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The Hands of Time
Frank Eliscu is one the world's most successful and well-known artists. Over the last 50-some years, he has compiled a list of achievements that includes, along with the Heisman trophy, the creation of President Gerald Ford's inaugural medal. It was Eliscu who created a state gift for the late Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. His sculptures stand in a bank in Rockefeller Center. His Atoms for Peace makes its statement in Ventura, California. A promethean screen Cascade of Books is mounted on the front of the James Madison Library of Congress building in Washington, DC; it took Eliscu 10 years to complete and in 1985 won him top honors from the National Sculpture Society. The heroic bronze, along with Eliscu's plaque of Uncle Joe Cannon in the same city, has been declared a national monument, and by law can never be removed or changed in any way. He is a fellow of the National Sculpture Society and an academician of the National Academy of Design. Last year, he was recipient of the Herbert Adams Memorial Gold Medal for service to American sculpture.
"From the time I was about eight years old, I knew I wanted to be an artist," says Eliscu. Born during the Depression in Washington Heights, NY, Eliscu's formative years were spent experimenting with different sculpting mediums, such as putty and paraffin. "My grandmother lived with us. She used to burn religious candles in little glasses. I would take the melted paraffin into the bathtub with me, and model horses' heads in the warm water," he reminisces. "She also made beaded bags and I used the beads to make the horses' eyes. I'd take putty and do bas relief's on the walls. I was very inventive, he says with a laugh.
Despite the lack of financial resources during those times, Eliscu's parents strongly supported his decision to pursue an art career. "Unlike many parents, who might have said, 'Why do you want to be an artist?' mine said, 'Do whatever you want to do,'" he recalls fondly. "That was partly because my father, an accountant, would like to have been an artist himself. He did calligraphy on the side."
Eliscu took his parents' advice. He had to work to support himself, but he managed to get jobs that allowed him to be creative. "After graduating from school in 1929 the year of the Crash I got a job working in a mannequin factory. I worked in a chocolate factory too, making Easter bunnies, and a doll factory. Whatever the job, it was always something where I could use some form of sculpting."
Luck was with Eliscu when he met Harrison Tweed, former head of the New York Bar Association. Tweed maintained an interest in talented youths who lacked financial resources to pay for their higher education. After Eliscu earned and exhausted a one-year art scholarship, Tweed paid for the completion of his schooling. When Eliscu was just 19, he got his first paid commission as a professional artist a project that came his way because no better-known artists wanted it.
"I was asked to create the Heisman Trophy," Eliscu recalls, "and I was thrilled. They didn't pay a lot of money which is probably why no one else wanted to do it. It was not one of my best works of art, but it turned out to be kind of like the Statue of Liberty: not beautiful, but it's dear to people's hearts."
The first Heisman Trophy was present to a college football player in 1935, and has since become the greatest honor a college athlete can receive. Over the years the Heisman Committee has paid tribute to Eliscu and his creation several times, and in 1985, the Heisman Committee invited him to speak at the 50th Anniversary Heisman ceremonies, hoping to present him with a special Trophy as a token of their appreciation. Eliscu responded explaining that he already had a special Heisman: the original plaster cast. Instead, the committee presented him with a commemorative gold watch, one with a tiny, revolving gold football in place of a second-hand.
Though sculpting is clearly his first love, his additional creative talents emerged during a brief stint in 1962 with the Steuben Glass Company, when Eliscu was asked to design engravings for half a dozen exhibition pieces, in limited editions of only 20 each. The opulently illustrated book, Steuben Glass, an American Tradition in Crystal , displays several of these pieces including Eliscu's Saint Francis (1962), Daniel (1962), and perhaps the most breathtaking, the figure of Noah, cast in an asymmetric prism and carved intricately with details of animals, fishes, birds, twining leaves, and rain, with a list price of more than $8,000.
