William McVey, the Artist who Created “Petie”
by Mark Bassett, Copyright 2017 © The Cleveland Institute of Art
Boston native William M. McVey ’28 (1905-1995) won so many sculpture commissions across Northeast Ohio that, to Cleveland residents, his works are as familiar as Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River. By some counts at least 48 public works by McVey are located in Northeast Ohio alone.
Among the earliest of these is an allegorical Georgia marble sculpture called Awakening, created in 1934 for a Public Works of Art Program; today, repatinated by natural elements in a weathered mossy green, it is located beneath the shrubbery of the Cleveland Botanical Gardens. (In 1936 this art deco figure was the centerpiece of the gardens constructed as part of the Great Lakes Exposition.) Almost 50 years later, McVey modeled a naturalistic over-life-size bronze sculpture of one of Cleveland’s favorite sons, the Olympian gold medalist Jesse Owens. Ever since the sculpture’s creation in 1982, Owens can be seen racing in place, at the edge of Downtown Cleveland, in Fort Washington Park.
Other McVey works around Cleveland have a decidedly symbolic or even spiritual significance. There is The Good Samaritan (1952), carved from Tennessee marble and gracing the entrance to the Inamori International Center for Ethics and Excellence, at Case Western Reserve University. Angel Handing Man the Book of Knowledge (1961) is relief-mounted on the façade of the Grasselli Library & Breen Learning Center, at John Carroll University. The stylized Kulas Clef (1973) stands inside the main gate at Blossom Music Center.
These artworks help define Cleveland’s urban landscape, while also embodying a specific balance of civic identity, philanthropy, and artistic vision. In addition, McVey created dozens of miniature versions of selected works, which collectors could display inside the home. He occasionally took corporate commissions too, creating informational wall plaques or medals for various institutions.
Outside Cleveland, the artist gained acclaim in places like Washington, DC and Texas, where he attended Rice University (Houston) and later taught at the University of Texas, Austin. In Washington, a group of McVey’s 1930s sculpture can be found in the vessels of transportation that adorn the grilles on the Pennsylvania Avenue doorway of the Federal Trade Commission. There too one finds the monumental bronze Winston Churchill (1966), generally viewed as McVey’s most important sculpture. In the artist’s conception, Churchill is poised so that one foot stands on the British Embassy grounds and the other on American soil. Churchill’s posture symbolizes the prime minister’s key role in maintaining a strong Anglo-American alliance during World War II. His right hand is raised to give the Victory sign, while the left holds his signature cigar.
In Texas, McVey is beloved for his statues of legendary figures like Jim Bowie and Davey Crockett, created to honor the state’s centennial (1936); a carved limestone frieze in eight panels celebrating Texas history, for the base of the San Jacinto Monument’s towering column (1936-39), near Houston; and an allegorical Atlas-like relief sculpture, Texas Natural Resources (1937-38), for the Texas Memorial Museum of UT, Austin.
While attending Rice in the mid 1920s, McVey had played football under the incomparable coach John W. Heisman (who was born in Cleveland). In 1924, he interrupted his training at CIA after clashing with sculpture professor Herman Matzen. After his time in the illustration program at Rice, McVey next studied in France for three years, with Rodin protégés Charles Despiau and Marcel Gimond, before returning to Cleveland to complete his degree requirements and graduate.
McVey’s teaching career at UT Austin was interrupted by service during World War II, after which he married another CIA graduate, the ceramic sculptor Leza Sullivan McVey ’31 (1907-1984), and the couple moved to Detroit, where Bill taught at Cranbrook Academy and Leza studied with Maija Grotell. The McVeys moved to Cleveland in 1953, and Bill taught sculpture through 1968, by which time his commissions were lucrative enough to support his working full time as an artist instead. One such late-life work was completed in 1988, when the Cleveland Arts Foundation made a gift of McVey’s 8′ statue of his by-then renowned football coach, Heisman, not to Rice, but to the Georgia Institute of Technology, where between 1904 and 1919 Heisman had achieved his greatest record.
Created in 1977, the school’s McVey sculpture—titled simply Lion—commemorates the grandson of Charles Kingsley Arter I (1875-1957), who was senior partner in the prominent Cleveland law firm Arter & Hadden, specializing in corporate, bankruptcy, and labor disputes (representing employers). This family patriarch set the standard for both success and philanthropy, earning himself an entry in the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. Among the objects of his benevolence were the Phyllis Wheatley Association, an African-American boarding home that evolved into an important community center, and also the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.
