By Richard Romano
The casually reclining woman continues to look aside and downward – quite stone faced – in an unceremonious outdoor corner of a county parks storage and work garage just southeast of 68th and State Streets.
It’s difficult to tell if she looks ashamed of being naked, though past reaction to her has caused decades of shuttling her between local parks and now shunned amid stacks of pipes and lumber.
The woman reportedly depicts Eve in voluptuous stone sculpture fashion by her creator who local art experts credit to be Jefferson Greer as part of a WPA project in the 1930s. But this was not just any figure. The sculptor’s model was Dorothy Dietzel, a young local art student who lived on 63rd Court in what is now the Quarry Heights neighborhood, just blocks from her current repose.
The sculpture reportedly was located first at the Mitchell Park Conservatory but was removed because some thought it to be risqué. It then landed at the Boerner Botanical Gardens where it suffered a similar fate, then sent to the county garage.
Previous news reports
Much of her history was unearthed by the Journal Sentinel’s Jim Stingl, who wrote an original column in 2006 and followed up in 2013. His work brought together Milwaukee Art Museum conservators as well as one of the model’s son, who made the trip at that time from his Florida home.
While there was speculation that the figure could be restored and possibly placed in a more suitable art viewing opportunity locally or even reclaimed by either of two model’s sons (the other living in Michigan, nothing has happened for the past five years.
Jim Cofta, the County Parks Department maintenance coordinator, gave us a peek at the sculpture, said the problem with moving it includes its concrete weight, rough surface condition and the fact that it also seems to be constructed in two pieces.
“I would think it would be very difficult to move it without damaging it,” Cofta said. In addition to its moveable condition, it’s possible that the work’s WPA origin may require special permission to allow it to change hands.
Eddie Santiago, the Park District’s chief of operations, echoed Cofta’s remarks, adding “we probably would have to consult with legal counsel on that matter.”
Guy Smith, recently named to Park District Director after a stint heading operations, said through a spokesperson that he is open to hearing suggestions for what to do with the stature and “happy to work with anyone in the county who has ideas for it.”
Experts weigh in
Initial ideas come from art experts Jim DeYoung, a senior conservator at the Milwaukee Art Museum for the past 42 years and Graeme Reid, director of Collections and Exhibitions at the Wisconsin Museum of Art in West Bend. They noted the statue should be stored properly.
“I’m not quite sure why they leave it sitting outside,” DeYoung said, adding that since his invitation to personally view the figure by Jim Stingl, he continues to see it from time to time while visiting nearby Outpost Foods. “At the very least, it should be protected in some kind of insulated crate away from the soil and the dirt from the traffic.”
Reid added, “Ideally, the work should be inside and not exposed to the elements. He also noted that the work’s apparent WPA status means that the county “can’t just put this up for sale.”
Displaying the piece presents another issue, according to DeYoung. He said that while as an “art doctor” he cannot pass judgement on an art piece’s value, he noted the Milwaukee Art Museum may not be an appropriate venue because not enough is known about the work’s history.
“Its story is still unwritten and that is a disadvantage,” DeYoung said. “Most art works have a story they carry with them, so the challenge is to try to fill in the blanks. There may be a way to do this, to connect the dots.
“One of the things that would need to be determined is the intent of the sculpture at the time it was completed,” said DeYoung, explaining that many pieces of outdoor art have been considered something different than museum-quality pieces.
“Many pieces of that era made for the garden straddle the fence between ornamental and fine art,” he said.
As for any issues related to the figure being sans clothing, DeYoung said objections of such works are not limited to era or place.
“There will always be some people who object,” he said.
Facts, Figures and More
Jim Stingl’s reporting along with details provided by Graeme Reid give further details about the sculpture, the model who posed for it and the artist who created it:
The Sculpture: Stingl reported the statue’s measurements as 11 feet 6 inches in length and 4000 pounds (adding to the degree of difficulty in moving it).
The Model: Dorothy Dietzel was not only an art student, she reportedly also was the daughter of noted Milwaukee tattoo artist Amund Dietzel, a Norwegian immigrant who arrived in Brew City in 1913. In fact, his work was on display in a 2013 at MAM in conjunction with Harley Davidson’s 110th Anniversary.
The Artist: Jefferson Greer was born in 1905 and died in 1958. Probably best known as one of the sculptors who worked on the Teddy Roosevelt portion of Mount Rushmore and in addition to the large female sculpture, he produced several local pieces of note. He was one of an artist group that carved figures from quarry stone at what is now Currie Park for placement at Boerner Botanical Gardens. For that project, Greer carved two nude statues of a young boy teasing a young girl. He used his own children as his models for the figures and those figures remain today at the Botanical Gardens. While his commission to do a statue of George Washington in Washington Park was scrapped due to a lack of funding, his work also is seen in the lobby of WTMJ on East Capitol drive and on the post office in Prairie du Chien.