A beloved sculpture that stands in the VCCA Studio Barn recently sparked a fact-finding mission that ended with a surprising revelation.

The Owl by Blanche Dombek

At almost 8 feet tall, the large, totem-like sculpture of a barn owl quietly stands sentry at an intersection in the Studio Barn Complex. Next to it, a brass plaque reads, “THE OWL, Blanche Dombek, 1953-1954, Paris, France.”

How did a sculpture this large created in 1953 in Paris land here at VCCA, which was founded almost 20 years later and didn’t put down roots at Mt. San Angelo until 1977? Had Dombek been a Fellow? How did this massive piece get here?

Blanche Dombek had four long residencies at VCCA in the 1980s. The only information listed in the VCCA database is that The Owl was donated by Dombek in 1984, over 30 years after its creation in Paris.

Google search returns on Dombek are sparse, with the exception that she had a connection to Randolph-Macon Woman’s College (now Randolph College) in Lynchburg, Virginia, just 20 minutes down the road from VCCA. Might they know when The Owl landed on American shores?

A quick search online of Randolph College’s Maier Museum of Art collection found that the College does indeed have some of Dombek’s smaller works and a larger piece titled…The Owl. By the photo, it looked like the same sculpture in the Studio Barn.

In the VCCA archives, Dombek’s folder contains a description by her of the sculpture. Known to use reclaimed materials, Dombek called the wood “old French oak which at the time of execution was honey-colored and gleaming as a result of its use for 350 years as a cider press in the south of France.”

First exhibited at the Colette Allendy Gallery in Paris, France and subsequently in New York at the Peridot Gallery, The Owl was purchased in 1958 by the Baroness Bethesbee de Rothschild Foundation and donated to Randolph-Macon Woman’s College.

Martha Kjeseth Johnson, Director of the Maier Museum of Art, thinks perhaps there was a connection to Harriet Fitzgerald, an alumnae and New York artist who was responsible for shepherding many important works into the Maier Museum collection. A letter to Fitzgerald from President William Quillian, Jr., dated January 1957, states,

“Mary Williams has just talked to me about the possibility of our receiving a gift of a work of sculpture by Blanche Dombek….I am writing to urge that you take whatever steps are necessary to try to bring about the making of such a gift to Randolph-Macon Woman’s College.”

 

Blanche Dombek at VCCA in the 1980s

The Owl entered the Randolph-Macon Woman’s College collection in 1958. Dombek claims that it wasn’t until 1978 when she finally made it to visit The Owl. She reports

“I saw “The Owl” for the first time since its installation…and was appalled at its location and horrified by its condition. It had been installed in a breezeway where it had been exposed to the elements and air pollution for twenty years; the surface of the sculpture had turned gray from rot that had infiltrated it to the depths…” 

After complaining to the College, Dombek claims The Owl was taken to a warehouse where it sat until, while in residence at VCCA in 1984, she offered to restore it. The College provided Dombek with supplies, an intern, and space at the Maier in which to complete her restoration. However, Dombek was dissatisfied with the College’s plans to place the sculpture in the student union, and after a discussion with Nancy Mathews, chair of the art department, The Owl was given to VCCA on permanent loan.

According to documentation regarding the disagreement, Mathews states, “From the first, it was intended as an outdoor piece and was specially treated to withstand outdoor conditions. The artist, Blanche Dombek, was fully aware of the plans for displaying the sculpture; in several letters we have in our file, she expresses her delight at the installation as it was clearly conveyed to her by Mary Williams.”

 

From Carved and Cast: The Blanche Dombek Retrospective, Sharon Arts Center, 1988

 

Blanche Dombek died in an automobile accident in 1987 at the age of 73. A retrospective of her work was held in 1988 at the Sharon Arts Center in Sharon, New Hampshire. In the exhibit catalog, the pieces created in the early to mid-1950s clearly are kin to The Owl. Patrick McCraken, Executive Director, states,

“Dombek’s sculpture finds much of its strength in the dichotomy created by the simplicity of its form and the complexity of its intent. Viewers often experience duality of impressions which occur almost simultaneously in that they may be attracted to the forceful carving evidence on the surface of the object and perplexed as to its meaning or purpose. This ability to send a mixed signal invites the viewer to participate in the dialogue begun between the artist and the object.”

So that this dialogue may continue for years to come, Martha Johnson offered that the Maier Museum of Art is “delighted for The Owl to remain on long-term loan at the VCCA and could not be happier about where it lives!”

Since its founding in 1971, VCCA has built a collection of art, literature, and music created mostly by its Fellows. Every space on Mt. San Angelo holds some physical, and often beautiful, proof that people come here, first and foremost, to create. Being surrounded by the work of other Fellows can leave one feeling inspired, challenged, and curious.