Jo Davidson (March 30, 1883 – January 2, 1952) — who achieved his fame by sculpting likenesses of the very famous — got his start in life on the Lower East Side where he was born, and got his start in art at the Educational Alliance where (against his parents’ wishes) he studied drawing as a young teen. When he could afford it, the young Davidson paid the Art School tuition of 3 cents a week from his earnings as a messenger and a newsboy.
His parents, Jews who had fled for America to escape the pogroms in Russia, were intent on their son escaping their life of poverty and sent him to New Haven to prepare for medical school. But in New Haven a friend showed some of Davidson’s drawings to the dean of Yale’s art school. The dean was so impressed he let Davidson take classes for free. The story goes that one day Davidson mistakenly wandered into the sculpting studio instead of the drawing studio and immediately knew what direction he wanted to take in life. He dropped out of school and returned to New York to study sculpture.
Relatively soon, he became a very famous and wealthy sculptor whose comings and goings between his home and studio in Greenwich Village and Europe (where he eventually settled in France) were excitedly reported by the New York Times and other leading newspapers and magazines of the day. He might not have become the doctor his mother wanted him to be, but his first sculpture to gain critical recognition was a bust of her head, which highlighed his talent at detailing facial expression. Thereafter his models/clients included presidents (Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower, and FDR) plus a veritable “who’s who” of the political, military, cultural, and scientific notables of the day including Charlie Chaplin, Albert Einstein, Mahatmas Gandhi, Hellen Keller, Golda Meir, Gertrude Stein, and Walt Whitman, to name just a few. Davidson boasted that he never asked his subjects to pose for them, “My approach to my subjects was very simple. I never had them pose, we just talked about everything in the world.”
Several of Davidson’s sculptures can be seen in and around New York City. In Rockland County, a full body sculpure of Walt Whitman is in Bear Mountain State Park. Davidson’s sculpture of Gertrude Stein is in Bryant Park, near the main branch of the New York Public Library. And not too far away from where Jo Davidson used to pay three cents a week to study drawing, you can find his sculpture of former New York City mayor, Fiorella LaGuardia, in a playground at Madison and Cherry Streets.
Though Davidson himself left the Lower East Side far behind he always remembered where he had come from. In an interview he once said, “You can’t ask people to ignore their past experience because that is part of their identity.” Would Jo Davidson want the Art School to ignore its identity as a traditional art school with old-time studios and the opportunity to study old-time disciplines? What would he think think of the Educational Alliance’s renovation plans?
(For more on EA Art School alumnus, Jo Davidson, see:
http://www.highlands-gallery.com/jo-davidson and http://www.palisadesparksconservancy.org/news/106/)