John Carl Ely. Expatriate Seattle Sculptor
by David F. Plummer
"How many years is it necessary for a local sculptor working elsewhere to become an expatriot (sic) sculptor? This is the question brought up in regard to an article in these columns last Sunday on sculptors of the past and present in Seattle. It was pointed out that John Ely, whose tragic death by drowning took place several years ago off the New England coast and meant the loss to American sculpture of one of its most promising figures should be considered a local sculptor. John Ely was originally a Seattle artist, although he made his success in the East and worked largely there. As he was generally considered in the art world as allied with the East, he was not included in the brief résumé of Seattle sculptors in the aforementioned article. For the benefit of those who wish to consider him local, I make the following unsolicited comment, that he was at the time of his death one of the most significant figures in sculpture that has come out of this region." - Larry Cross, The Seattle Daily Times April 1, 1934
At the time the above comment appeared in print, Seattle's artistic community had not included many sculptors. However, James Wehn, Alonzo Victor Lewis, Dudley Pratt and his wife, Virginia, Harold Lembke, Joe Taylor, and Dudley Carter were certainly among the most noted of the City's sculptors producing at the time John Ely entered their ranks.
John Carl Ely was born in Mason City, West Virginia on June 24, 1897. He was the first son of John Henry Ely and Alice Barbara Lewis. The Elys moved to Seattle about 1903, where John was raised with his brother, Alan, and his sister, Inez.
Ely graduated from West Seattle High School in 1915. In the fall of 1916, he entered the University of Washington and received his BFA in August, 1921. He was an instructor in painting and design at the University's School of Art the following school year, and would have continued as an instructor there the next academic year (at an annual salary of $675), had he remained in Seattle. Although he chose to pursue his art education in New York City, he returned to Seattle often enough over the next several years to be awarded an MFA from the University in 1927. His principal art/sculpture teacher in Seattle at the University of Washington was James A. Wehn, most noted for his portraits in medallions and busts. Wehn's bust of Chief Seattle can be seen at Pioneer Square in the City; a more abstract work in concrete adorns the southeastern portal of the I-90 tunnel leading to the Lacey V. Morrow floating bridge.
After completing his year as an instructor in the University, Ely left Seattle for New York in September, 1922. He entered the School of American Sculpture at the Master Institute of United Arts where he studied during the fall/winter/spring of 1922/23. Some of the sculpture he produced during this period was exhibited in New York at the American Galleries, in the Salons of America's spring, 1923 exhibition. At this time, Ely first met, and began to study under the noted sculptor Robert Laurent.
Ely returned to Seattle in the fall of 1923, where he resided and worked until the fall of 1924. In February, 1924, an exhibition of his work was held at the Seattle Fine Arts Society. Commenting on that exhibit, in the February 26, 1924 Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Mabel De La Mater noted, "Seattle has a most uncommon citizen, a genuine expressionist. 'Anyway,'" Ely responded, "'I've been called that by people who saw my statues in New York, but I never said I was an expressionist; or any other -ist.'"
In May, 1924, an exhibition of French and American 'modernists' art was held at Eagleson Hall, near the University of Washington campus. Ely wrote a review of the exhibit which appeared in the May 11th issue of the Seattle Post Intelligencer. In the article he conveyed his own sense of the artistic experience: "Before any work of art, the beholder should discard prejudices and preconceived ideas, and assume a quiescent receptive state. If it be a sincere work of art, and if he be sincere, the miracle happens: he feels the great thrill of art. To note the impact of the artist's mind, to weigh it, judge it, test its quality, is one of the real pleasures of life. It is worth much striving for."
After spending the summer with his parents in Seattle, Ely returned to New York City in September, 1924, where he continued his studies under Robert Laurent. While he was in Seattle, his sculpture Head of a Woman (photo #1) was shown at the Salons of America's May, 1924, exhibition at the Anderson Galleries in New York City. In February, 1925, three pieces of his sculpture (in marble, The Two Friends and Embrace; in granite, Thomas) were exhibited at the Himebaugh & Browne gallery in New York. These pieces were favorably reviewed by Wanda von Kettler in one of the New York newspapers, who commented, "Not infrequently does some luminary (from the) Northwest shine out in New York City... Ely is the latest Northwesterner to receive recognition in the metropolis." The Two Friends and another sculpture, Young Girl Walking, were included in the Salons of America spring, 1925, exhibition; an untitled sculpture was shown at the Salons exhibition in their spring, 1929 exhibit.
Probably a shortage of money caused Ely to return to Seattle in the fall of 1925. He continued his education at the University of Washington, and worked in a small studio in his parent's home during this time. He received his MFA from the University in 1927. The Henry Art Gallery held an exhibition of his work in May and June, 1927; it included 11 sculptures in terra cotta, 5 wood sculptures, and 19 paintings. During this time period, an exhibition of seven pieces in walnut, butternut, oak, terra-cotta, and marble were shown in the College of Puget Sound's art galleries in Tacoma. Ely remained in Seattle until the fall of 1928.
