She’s a painter, stone carver and sculptor working in fiber, bronze, paper, clay, wood and mixed media—“pretty much anything I can create something out of.” Having followed her art and found her life’s calling, the Delavan artist is one of the region’s leading vessels of creativity.
Long before she became aware of her gift for sculpture, creativity was a driving force in Morgan Elser’s life. “I’d always been interested in nature,” she explains, “and I’d always sketched. Art classes were my favorite in school, but there was never any importance placed on my art. It was just something I did.” By the time she was five years old, she was already sewing, and over the years, she’d been an interior designer, clothing designer and antiques dealer. But her path to sculpting began with a life-sized Santa Claus.
It was a suggestion from a local man who’d seen the windows of her Delavan antique shop elaborately decorated for the holidays. “You ought to try making big Santas,” he suggested, a casual remark that would have a huge impact on Elser, introducing her to the world of “art dolls.” Art dolls are exactly what you’d think: dolls that are pieces of art, rather than toys for children. They’re constructed from a hodgepodge of mixed media—mostly fabric, but also a variety of clays, wax, wood, threaded steel and other materials, which are used for the head, hands and other body parts. These parts can be purchased off the shelf or created by the artist. Most art dolls are dressed up as well—a natural fit for the on-and-off clothing designer.
Taking this suggestion and running with it, Elser began making large Santa dolls. One day, while hunting for beard hair, she found herself on the phone with a fellow art doll maker. After looking at photos of some of the clothing Elser had designed, the woman said, out of the blue, “You’ve got to sculpt.”
“And I said, ‘No’… but she insisted: ‘Yes, you do,’” she recalls, smiling. “If you’ve made these clothes, you’ve got to do this. She wouldn’t take no for an answer… so I purchased three blocks of clay, a couple of tools and a book.” After reading the book three times in the subsequent months, Elser sat down with a block of clay in front of the fireplace one evening. “And this little old man came out of my hands!” she exclaims, still in awe at how it all came together. “That’s when I realized I had found what I was supposed to be doing as my life’s work.”
Stepping Out and Taking Off
Elser continued to make art dolls, only now, instead of purchasing prefabricated faces, she was sculpting her own. One day, a woman came into her shop hoping to learn to paint three-dimensional faces on fabric. “So I taught myself how to do that,” said Elser. “I thought: I’ll read and I’ll practice and I’ll learn.” And then she organized a class to teach others.
Devoted to her newfound passion and ready for fresh challenges, Elser began to branch into different mediums, sculpting in fiber and earthenware clay, as well as cast bronze. Before long, some were suggesting that her work was reminiscent of the acclaimed artist, Preston Jackson. After three different people said the same, she set out to meet the man, registering for one of his sculpture classes at the Contemporary Art Center in Peoria. “Preston would throw out these amazing challenges,” she recalled. “‘Do something personal,’ he’d say. ’Do something harsh’… ‘Take a piece of nature and make art out of it.’” She gestures toward a piece in her gallery –a “nature-embellished” tree limb, she calls it. “That was a suggestion from Preston.”
“He kept pushing me to reach deeper,” she continued. “I was so fascinated with him—as a professional sculptor, and with his generosity and sense of humor, but also with his ability to pull the most amazing things out of people. Just how he talks to people and encourages them… He’s a kind, kind man. I was very attracted to that kindness.”
Elser was coming into her own as a sculptor. Then, the class came to an end. “Now what do I do?” she asked the man who had become her mentor.
“One thing that’s good about your art,” Jackson said, “is that you’re not formally trained—you don’t know what’s ‘right’ and what’s ‘wrong.’ So you’ll have no fear of stepping out and just doing your work. Just do what you do. Have no fear. Just do it.” And that’s exactly what she did.
Faces and Expressions
Her first portraiture was a bust of Abraham Lincoln. “I wanted someone that everyone would recognize, and I’d always admired him,” she explained. “I wanted to portray ‘Young Lincoln’ as he was riding through on the Circuit. There are 10 places just in Delavan where he practiced, ate or slept. And, you don’t see a lot of ‘Young Lincoln’—you always see him as president.”
