When I was in high school, my regular habit was to take the bus downtown from my suburban home outside Dayton, Ohio. After rambling about, I always went to the library to read and study. Haunting libraries was a habit I developed from my earliest days. Anyway, above the entrance to Dayton Metro Library was (and still is, I think) this massive sculpture by Robert Koepnick. Without fail I’d stop and study this highly stylized piece depicting fellow travelers–book lovers like myself.
During those years, I took classes at the Dayton Art Institute in the summer. With its Renaissance-style architecture, the Art Institute was a magic place. Perched on a hill overlooking the Great Miami River, the Art Institute seemed to exist in its own timeless space. The Institute grounds, with its majestic view of the Dayton skyline, is filled with sculpture, like this one (although I think this piece is now inside the museum). (Sadly the Art Institute’s web site remains disappointingly unprofessional; simple searches fail to return items in their collection, such as this one.)
The Art Institute was a great place for a teenager to explore! The lower levels consist of a labyrinth of tunnels and nooks and crannies. There was a print shop with massive intaglio presses, and a sculpture foundry (I hope it’s still there). I liked it down there, fascinated by the goings on.
Always stubborn, I had a jaundiced view of my painting instructors with their airy pronouncements, and gravitated to the print shop and foundry instead. To my teenage mind, print makers and sculptors knew real things, while my painting instructors seemed mere theorists. I was struck then (as now) at how bombastic and political painters seem compared to print makers and sculptors.The process of print making and sculpting keeps the practitioners grounded. The things you have to know–those real things– not only prevent pieces from spoiling, they prevent you from getting injured–or worse. The danger makes it all the more fascinating.
It was in the Institute’s foundry where I met Bob Koepnick. Koepnick was well known around Dayton–his sculpture still dots the city–and was a long-time teacher at the Institute. The other students talked about him in hushed, reverent tones. His students adored him. An elderly man then (he was born in 1907 and died in 1995), he was energetic and dynamic. Although a serious man, he was easy to approach and talk to, and immediately put me at ease in spite of my nervousness at meeting a great artist..
I don’t remember much about that meeting, but he encouraged me and urged to take up sculpting. Although I later studied printmaking, I never did take up sculpting. He generously let me hang around the foundry and even let me help pour a student’s small bronze. I still remember putting on the leather apron and gloves and pulling the clumsy safety mask over my head.
Here is one more of Bob’s pieces in Dayton:
Even in these three pieces you get a sense of Bob’s range. Although the styles vary, they all look like ‘Kopenicks.’
Koepnick had a very successful public career, and the students tried to model themselves on him.