Anyone who lives in Lincoln has seen Lee Lawrie's sculptures every day for years. But chances are good you didn't know that Lawrie was the man who created The Sower that sits atop the Nebraska State Capitol or was the man responsible for the architectural sculptures and panels incorporated into the building.
I certainly didn't until I picked up "Lee Lawrie's Prairie Deco: History in Stone at the Nebraska State Capitol," Gregory Paul Harm's book about Lawrie and his work that is on view here 365 days a year. Self-published, the 192-page book is lavishly illustrated with photographs of Lawrie's Capitol pieces along with some historical/biographical pictures of the artist and others who worked on the building, including architect Bertram Goodhue.
Those photographs and the accompanying text serve another purpose, too, providing a detailed explanation of the origins and meanings of the panels and sculptures inside and, in particular, outside the building. Moses, for example, is one of the figures carved into the Capitol skin for his participation in the history of law - one of the dominant themes brought to the building by Harley Burr Alexander, who created the scheme of decoration, symbolism and inscriptions for the building.
Lawrie, a German immigrant born Hugo Belling, was charged with turning Alexander's themes into architectural artwork while collaborating with his longtime associate Goodhue in work on the Nebraska State Capitol building, a project that was awarded by competition in 1920. Ground was broken for the building in 1922. The final carving in the building was completed in November, 1934.
The "Prairie Deco" of the title is a label of Harm's invention, designed to convey his thesis that Lawrie incorporated regionalism into Art Deco (a 1930s style that didn't officially get its name until the '60s). Harm's observation is well made as the use of agricultural and Native-related imagery unquestionably added to the flat, angular, stripped down, but still ornamental deco style.
That's particularly clear with the deco-style buffalo found throughout the building. But it also shows up, for example, in the angular, flattened look with long, squared fingers and hands of the figurative sculptures. Harm also makes the claim that Lawrie's designs are a link between Art Deco and Moderne, a style that briefly was in fashion following Art Deco.
Harm's aim in writing the book and in his ongoing project "Machine Age Michelangelo," a title he gives to Lawrie, is to bring attention to the man behind prominent, oft-seen work that includes not only his 80 Nebraska pieces but the famous "Atlas" holding the globe in New York's Rockefeller Center and the freestanding statue of George Washington at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.
Lawrie is deserving of the attention, if for no other reason than he created architectural sculptures for five of the 150 buildings identified as the public's favorite works of architecture in the United States in a 2007 survey. Those buildings are: the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and Rockefeller Center in New York; The National Cathedral; The Los Angeles Central Public Library; and, of course, the Nebraska State Capitol, which finished at number 67 on the list and which has the greatest concentration of Lawrie's work anywhere.
"Lee Lawrie's Prairie Deco" is available through Harm's Web site, www.leelawrie.com, where more information on Lawrie and his work is also available.
Reach L. Kent Wolgamott at 473-7244 or firstname.lastname@example.org.