Borough of Closter, NJ

Historic Preservation Comission

A History of Closter's Sculptors
by William Cahill

As part of Closter’s celebration of one hundred years as an incorporated borough, the Closter Historical Society mounted the exhibition “Civic Pride: Closter’s Sculptors and the Nation” at the borough’s Belskie Museum of Art and Science in early 2004. This exhibit chronicled the role Closter’s sculptors played in the production of art in the twentieth century; this sculpture ranged from large public monuments to intimate medallic art, as well as medical and technical sculpture. A January 11, 2004 New York Times article titled “A Tradition of Sculpture” succinctly summarized Closter’s long and distinguished sculpture tradition, referencing the notable leaders in the field who trained and practiced in Closter.

J. Massey Rhind (1860-1936) had developed a promising career in Europe when he decided to emigrate from his native Scotland to the United States. At that time, the Beaux-Arts tradition in architecture held sway. Massive public buildings required extensive sculptural programs; Massey was able to provide sculptures that blended seamlessly with architecture, making him a favorite with the major architects of the time. By the time of his arrival in Closter in 1899, he had already executed designs for the façade of the Alexander Memorial Hall, Princeton University (1892); a set of the Astor Memorial Doors, Trinity Church, New York City (1896); and the sculptural program of Grant’s Tomb (1897), among many other commissions. A chance visit to then-bucolic Closter determined this very successful artist and businessman to open up a marble-carving yard on Demarest Avenue, where the A&P now stands. For years, huge blocks of granite and marble were delivered to this concern, where they left transposed into monuments that are to be found throughout the United States. The decorations for the Shelby County Courthouse, Memphis, Tennessee, the Wayne County Building, Detroit, Michigan, the Federal Building, Providence, Rhode Island and the United States Court House and Post Office, Indianapolis, Indiana, among other commissions, feature the massive allegorical figures favored by a nation that, while imaging itself the heir of democratic Athens and Republican Rome, enjoyed dressing itself in the pomp of imperial grandeur. A greater reticence is expressed in Massey’s depiction of President William McKinley, carved from a thirty-five ton piece of marble and the centerpiece of McKim. Meade and White’s National McKinley Birthplace Memorial in Niles, Ohio (1917).

The tradition of Beaux-Arts sculpture was the technical process of translating a clay or plaster model, created by the sculptor, into stone; this translation was effected, under the sculptor’s supervision, by teams of highly trained carvers, who were regarded as artisans. This was the procedure followed in Rhind’s studios. Premier among these technicians was Robert Alexander Baillie (1880-1961), the son of Rhind’s foreman. After having apprenticed in Closter, the younger Baillie studied at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Art and Science. He had wished to make his name as a portrait artist; however, many renowned artists, admiring his superior carving skills, commissioned him to replicate their designs in stone. Giving up his dream of being a fine artist, Baillie returned to Closter, opening his own sculpture yard on the north side of Demarest Avenue, near the Tenakill Brook and steps away from his residence on High Street; both buildings are extant. As of this writing, there are still Closterites who remember watching, as children, while huge gleaming mountains of carved marble were carefully dragged up Demarest Avenue to the railroad nearly a mile away, a process that would take days; they would then be carefully loaded onto railroad cars and then transported across the nation. One commission, the Friendship of English-Speaking People by Malvina Hoffman, found its way to London, England, to become the main adornment of Bush House, the former headquarters of the BBC. Baillie had close relationships with many sculptors; perhaps the closest was with Anna Hyatt Huntington, who, along with her husband, scholar and philanthropist Archer M. Huntington, founded Brookgreen Gardens, a 9,200-acre sculpture garden and wildlife preserve just south of Murrells Inlet, South Carolina. Brookgreen Gardens has the largest collection of figurative sculpture by American artists in an outdoor setting in the world, much of it carved in Closter by Robert Alexander Baillie and his stone carvers. Baillie was Curator of Sculpture and Decoration at Brookgreen from 1945 until his death. At that time, many artists expressed their admiration for his sensitive craftsman and technical ability in translating other artist’s visions from plaster into stone and marble, to the extent that many proclaimed him their artistic equal.