A bronze commission, Elser’s first, came by way of the Tazewell County Museum and Educational Center, who requested a bust featuring the likeness of Commander Scott Altman, the astronaut and Pekin native. The project took seven months to complete. “I could tell that he was a very warm and genuine person,” she said. “He had these laughing eyes that I really wanted to capture in the sculpture.” Unveiled last year, the twinkle in Altman’s eyes now has a permanent home in the elementary school in Pekin that bears his name.
In her short time as a sculptor, Elser has already found a place in the record books. In 2010, the W.D. Boyce Council of the Boy Scouts of America approached her to create the world’s largest square knot for its 100th anniversary. “They called the Guinness Book of World Records to see if there was a record height,” she said. “That was a fun, fun project.” Using all recycled materials, Elser worked with a metal fabricator to weld together a stainless steel armature, to which she added three layers of real bronze, applying a layer of patina and outdoor coating to each. The finished knot stands just under nine feet tall—the largest in the world—at Comlara Park in Hudson, Illinois.
Another prominent commission came from the Friends of Friedrichshafen, which fosters the City of Peoria’s sister-city relationship with Friedrichshafen, Germany. For its 35th anniversary, she created two relief sculptures featuring the Peoria skyline and other prominent local landmarks—one hangs in Friedrichshafen, the other at the Peoria Civic Center—along with 65 desktop sculptures, all hand-cast.
Elser doesn’t hesitate to reveal what inspires her. “People, first and foremost. Faces…expressions…and movement.” That’s no surprise—besides her personable nature, it’s evident that she really values the input and ideas of others; her entire entry into the art world, in fact, can be seen as a chain of serendipitous meetings, each leading to the next. Pointing to a sculpture of an old medicine man, she expresses her love for Native American art. “His eyes are very, very sad,” she explains. “My emotions come out of my hands… There were issues going on in my life [at the time] that made me very sad.”
“But I also have that whimsical side that never goes away,” she quickly adds. She still loves her art dolls, and a glance around her studio reveals her affection for animals, which she often endows with human characteristics. “It makes people smile.”
A “Baby Galena”
It was just over a decade ago that Morgan Elser arrived in Delavan, about 35 miles southeast of Peoria, with her husband, John. “Small-town America has always been appealing to us,” she notes. The couple had refurbished a number of older homes through the years, and when they found such a place in Delavan, “We just knew we needed to live there,” all the while with an eye on something bigger than themselves.
“We moved to this community because we saw the potential of the historic downtown,” she says. “We thought it looked like the beginnings of a ‘baby Galena’”—the popular tourist destination known for its history, shopping and resorts. Elser has always had a business downtown—first, the antiques shop, which evolved into the art gallery and studio—and has always tried to do positive things for the community. But it wasn’t until Libby Mathers came to town in 2009 that the “baby Galena” concept really began to take off. Mathers purchased a number of historic buildings and opened the acclaimed farm-to-table restaurant, Harvest Café, just a few doors down from Elser’s gallery in 2010. In early 2011, Hometown Wine & Spirits opened adjacent to the café, and a number of other projects are in the works. The flutter of activity has made this sleepy little Tazewell County town a hot destination for a road trip.
There‘s certainly a case to be made for Delavan as the quintessential small town on the prairie. Its history is dotted with all the trappings: the predominance of agriculture, the rise of the railroad and telegraph, the Carnegie library, the Underground Railroad stop, the Lincoln sites. 2012 marks the 175th anniversary of the town’s founding, and with festivities planned throughout the year to mark the occasion, Elser’s gallery at 311 Locust Street is right in the thick of it all.
The gallery is open Wednesday through Saturday, or by appointment. In addition to Elser’s own work, visitors can find floral paintings by Dorothy Thornton, ceramics by R.D. Fosdyck, wildlife art by Marti Millington, abstract work by Megan Couri, and jewelry by Cheri Moery-Metzka, Leslie Schenkel and Jan Ebling—all local or regional artists. Having benefited greatly from the advice and encouragement of others along the way, Elser is paying that success forward. From big Santas to the world’s largest square knot to cast-bronze portraiture, it’s certainly been a remarkable journey. a&s
Call (309) 202-8665 or visit morganeart.com to learn more about Morgan Elser and her gallery.