Eliscu and his wife, Mildred, have made their home on Siesta Key. His work is ubiquitous locally and around the state. He created the official medallion called Satchmo for the Jazz Club of Sarasota; a statue of a sea urchin for the Van Wezel Hall; and bronze busts of John & Mable Ringling for the Ringling Museum of Art. Orlando possesses his Holocaust; his Piata is in Venice. For Sarasota's Ringling Museum, Eliscu created Circus Figures: 45 bronzes of acrobats, aerialists, high wire artists, and bareback riders.
Asked to choose a piece that had a particular significance to him, Eliscu tells the story of one that turned out to be a favorite achievement. "Recently, a man called me up to make an appointment about doing a piece of sculpture for him. He and his twin sister had been at Auschwitz. When the Allies came in, the twins were released; they came to America and did very well. The man asked me to do a memorial called The Holocaust. This was a difficult request, because this theme has been done so many times.
At the time, I was having trouble sleeping. One night, while lying awake, I imagined a tree, and branching from it, a man, a woman, and two children like limbs, but the tree is being suffocated with barbed wire. I quickly got up and went to the studio and made a sketch, and called the guy the next day to tell him about it. It turned out to be one of the most touching and successful things I've done. It made me feel as if I'd made a contribution; like I'm not just taking up space in this world."
The Gulf Coast of Florida is rich with literary and artistic notables and dilettantes alike, but Frank Eliscu remains in a class all his own. Perhaps because he emerged from humble surroundings, perhaps because he's never really gotten caught up in the significance of his own achievements, Frank Eliscu is not what so many people think of as the stereotypical "artist." He is polarized from the temperamental-foot-stamper image of a famous artist; he does not boggle the mind with artistic jargon nor does he go off on lengthy, detailed dissertations when asked a simple question about his work. Rather, his dialogue is peppered with casual laughter; his manner unfailingly charming. Compliments still genuinely disarm him. Ask him, as a master, for an authoritative opinion about art in general and chances are you will receive an answer that implies he doesn't consider himself an authority at all. According to Frank Eliscu, he is just a man who truly loves what he does.
He attributes his longevity to that heartfelt love for his work. "To me, art is almost a religion," he says. "My religion. It gives me sustenance, it gives me comfort. When I wake up in the morning, go into my studio and work, it gives me joy. Of course, I have good and bad days. But there's such a feeling of achievement. Nothing can take its place. Today, especially in Florida, too many people retire and do nothing but vegetate, and they die soon. But if you have something like an art form to give you an inner release, it makes life more worthwhile, and you live longer."
The following is the entry in the book "Who's Who in America"
Eliscu, Frank, sculpture; born in New York City, July 13,1912; s. Charles Henry and Florence (Kane) E; m. Mildred Norman, May 3, 1942; 1 dau., Norma (Mrs. Francis Banas, Jr.). Student, Beaux Arts Inst. Design, Pratt Inst., 1930-33. Author: Direct Wax Sculpture; One-man exhbn. sculpture, Mexico, 1955, works represented, Bookgreen Gardens, S.C., portrait busts, Aero. Hall of Fame, other works, Stevens inst., Cornell Med. Sch., Olin Hall, N.Y., Heisman Meml. Trophy, Naiad; fountain figure, N.Y.C., Heroic; Atoms for Peace figure, Ventura, Cal., Headley Mus., (The Astronauts), Lexington, Ky., Steuben Glass Co., (Noah), St. Christopher's Chapel, (St. Christopher). N.Y.C., Soc. Medallists, (Sea Treasures); designer: Presdl. Eagle for Oval Room, White House, also reverse side of ofcl. inaugural medal, 1974; other works include Chase of the Sea Urchin, Sarasota, Fla., 1980, Holocaust, Orlando, Fla., 1981, Bronze Grille, James Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, 1981 (Recipient Edith S. Moore prize for sculpture 1948), Library of Congress, Washington (Bennet prize Nat. Sculpture Soc.), Library of Congress, Washington (Henry Hering award 1960). Fellow Sculpture Soc. (pres. 1967-70); mem. Archtl. League N.Y. (V.P.. sculpture, silver medal 1958), Sculpture Center N.Y., Nat. Academician.
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