ARTISTIC SALUTE: Idea to honor noted illustrator will become an enduring tribute

Sculptor Bill Wolfe found a photo of Will Vawter at his easel, which helped him create the artist's pose. (Tom Russo | Daily Reporter)

GREENFIELD — Greenfield’s two statues of James Whitcomb Riley will soon have some company. A bronze statue of hometown artist Will Vawter is coming to Greenfield, where it will eventually be displayed at the city’s new Depot Street Park.

The statue was unveiled on Saturday, Sept. 18, at Lizabuth Ann’s Kitchen, attached to the Riley Boyhood Home and Museum. Paintings by Vawter were on display, including some from the private collection of David Spencer, whose interest in the artist inspired him to raise the money for the statue.

When the “Reading with Riley” statue that sits in front of the museum was installed in 2016, Spencer had the idea of doing something similar to honor Vawter, who illustrated many of Riley’s works. In 2019, Spencer, who works as the director of marketing at NineStar Connect, started to work seriously on the project.

“I contacted the sculptor, and he said he would absolutely be interested in doing it,” Spencer said.

Then COVID-19 hit, and Spencer wasn’t sure there would still be interest in raising funds for his mission. But Greenfield businesses, Indiana art lovers and other donors stepped up to make it easier than he expected.

“We raised our $80,000 in six months, during a pandemic,” Spencer said. “People agreed that Vawter should get his due and should get some spotlight on what he accomplished as an artist.”

Spencer wanted the Vawter statue to be interactive, like “Reading with Riley,” which invites people to sit down beside the Hoosier poet and take a photo. He came up with the idea of a design that would show Vawter at work at his easel, with only the frame of a canvas, leaving the center open so photos could show visitors framed through the bronze canvas, as if they are the subject of a Vawter painting.

“Hopefully, it’ll be very interactive and people will have the opportunity to take some cool photos,” Spencer said.

Bill Wolfe, the artist behind “Reading with Riley,” said he was excited to have the opportunity to work on a statue of Riley’s longtime collaborator.

“I’m an artist and a painter as well as a sculptor, so for me it was quite an honor to make a sculpture of a fellow Hoosier artist,” he said.

Wolfe and Spencer worked together on the basic design for the statue, and then Wolfe set to work on the six-month process of bringing the vision to life. He researched his subject through studying photographs, trying to learn Vawter’s face and body language, and felt lucky to find a photo of the artist standing at an easel he could use as a model for the pose. He spent about three months on the sculpting process itself before sending the figure to be cast in bronze.

Wolfe also included a personal touch in each of his sculptures of the Greenfield icons. While the artist was working on his statue of Riley, his father died. Knowing that the poet liked wearing a flower in his lapel, Wolfe had a cast made of one of the flowers from his father’s funeral and included it in the statue. For his sculpture of Vawter, he made a cast of a paintbrush his first art teacher gave him when he was 13 and placed it in Vawter’s hand.

“It means something to me now, that little thing,” Wolfe said.

Vawter, who was born in West Virginia in 1871, moved to Greenfield at age 6. As Riley’s collaborator, he illustrated 11 volumes of poetry and frequently used local residents as the models for his drawings. Vawter moved to Nashville, Indiana, in 1908 to join the Brown County artists’ colony. Many artists were attracted to the small town after painter T.C. Steele took up residence there.

Jim Ross is the owner of the James R. Ross Gallery in Indianapolis, focused on artists from the Hoosier state. He said Vawter’s work has had an enduring appeal.

“His paintings today are among the most sought-after of the early Brown County artists,” Ross said.

Like many of the Indiana artists of his time, Vawter painted in an American impressionist style influenced by the French. The school of artists typically painted outside and focused on impressions of landscapes rather than fine detail.

“His colors were very bright and bold; it’s a style that appealed to people back then and still does today,” Ross said.

Ross said it’s exciting to see Vawter honored with a statue. Most tributes to artists, he said, are created with funding from a museum or government, not a private individual like Spencer.

“It’s really impressive as a private person to take the lead on something like this from start to finish,” Ross said. “I think Greenfield is fortunate to have this artwork, and a person like David living there.”

Spencer, who has a small private collection of Vawter’s work, said he learned of the artist through his Greenfield connection and was especially attracted to the impressionist style of his oil paintings.

“His oil paintings are just genius,” Spencer said. “…It’s amazing that he could do so much; it didn’t matter if it was oil or illustration or etching, you could see his talent in every medium he tried.”

Spencer said he hopes the statue will bring more local attention to an artist he sees as a Greenfield icon.

“Riley put the words down, but Vawter was the one who illustrated the works and brought them to life,” he said.