During a recent visit to the Sunshine state, I discovered the former home of Albin Polasek (1879 – 1965) one of America’s foremost 20th century sculptors. The home is located on a small lake in central Florida in a town called Winter Park. The modest waterfront home, adjacent chapel and property have been turned into a museum and gardens showcasing his remarkable work.
Polasek (pronounced by the tour guide as Pull-ah-chek), a Czech-born immigrant to America who adopted the representational art method of sculpture, created “figurative works of sound composition based upon the true structure of nature”, according to the museum, which explains on its Web site that
His goal was to show the essential unity of head or figure and the beauty of ‘movement,’ the flow of one mass into another. He felt that movement made the difference between a work exuding life and something inanimate.
The museum is set far enough back from the busy avenue to provide a placid atmosphere for a leisurely visit. The $5 admission includes a general video introduction to Polasek’s ideas, life and work and a tour through much of the home and chapel, which he had built for his private religious purposes. Though he was Catholic—he followed his brother, who was a priest, to America—it’s clear from his work that his views do not align with Catholic Church doctrine.
For example, I was informed that Polasek sculpted one of his most famous works, Victorious Christ, which depicts a strong and exalted Jesus Christ on the cross, because Polasek did not approve of depictions of pain and suffering (the original is in a cathedral in Omaha, Nebraska). Though much of Polasek’s over 400 works are religious, many include essentially secular or distinctly non-Catholic themes, such as his Man Carving His Own Destiny (another version appearing elsewhere on the grounds as Evolution). Polasek sculpted and carved in stone, bronze, plaster and wood. He painted, too.
Born in 1879 in Moravia (now Czech Republic), Albin Polasek apprenticed as a woodcarver in Vienna before immigrating to the United States in 1901 at the age of 22, according to the museum. After working as a woodcarver, he began formal art training at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, where he learned classical sculpting techniques and first created Man Carving His Own Destiny (1907) and Eternal Moment (1909). Polasek became an American citizen in 1909.
While in Rome on an arts fellowship, his Sower (pictured above and below) earned critical praise and he returned to America and established a studio in New York City until, in 1916, at the age of 37, Polasek was asked to head the Sculpture Department at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he remained for nearly 30 years.
The museum bio says that Albin Polasek retired to Winter Park, Florida, in January 1950, at the age of 70, designing the home and having it built on Lake Osceola. It is there that he had a stroke, which left him partly paralyzed, and married his close friend and former student Ruth Sherwood, the first marriage for both. Polasek was 71 and Sherwood was 61. When she died 18 months later, he married a second time to a woman named Emily who is credited with encouraging his work.
Despite his condition, Polasek was able to work with his right hand – my tour guide told me that an assistant would help and added that, at one point, someone who’d worked on Mount Rushmore aided in the creation of at least one work – and Polasek completed 18 major works, including the anti-Communist Victory of Moral Law (1957) as a response to the Hungarian uprising against the Soviet Union. The serpent slithering around the world of the sculpture (pictured here) represents Communism.
Polasek had the chapel built on the property because, I was told, he did not like to attend church services and he sought solitude and serenity in prayer. A priest occasionally though not often came to the Polasek chapel for a mass. The chapel is the last part of the tour before the gardens, where guests are welcome to continue self-guided along the lakefront path and examine works such as Eternal Moment and others. The docent was courteous and knowledgeable, though not scholarly.
After the tour, I circled the gardens, took my time and came back into the house on the other side. The Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens are a modest property, located close to the Winter Park Public Library, Rollins College and the Alfond Hotel, which is owned and operated by the college. I ended my visit in the gift shop, having toured the house, where Polasek worked, the chapel, where Polasek’s Catholic Stations of the Cross are on display, and the gardens. The Sower and Man Carving His Own Destiny are located in the front of the house. I was first to arrive for the tour and last to leave. The whole visit took a couple of hours. I think most people stayed for an hour, maybe a bit longer.
Of course, Victory of Moral Law and Man Carving His Own Destiny are thematically appealing to me and their execution in various forms (Polasek kept creating and improving) is something to behold. Everything he made, even a statue of Woodrow Wilson he was commissioned to create and woodcarvings for an epic nativity scene he made as a boy in Europe, expresses something meaningful. The male and female nudes are beautiful. A child’s face depicts pure joy. The Sower, from a story in the Bible, sows seeds of good will throughout the world. All of these and the sum total of the experience made the trip to the Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens very nourishing.
But learning more about the artist, who is buried beside his first wife with his own 12th Station of the Cross (c. 1939) in Winter Park’s cemetery, is an unexpected highlight.
Polasek left Europe for America, settled in the Midwest, carved in wood, changed his mind, went to school, learned, sculpted, earned awards and fellowship in Rome, returned to Chicago, led the Art Institute’s sculpture department for 30 years, moved south to a town founded by a Chicago businessman, survived a stroke, continued to make sculpture and married for the first time at the age of 71, marrying once more when he’d lost the one he’d loved. He appeared to have lived in pursuit of happiness and I think it shows in his best work. Crucially, he understood what the freedom to create means to the creator; he did not take liberty for granted.
As Albin Polasek wrote:
I am like a piece of rock which has been broken off of the Carpathian Mountains in the heart of Czechoslovakia. Later this crude stone was transported to the Land of the Free: the United States of America. This block of stone was myself. Through the opportunities that this country gave me, I started to carve out my destiny…”