Archive for Sunday, July 22, 1990


July 22, 1990


For most of us, projects that take a month or two can seem endless. Our rapid-fire society demands instant gratification and imposes do-or-die deadlines.

Actors often spend as few as three weeks in rehearsal for a musical. Artists can churn out paintings in a matter of days or months, depending on the size or subject. Voltaire wrote his comic novel "Candide" in three days.

So, try to picture an artist who once worked on one piece of art, one idea, for 15 years a magnificent obsession, absorbing dozens of assistants and thousands of hours along the way.

And what's truly amazing is that the artist sculptor Elden Tefft, who retired from the Kansas University faculty last month likes to work that way.

"I CAN'T be very bright, can I?" asks Tefft with a wry smile. "I like to work over a long period of time because you get fresh views of it."

The piece that took 15 years is Tefft's "Moses," the large bronze-cast sculpture that sits outside the Kansas School of Religion facing the building's burning-bush stained-glass window. Using a number of innovative casting techniques, Tefft and his assistants cast a model and then the statue itself in KU's foundry. The statue was unveiled, amid much pomp, in 1982.

A far cry from the image of Charlton Heston in the movie "The Ten Commandments," this Moses sits in a Buddha-like position, his face smooth and contemplative. The head, with its wide eyes and draped hair, suggests many ancient monumental sculptures, including those from the Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Indian civilizations.

"I had just visited Thailand, and I had seen a lot of Buddhas there, and so that was probably an influence," he said.

BUT TEFFT has contributed more to KU and the world of sculpting than his squatting Moses. His bronze portraits of KU figures, including Donald Swarthout and William Allen White, adorn several buildings, and he's also cast medals and trophies for the Buddy Award for theater alumni and the Campbell Award for science-fiction writing.

And during his career at KU, Tefft organized the International Sculpture Conference, which started out as a meeting of bronze casters and grew into a wide-ranging seminar on the state of the art of sculpting.

In his workshop beneath the Art and Design Building, Tefft has worked to bring bronze casting out of large foundries and into the hands of the artists.

"WHEN I was starting out, bronze casting was practically considered illegal," he said. "Sculptors thought you had to be in control of the work from beginning to end, and with bronze you had to send it out to a foundry, and they got their hands on it. What I've worked to do is bring bronze back into the studio, where the artist can control it."

Tefft was born into a farming family near Hartford, south of Emporia, and early on he discovered art.

"I was drawing before I could remember," he said. "I can remember that early on in Madison, Kansas, everyone seemed to think I should be an artist."

WHEN TEFFT was in third grade, his family moved to Lawrence, where he found a school system with its own art coordinators and teachers. He said he remembers Lawrence teachers Maude Ellsworth and Helen Inge, who Tefft later found out was the sister of playwright William Inge.

While still in high school, Tefft starting working with KU art teacher Bernard Frazier, the "first male graduate of the design department," Tefft said.

"His studio was first in the basement of the old art museum (Snow Hall)," Tefft said. "The natural history department had hired him back from Chicago to do diaramas from natural history. So he wasn't teaching art except on those terms.''

AFTER HIGH school, Tefft slid naturally into the KU design department, eventually earning a bachelor's degree in design something unusual for the time.

"You have to remember that I was in school during the Depression," he said. "There weren't a lot of people who thought you could make a living in art. Everyone was very practical."

During World War II, he served as an artist with the U.S. Army Air Corps in the South Pacific. He found himself doing more carving than soldiering.

"They couldn't figure out what to do with an artist in the air force," he said.

He then followed Frazier to Tulsa, Okla., where Tefft met the woman he married, and he returned to KU to start the program in sculpture in 1950.

SINCE THEN, Tefft has supervised hundreds of young artists as they explored sculpting techniques. Those techniques include both casting, for which he has a flexible furnace sitting in his work area, and carving and chisling.

Tefft said he often has a group of students work on one large project together, like the giant bison sculpture that stands on the north side of 23rd Street west of Iowa Street.

Right now, Tefft is working with students and townspeople on a stone sculpture in Burcham Park. Tefft designed the work, called "The Keepers of Our Universe," and park visitors can see him chipping away at the stone on some weeknights and weekends.

"It's a useful tool to develop an individual student's abilities," he said. "Of course, it's working in exactly the opposite way from bronze. In bronze, you're working from the inside out, and with stone you're working from the outside in."

TEFFT'S MODEL for the sculpture shows a person holding up planets and other assorted figures on the shoulders, suggesting both Atlas supporting the globe and a shepherd holding a lamb around his neck, a traditional Christian symbol.

"This is my piece on the environment," Tefft said. "If we wreck the environment we don't have much left."

But Tefft's primary work is in bronze, and he has at least two tall bronze figures waiting to be finished in the KU studio. One shows a slender woman raising her hands skyward.

"My students call it `Mrs. Moses,'" he said.

Like "Moses," these figures have an intricate web of holes covering the surfaces, allowing the viewer to look inside. The holes take a tremendous amount of work, requiring the artist to place thousands of wax pieces in a pattern all over the surface of the mold. But for Tefft, the aesthetic result makes the work worthwhile.

"THESE THINGS get so intricate they get simple," he said. "Bronze of course is hollow, so with these patterns you get to see inside. I want to explore the negative volume inside."

In the coming months, Tefft said, he plans to complete these projects and start others, including the renovation of the studio where he's spent so much of his time.

And although he won't be teaching any classes, he suspects, again with a wry smile, he won't be forgotten.

"I can't see getting away from it," he said. "People will still come up to me for advice."

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