News From Terre Haute, Indiana

March 30, 2014

Shape of an Idea: Inspiration flows from 19th-century songwriter to modern-day sculpture in his honor

Mark Bennett
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — As a child, Teresa Clark played near a river. A century earlier, young Paul Dresser did the same.

Their memories inspired artwork. A song Dresser wrote in 1897 flows through a sculpture Clark is now creating.

Fittingly, her sculpture will overlook the scenery Dresser drew upon in writing “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away.” He grew up there, in Terre Haute, and then left to pursue fame and fortune. He received both as one of the most popular 19th-century songwriters of New York’s Tin Pan Alley. “On the Banks of the Wabash” sold a million copies of sheet music and got played by every hotel band and jazz-club act in America then. Generous with his riches, Dresser saw his wealth disappear and his health soon followed. He died young, just 48 years old, and penniless in his sister’s Big Apple home in 1906.

His music endured, though, especially “On the Banks of the Wabash.” It became the Indiana state song in 1913.

The Wabash itself became the official state river in 1996.

Clark’s sculpture will commemorate Dresser, the song and the river. It will stand 61⁄2 feet tall, in bronze positioned on a stone base, in Terre Haute’s Fairbanks Park, a short walk both from Dresser’s boyhood home and the river. The organizing group behind the $80,000 project — Wabash Valley Art Spaces Inc. — expects the sculpture and landscaping to be completed in early summer. It will become the second element of the Cultural Trail honoring internationally known Terre Haute legends. The Max Ehrmann sculpture and plaza downtown was dedicated in 2010.

Art Spaces chose Clark’s design for the Dresser sculpture among submissions by 54 artists from across the nation. The fact that Clark lives in Terre Haute played no role in that choice, said Mary Kramer, Art Spaces executive director. Clark’s idea won them over by incorporating Dresser, his song and the Wabash in the concept.

“Hers stood out in that way,” Kramer said. “It was highly accessible and understandable.”

As Clark designed the piece, she put herself in Dresser’s place as he wrote the song’s vivid refrain:

“Oh, the moonlight’s fair tonight along the Wabash,

From the fields there comes the breath of new-mown hay.

Through the sycamores the candle lights are gleaming,

On the banks of the Wabash, far away.”

“I first wanted to capture that moment of inspiration an artist has,” Clark said last week, sitting in the sunlit studio-room in her Terre Haute house. “I saw him sitting on the banks of the Wabash, and all this started coming to him.”

A cutout of the meandering river fills the sculpture’s center, topped by a crescent cutout of the moon. One side features relief images of Dresser and a candlelit house shielded by sycamore trees. A ribbon, bearing a sheet music staff with the actual notes from the state song, runs from the artwork’s bottom to its top and around to the flip side, resembling a stream. “The water kind of transforms into musical lines,” Clark explained. The opposite side includes a relief of a fresh-cut hay field and the words, “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away.”

“I could imagine him sitting on the banks, seeing that,” Clark said.

She’s in the process of shaping detail into a full-sized foam model of the sculpture. Later, she’ll seal and varnish the foam, cover it in clay, and then send it to Sincerus Art Castings in Indianapolis — the same foundry that last year produced the Larry Bird statue, sculpted by fellow Terre Haute artist Bill Wolfe. The foundry work lasts about two months. Kramer hopes to announce a formal dedication date in April.

Clark’s artistic touches cap a venture that began two years ago. It involved a variety of fundraising, including from the sales of two musical albums by local artists performing Wabash-inspired songs during the 2013 Year of the River celebration; a caberet-style performance by Tedi Dreiser Godard (great-niece of Dresser and his author brother, Theodore Dreiser); and contributions by the Terre Haute Rotary Club, 100+ Women Who Care, Indiana State University, Duke Energy Foundation, Vectren Foundation, Hux Family Charitable Trust, Walmart Foundation, Wabash River Heritage Corridor Commission and private individuals, as well as an arts grant from the City of Terre Haute.

Godard, too young to have met either of her famous great-uncles, praised the community-wide effort at her 2013 show in ISU’s historic Federal Hall. “I think he would be thrilled to be remembered after all these years,” Godard said then. “He was such a sweet soul, such a wonderful person.”

As for Clark, her connection to the Wabash began in 2005, when she moved to Terre Haute from Fort Wayne. At the time, she expected to stay a year, then move on to Indianapolis. “I felt quickly at home here, and that’s why I’ve chosen to stay,” Clark said, “and I felt honored and thrilled they chose me to be a part of this, and to contribute something to Terre Haute.” She hopes her sculpture rekindles awareness of Dresser, his Terre Haute roots and his sometimes forgotten state song.

Clark grew up in the tiny town of Pioneer in northwest Ohio, just three miles from the Michigan border. The St. Joseph River begins nearby. Later, she moved to Fort Wayne and raised a family, with two children. The memories of the river followed her. “I used to play at the river,” Clark said, “so I was glad to get back to a town with a river.”

Her artistic talent emerged during childhood, too. “My dad and I used to draw together,” Clark said, grinning behind dark-rimmed eyeglasses and curly hair. “He’d draw a line, and I’d draw a line, and we’d make faces.”

Once her kids reached elementary school age, Clark went back to college to study drawing. One class in sculpture redirected her path. “I fell in love with it,” she recalled. “[Sculpture] was three-dimensional drawing, to me.” Thus, she earned an art degree in sculpture from Indiana-Purdue University at Fort Wayne (commonly known as IPFW) in 1997. Now 58, with two grown children and two grandchildren, her sculptures are becoming high-profile.

In addition to the Dresser sculpture, Clark is crafting a 20-foot bronze statue of Pope John Paul II as a commission for the Archdiocese of Chicago Catholic Cemeteries. It will grace the grounds of the Resurrection Cemetery on Chicago’s south-central side, and should be completed in 2015. Clark’s limestone figurine of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin — foundress of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College — occupies a garden at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. A bronze version of the Guerin piece stands on The Woods campus in western Vigo County. Clark’s work on the Guerin projects originally brought the artist to Terre Haute.

The new Dresser sculpture differs, though, because the image isn’t an individual figure.

“This challenged me,” Clark said. I had to incorporate other things. This shows I can do other things.”

That creative energy is one reason she chose art as a career.

“It’s a combination” of reasons, she explained, sitting in a chair in front of a small, clay maquette of her Dresser piece. “I love the thought process. I’m always fascinated by expressions of figures and faces. I like capturing the essence of a person. It’s one of those things I can’t imagine not doing. It’s a challenge from an engineering standpoint, too. It’s giving shape to an idea.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.