BIOGRAPHY

 

E

lliot Melville Offner was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1931, the second of three brothers. His parents Samuel and Helen (Wolowitz) had emigrated from Eastern Europe.

During his youth in Brooklyn, he was able to feed his greatest interests - nature, art and books - at the local Botanic Gardens, Museum of Art, and Library. Though he was always athletic and enjoyed basketball and tennis, his artistic abilities quickly emerged. He won a full scholarship in 1949 to the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in 1949, with a focus on art history – though sculpture, printmaking, book and furniture design were also, as he said, “quiet passions”. After three years he transferred to Yale, where he studied under Joseph Albers, and earned his BFA in 1953. Albers, the internationally acclaimed painter and color theorist, had taught at the Bauhaus School until it was closed by the Nazis in 1932. Having family members who had escaped Europe, and some who did not, Offner connected deeply with the subject of the Holocaust, which inspired his first sculptural works.

The next five years were dense with activity. After a tour in the Army (1953-1955), he worked for about a year as a calligrapher at Steuben Glass before he met (1956) and married (1957) Rosemary O’Connell who had graduated from Smith College and was studying for a Masters at Columbia Teacher’s College. He left Steuben to complete an MFA at Yale (1959) studying under Albers and Rico Lebrun. He taught art at the University of Massachusetts (Amherst) for 1 year before joining the faculty at Smith College in the fall of 1960, where he would remain as a professor for the rest of his life.

Elliot and Rosemary were married for 53 years and had three children, Helen, Daniel, and Emily. “We were a team,’’ Rosemary liked to say, and everyone who knew them would agree. Mr. Offner worked in his studio next to his home. “He would come back and forth for a cup of tea,’’ Rosemary said. “He’d say, ‘Come over and have a look.’ We had that kind of life. It was very close.’’ The couple shared a passion for politics. “We were anti-Vietnam when it was hard to be anti-Vietnam,’’ his wife said. “We would be down on Main Street holding protest signs.’’ (1)

At Smith, Offner focused on teaching the letter arts and printmaking, where “we were gently ruled by the dictum that the printed and written word is a servant to thought and language,’’(2) while focusing on sculpture professionally. Beloved on campus, it was as a sculptor that he gained national artistic recognition.

In the 1960’s, using techniques developed by the European masters to capture the struggle of man’s existence, he did a series of Holocaust works, and multiple works celebrating the matriarchal structure of his own family – “tributes to the Central European women who populated my youth”.(3) The Holocaust Memorial at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York features a wrenching work from this period. A companion piece is in the collection of the Hirschhorn Museum (Smithsonian) in Washington.

Later, Offner focused on themes of redemption with a series of liturgical sculptures in wood and bronze, and through the Vietnam era, was politically active and created sculptures in wood and bronze exploring warriors, armor and helmets, transitioning to a series of abstract works of transformation. “Heads dominated my sculpture in the 1970’s and were more psychological, or so my reviewers told me,” said Offner.(4)

“Over the years, much of Offner’s sculpture has given expression to the human suffering caused by the grave political crises of the 20th century,”, wrote Martha J. Hoppin in The Sculpture of Elliot Offner, her introduction to The Fowl of the Air, the Fish of the Sea, & the Beasts of the Field. He saw reflections of familiar human emotions in wildlife: a mother bittern perched protectively over her chick, a pair of bass, a great blue heron poised to take flight. “I feel that animals are endowed with certain content that expresses all things about terror, fear, and love.’’ (5) Following a transitional 1980 speech at Deerfield Academy, the artist embarked on the final leg of his artistic journey to join together the traditions of European sculpture with the American folk art, abstract expressionism and the Hudson River School, creating lyrical sculptures and watercolors of native American animals.

“By the beginning of 1990, I could say that I have been ever more closely drawn to nature. While my creatures are always designed to express emotions in a range between hope and death, it is nature which draws me in first to that secret place where anyone is welcome and miracles and magic are everywhere.”(6) In addition to many medals and ceremonial objects for Smith College, Mr. Offner was asked to create more than a dozen monumental public works, which along with many sculptural works are in major public and private collections. Mr. Offner’s bronze Great Blue Heron is an icon on the Smith campus, as is his Horse at the campus stables. The bird’s twin was commissioned for the town of Darien, CT in 1987, and is now in the courtyard of its Public Library.

Through his career, Offner received dozens of honors. The full list is included here, but chief among them were: service as President of the National Sculpture Society; as Artist-In-Residence at Yale, Cambridge, Brandeis and King’s College, among others, and as the Andrew Mellon Professor of Humanities at Smith College from 1997-2004. In 2007, Brookgreen Gardens, a National Historic Landmark with the most significant outdoor collection of figurative sculpture by American artists in the world, opened the Elliot and Rosemary Offner Sculpture Learning and Research Center.

Offner was also given the Medal of Honor from the National Sculpture Society in 2007. With this medal, the National Sculpture Society wrote in its Proceedings: “With compelling form and unequivocal voice Elliot Offner has taken his place as one of the most ardent spokesman for that concern with the human condition which is still making legitimate claims on twentieth century sculpture.”

Mr. Offner passed away in 2010, and Rosemary passed 11 months later. He is survived by his children and 9 grandchildren, as well as a lifetime of art works, some of which will be shown at an exhibition at Vose Galleries in Boston, MA, November 13 to December 29.

Footnotes:
(1) Lawrence, JM, “Elliot M. Offner, sculptor and longtime Smith professor, 79” (obituary), Boston Globe, Nov 18, 2010.
(2) Rose, Peter I. Editor, Professorial Passions, Eight Lectures in Honor of the Inauguration of Ruth J. Simmons, Ninth President of Smith College, Smith College Printing Office, Designer Elliot Offner, Smith College, Northampton, MA, 1998, pp. 82-120.
(3) ibid, page 94.
(4) ibid, page 95
(5) ibid Boston Globe
(6) ibif, Passions