In September, 1928, Ely returned to New York City. He continued his studies and at the same time held a position with the American Museum of Natural History (photo #2). The following summer, he left the City for a three-week vacation with friends in Dennis, Massachusetts. On Sunday, August 4th, the group went to the beach to swim in Cape Cod Bay. Ely was apparently caught in an undertow (one newspaper report suggested "... a whirlpool ...") and drowned. Attempts to revive him failed. His body was cremated in Boston, and his remains were returned to Seattle where a memorial service was held later that month.
During the 'New York years' (1922-29) Ely was granted scholarships at the Master Institute of United Arts, where he was awarded the Walt Whitman scholarship in October, 1924. The Institute purchased one of his sculptures in November, 1924. While studying under Robert Laurent, Ely became a close friend of Laurent and his wife Mimi. He also established a close friendship with the noted artist Stefan Hirsch, who painted two portraits of Ely. Had he lived, he would have been an instructor (with Robert Laurent) in sculpture for the 1929-30 term at the Master Institute of United Arts in New York City.
Ely expressed himself both in sculpture and in painting. However, he was regarded primarily as a sculptor. While much of his work was produced in New York City, he also produced a considerable amount of his art while living with his parents in Seattle. Like other obscure Northwest artists, it is difficult to develop a comprehensive appreciation of his talent. In viewing his sculptures, form dominates as the most important principle of expression, reflecting Laurent's influence. Ely, along with other pupils of Laurent, developed his stone and wood sculptures by cutting directly in the underlying medium without the use of models. This was an unusual, though not unknown technique. The resulting sculptures lack any sense of thinness and brittleness of form; instead, they invite the viewer to sense their beauty by touch as well as sight.
The subjects of Ely's sculpture ranged from the fleeting, chance view of a woman passerby (La Passante, white marble); a nude woman, arms clasped about her head (Woman Kneeling, white marble); a nude male-like figure based on Browning's poem (Calaban Upon Setebos, wood relief); a wood nymph (Dryad of Madrona, life-size, wood); a large (teak, 35"h x 30"w) wood sculpture, Moschophorus (photo # 6); two obverse/reverse sleeping doves (title unknown, white marble); and, unusual for sculpture, a small, comical figure (Man In A Derby Hat, rose-pink marble). His plaster busts and low reliefs covered such subjects as his father, his friends (Amos Hiatt, Gulley Foster), and others (Chief Seattle). In all these sculptures, Ely exhibited an intimate knowledge of his subject, and a transcendent, luminous energy.
Ely was 32 when he drowned in Cape Cod Bay. Thus, his productive period lasted only about seven years. Clearly, he was still developing his artistic talents when he died. However, a considerable body of work remains in the hands of relatives and others: 22 sculptures in media ranging from wood to bronze; 13 paintings; 6 copper etchings/engravings; and 2 bronze memorial plaques honoring graduates of Seattle's West Seattle and Queen Anne High Schools for service in World War I. Two of his sculptures are in the permanent collections of two museums: the Rose Art Museum, Boston, has Head of a Woman; the Henry Art Gallery, Seattle, has La Passante, a woman's head in white marble. In addition, short descriptions or titles from catalogues and the few newspaper reviews provide an expanded, if still-dim view of his artistic output.
In a brief, unauthored note in the June, 1930, issue of American Magazine of Art, the following commentary was made concerning Ely and the memorial exhibition of his work held in April of that year : "...In all his mediums Mr. Ely showed considerable skill and understanding. His work is of real excellence, direct, simple, well designed. Although Mr. Ely was best known for his work in sculpture, his paintings are exceedingly interesting -- modern, direct and fresh."
Ely's sculpture, The Embrace, sold for $12,000 in New York at the Richard York Gallery's October-December, 1995, exhibition, "Modernism At The Salons Of America 1922-1936." In 1996, his small sculpture, Man In A Derby Hat (rose-pink marble, 6" high), originally Ely's gift to Robert Laurent, was offered for sale for $2500 by the same gallery. While these prices may seem insignificant compared to those paid for works of world renowned artists, they provide some indication of a fairly recent assessment of this relatively unknown sculptor.
A memorial exhibition of 41 pieces of John Carl Ely's work was held at the Seattle Fine Arts Gallery in April, 1930. This was the public's last view of a sample of the eclectic output of one of the Northwest's and the University of Washington's most promising artists. Gratefully, Ely's sensitive nature and artistic talent survive in the many works of art he produced.
David F. Plummer, BS Univ. of Washington, 1954 & 1976, is a writer living in Bellevue, Washington