Dec 17, 2014

Fall 1974: A Naked Man for Christmas

When I was a kid in Rock Island, Illinois, we had a number of local celebrities, like jazz musician Bix Beiderbecke, poet Carl Sandburg, and sculptor Isabel Bloom.

Born Isabel Scherer in 1908, she grew up in Davenport and studied at Grant Wood's Stone City Art Colony, where she met and married fellow artist John Bloom.  In the 1950s, she began producing distinctive sculptures carved out of Mississippi River stone or molded of mud mixed with concrete.  

They were absolutely atrocious. Angels, fairies, hugging children, mothers hugging babies, cats, doves, bridal couples, snowmen, Santa Clauses, the most maudlin, sentimental, and heteronormative dreck ever imagined.

But everyone in the Quad Cities loved them.  There were at least two or three in every living room; dozens more were forced upon out-of-town relatives as Christmas presents, or shoved into the hands of unsuspecting visitors as Quad Cities souvenirs.

So I should have anticipated what would happen.

I had just discovered Greek art -- rather, statues of muscular Greek gods, so for Christmas in 1974, when I was in 9th grade, I asked for "a statue."  

I meant a desk-sized statue of a naked Apollo from Greek mythology, but instead my Dad said, "Sure -- let's go down to Isabel Bloom's, and you can pick out the one you want."

I couldn't tell him "No, no...I wanted a naked Greek god, not some stupid boy holding a frog!", so my boyfriend Dan and I had to fake-grin our way through a mid-December visit to the crowded studio in the Village of West Davenport, as we sorted through Angel with Wreath, Unconditional Love, Lovebirds, Boy with Flag...

Eventually Dan wandered off, but my torture continued: Girl with Pumpkin, Newlyweds, Boy Offering Girl Flowers, Baby in Crib, Sleeping Cat...  

Then Dan came running excitedly from a side studio.  "Hey, what about this one?"  It was a nude male figure, seated, his arms around his knees.   Stylized, not muscular, but a heck of a lot better than the other stuff.

John's Thinker,  he read from the bottom. 

"Must be a statue of her husband, John Bloom," I said, carefully taking it from his hands.  It felt warm to the touch.  It was thrilling to think that I might be holding an exact likeness of a real naked man.

John and Isabel Bloom

"No, she didn't do this statue, her husband did," Dad said, frowning.  "It's not a real Isabel Bloom."

"Well, I want it anyway."

He looked at me oddly.  "There's lots nicer ones.  How about First Kiss?"  He held out a statue of a little boy kissing an embarrassed little girl on the cheek.

"I don't want any statues of girls."

"It's a boy and a girl.  That's like two statues for the price of one!"

Was he objecting to the price of John's Thinker?  No, First Kiss cost twice as much.  "This one's cheaper."  

" could use it as a kind of model, you know.  When you want a girl to let you kiss her, just show her the statue."

"Gross!" Dan exclaimed.

"When you discover girls, I mean."

"John's Thinker, please," I said firmly.

Dad shrugged.  "Well, if you're sure that's the one you want.  But I don't know what you're going to do with it, Skeezix."  Later I figured out that he always called me Skeezix, after a character in the old Gasoline Alley comic strip, when I expressed same-sex desire, something bizarre and beyond imagining at the time.

I still have the statue.

Recently I did some research into the work of John Bloom.  He was apparently heterosexual, married to Isabel from 1938 until his death in 2002 (but then, he lived for several years in a converted ice truck with the gay artist Grant Wood).

His paintings and drawings return again and again to images of male friendship and camaraderie. 

There aren't many male nudes, but one was enough on that long-ago winter day.

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