right arm is extended over the chair in a handshake with the female “Learning” to his left. She is a model of the Lemnian Athena, a classical Greek statue of the goddess Athena. The armchair has a bas-relief seal of the State of Illinois on the back. Several quotes are inscribed on the base of the sculpture. They include: “Given to the University by the sculptor, the Alumni Fund, and the senor classes 1923, 1925, 1925, 1926, 1917, 19228, and 1929,” “Her Children Arise Up and Call Her Blessed.” Proverbs 3: 28, and “Alma Mater To Thy Happy Children of the Future, Those of the Past Send Greetings.” The American Art Bronze Foundry and Jules Berchem and Sons of Chicago cast the sculpture. Originally placed behind Foellinger Auditorium, the Alma Mater Group was moved to its current location on August 22, 1962.
The Alma Mater Group was dedicated on June 11, 1929. William L. Abbott, president of the Alumni Fund Board, presented the sculpture to the university and said in his remarks: “Republics are ungrateful. We little appreciate that which is freely given without the asking. Alumni of state-supported universities are lacking in alma mater sentiment. These are charges are often made and often refuted. One monumental refutation of the charge of indifference of alumni already stands on this campus, and here today we dedicate another testimonial, much humbler in pretention but none the less sincere. The inspiration for this piece was born long ago in the longing of Alma Mater’s great artist son to leave on the campus a symbolic expression of the love which he and all true alumni feel for this university.”
David Kinley, president of the University of Illinois, accepted the Alma Mater Group on behalf of the university and said in his remarks “I speak for the Board, for the State, for the Faculty, for the Students, both of today and of the years to come. As you know, this great gift is the result of contributions from the alumni, the senior classes, and, greatest of all, from the sculptor himself. This contribution is significant in several ways. First, there are these people who thought of doing it, and who were willing to do it unselfishly for the benefit of future generations. Then there is Mr. Taft himself. I know I shall not look upon his like again. I accept this magnificent gift for the University, and I hope that all of us will cherish in our hearts and minds the spirit and the ideals which went into it.”
William L. Abbott then introduced Lorado Taft and gave these introductory remarks: “You are the idol of the University, and although your ample feet are not of clay, your hands often daubed with that material. It was fifty years ago when you modeled clay under the old chapel. During all of these intervening years, the University has watched with pride your growing fame and has shone in your reflected light. For my associates and me, we count ourselves fortunate in having been privileged to work with you in this latest achievement, and we congratulate ourselves on having been able to consummate the undertaking in time to have it serve as a crowning feature of the 50th anniversary of your graduation.”
Lorado Taft was given a standing ovation when he arose to speak. Taft told the audience about the history of the Alma Mater Group, saying that he had envisioned the sculpture ever since his graduation. He continued: “I hope that this Alma Mater Group may widen the horizons of all Illini, not only of today and yesterday but of those in the long centuries to come.” At the conclusion of Taft’s speech, President Kinley presented him with a hand-illuminated testimonial. The University also conferred an honorary LL.D. degree on him on commencement day that year.
In recent years, the Alma Mater Group was appropriately decorated for significant university events. When the men’s basketball team reached the Final Four in 2005 and played for the NCAA championship in St. Louis, she wore an Illini jersey. She was decorated with orange and blue roses when the football team played in the 2008 Rose Bowl game. During commencement week in 2010, she was outfitted with what was probably the world’s largest cap and gown. The Herff Jones Company from Champaign manufactured and paid the cost for the ensemble. The area around the Alma Mater Group became a very popular site for commencement photographs that year.
In 2011, university officials announced that the Alma Mater Group needed restoration. Jennifer Hain Teper, chairperson of the Preservation Working Group, declared it to be “one of the visual icons of the campus. When people think of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, this is one of the visual landmarks.” Lorado Taft had originally designed the sculpture to allow students to climb on it, but this is not permitted now because of its deteriorated condition. The sculpture was last repaired in 1981 when a university professor strengthened the internal supports, caulked the sculpture’s joints, and replaced rusted bolts. The university contracted with the Conservation of Sculpture & Objects Studio to complete the restoration. The company plans to move the sculpture on a flatbed truck to its headquarters in Forest Park, Illinois, in August 2012. Company officials promised to return the Alma Mater Group to its rightful place on campus before the 2013 commencement exercises.
For further reading:
“Alma Mater Statue Is Dedicated: Impressive Exercises Held On Alumni Day, June 11; Cherished Dream Of Lorado Taft, ’79, Is Realized.” Illinois Alumni News.
June 26, 1929.
Griffin, Ashley. “Alma Mater Statue To Be Restored.” Illinois Issues. April 2012.
Kanfer, Alaina & Larry. Illini Loyalty: The University of Illinois. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2011.
“Lorado Taft to Begin Work on a Statue for the University of Illinois.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society. Vol. 12, No. 1 April 1919.
McCauley, Lena M. “Alma Mater Group In Bronze.” Art World Magazine Of The Chicago Evening Post. May 28, 1929.
McCauley, Lena M. “Taft Completes Work on Alma Mater Group: To Be Placed on U. of I. Campus as Gift of Sculptor.” Chicago Post. June 6, 1922.
Rohr, Lauren. “Alma Mater to be Removed for Crack, Stain Repair.” The Daily Illini. May 7, 2012.
Rohr, Lauren. “University to Restore Alma Mater to Prevent Serious Future Damages.” The Daily Illini. February 21, 2012.
Scheinman, Muriel. A Guide to Art at the University of Illinois: Urbana-Champaign, Robert Allerton Park, and Chicago. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1995.
Scheinman, Muriel. “Labors of Love: Lorado Taft – the Sculptor Behind the ‘Alma Mater’ – Embraced Both His Art and His University.” Illinois Alumni. March/April, 2010.
“Sculptor Helps to Pay Honor to His Alma Mater: Lorado Taft Executes Group in Bronze for University of Illinois.” The Christian Science Monitor. November 25, 1929.
Wurth, Julie. “Alma Gets Her Gown On.” The News-Gazette. May 11, 2010.
Wurth, Julie. “Alma Mater Taking Leave After Commencement.” The News-Gazette. February 17, 2012.