Closter is also known for the creative genius of sculptor Abram Belskie (1907–1988), born in London, England and raised in Glasgow, Scotland. After having been graduated from the Glasgow School of Art in 1926, he set up his own studio and began a successful practice as a sculptor; however, like Rhind before he had the desire to find his fortune in America, arriving in New York City on November 11, 1929, just weeks after the stock market crash ushered in the Great Depression. Belskie was able to find work for two years in the studio of the London-born sculptor John Gregory, helping him fabricate bas-reliefs for the façade of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, after which, upon Gregory’s recommendation, he found work as a carver in Baillie’s Closter studio. Belskie would remain in Closter for the rest of his life. Working as a carver was not up to Belskie’s expectations; recognizing this, Baillie gave Belskie a corner of his studio, where the younger artist created the Christ Child and the Moonbeam, which the Huntingtons purchased for Brookgreen Gardens. In 1938, Malvina Hoffman introduced him to physician Dr. Robert Latou Dickinson. Dickinson was a pioneer in the creation of medical models, used to teach students anatomy, procedure and diagnosis. The doctor knew that the effectiveness of such models relied on the interpretation of a sensitive sculptor; until he met Belskie, he despaired of ever realizing his goal. The first fruits of their collaboration, devoted to sex education, were displayed in the exhibit of Maternal Health, located in the World's Fair of 1939. Dickinson and Belskie together created thousands of medical models until Dr. Dickinson's death in l950. Abram Belskie was also among the first forensic artists, pioneering the field of reconstructing features post-mortum. Though never a doctor himself, he was a full faculty member of the New York Medical College, where he taught anatomy to several generations of physicians. Abram Belskie began his career as an award-winning medallic artist in 1952, treating subjects both medical, historical and mythical. He also created portrait busts of eminent people, such as General Robert Wood Johnson II. His work can be found in the Museum of Natural History, New York City, and the Cleveland Museum of Health, as well as various teaching institutions. He won much acclaim for his efforts and left a legacy celebrated here in the town he loved. In 1993 the Belskie Museum of Arts and Science was founded by the Closter Lions Club and donated to the Borough of Closter with the purpose of preserving, housing and exhibiting the works of Abram Belskie.

The fourth notable artist-resident of Closter was Marcel Jovine (1921-2003). Born in 1921 in Naples, Italy, Jovine studied at the Royal Academy of Turin. After World War II, he realized a life-long dream and came to the United States, eventually settling in Closter in a spacious Victorian house which he used as home and studio; this building is now protected as a historic resource under the town’s preservation ordinance. Jovine began his first career as an industrial and toy designer, creating such classics as the Blessed Event, a baby doll that earned the Ideal Toy Company one million dollars its first year of release. His most widely known toy designs were the Visible Man and the Visible Woman, anatomical models of men and women with removable plastic organs. A pamphlet included with the kit instructed children how to assemble and disassemble the model, facilitating learning. The Visible Engine, a model of a V-8 engine, followed. He also produced the Cosmorama, a working model of a planetarium. Each of these was revolutionary in the world of educational toys. Jovine turned to fine art when the Borough of Closter asked him to create its seal, which commemorates the ride of the Closter Horseman. This commission began a new phase of Jovine’s career, that as an award-winning medallic artist. He created over two hundred designs for medals and commemorative coins, including the 1980 Lake Placid XIII Winter Olympic Medal, the 1987 Constitution Commission Bicentennial Medal and 1983 American Numismatic Society 125th Anniversary Plaquette, regarded by many numismatic experts as being the most significant example of medallic art of the twentieth century. Marcel Jovine’s third career was as a leading animalier, or sculptor of animals. Among his bronzes of horses are Affirmed; John Henry; and Conquistador Cielo.

The following testament can be regarded as a creed by all the sculptors associated with Closter:
"Art should be in the service of mankind. It is a privilege to work with one's hands, as sculptors do. In such work lies the secret of man's strength and fortitude: the balance of a confident mind and a stout heart. To work, to dream, to hope, to learn; to live deep instead of fast, to take root and to have borne fruit: this harmony: this is what man must live for"

- Abram Belskie
M. Renolds, Donald. “Remembering Marcel Jovine.” 2009.