In 1958, after Arter’s death, his sons followed his example, so Charles K. II and Calvin decided to give the family mansion in Lyndhurst to the Sisters of Notre Dame, to become the home of the Julie Billiart School (founded 1954), which focuses on K-8 students with special learning and social needs. Like his father, Charles K. Arter II and his wife gave generous support to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, eventually being named Founders Society members.
In 1968, when Charles K. Arter III graduated from Amherst College, he became the third generation of Arters to graduate from the school—and having chosen a life of educational administration, he quickly began demonstrating what Cleveland art critic Helen Cullinan described as “distinguished leadership amid problems of school integration. He was the rare administrator whose personality combined a friendly warmth and a dynamic, commanding aspect” (Plain Dealer, September 4, 1977). In 1976, following the unexpected death of the principal of E. Rivers School, Charles K. Arter III took that post in Atlanta, turning them away from the tragedy of such a loss and toward a feeling of renewal and community.
Yet only about one year later, at age 30, Charles K. III himself suddenly died. His death occurred on January 2, 1977, during open-heart surgery. Thus the Arter family and the E. Rivers School became forever linked in mourning, just as they had bonded so quickly and so thoroughly upon the young principal’s arrival.
His parents responded by giving William McVey the commission to create the Lion sculpture as a donation to E. Rivers School. Like the Arter mansion in 1958, the Lion sculpture was a gift worth about $100,000. Chief among the many reasons the Arters might have been familiar with McVey’s work were his Bruno (aka Old Grizzly) (1932), located inside the Perkins Wild Life Enclosure, Cleveland Museum of Natural History; or his Polar Bear (1949) or Goats (1950), marking two of the entrances to the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.
Or perhaps they knew that in 1975 McVey had created a very stylized Lion sculpture for Orange High School in Pepper Pike, again as an embodiment of a school mascot. For the lobby of Orange School, which had been thoroughly rebuilt in 1973, the animal “sits straight and tall, with clean modern lines,” and even in one’s imagination, “an MGM lion’s roar from him is out of the question.”
In contrast, the Atlanta lion—in the vision of the Arters—should be “something for the children to climb on,” making it “in effect a thing of natural beauty and joy rather than lamentation.” Knowing the work would be placed outdoors in a natural setting, an interior courtyard, McVey chose realism this time, “with padded claws, zoologically correct limbs, and uncombed mane, whiskery foreface and flaring nostrils.” He conducted extensive research, in the stacks of the Cleveland Public Library and at both the natural history museum and zoo also.
Cullinan reports, “One day a particular lion that McVey was studying at the zoo began to stare back and track him with a ferocious fixation that seemed about to melt the bars between them. Upon returning to the studio McVey changed his own lion’s eyes, gouging the clay sockets deeper to intensify that unequivocal lion look, that kingly glower.” Some proverbial artistic license was taken in creating a “smoothly furry” texture similar to that used on Winston Churchill earlier. McVey had absorbed Eliel Saarinen’s advice: “Never forget that texture is of principal importance!”
With the Arter family’s enthusiastic approval, McVey saw that the clay model was transported to Detroit to be cast in bronze, and a granite base was created by the Kotecki Monument Co. of Cleveland. Today, after a 2014 relocation of Lion to a new courtyard just outside the school’s main entrance, created when the new school building was constructed, Atlanta residents have another reason to rejoice: McVey’s sculpture has turned out to be not only an engaging playground ornament and an embodiment of the “E. Rivers lions!” but a focus of civic pride. Neighbors and passersby have been stopping to study the work of the famous sculptor, now on public view as never before.
But the children still love climbing all over him. And they know him, not as Lion, but by the nickname of Virginia native Eretus Rivers, son of a confederate soldier and a school dropout himself, at one point remarkable as the youngest railroad official in the United States, but today known as a planner of the Peachtree Heights Subdivision, and as a founder of the Atlanta Boys Club and of Oglethorpe University. The children know him as “Petie.” One can only assume that William Mozart McVey—the creator of humorous animal works like Gree-Deep (1972), a stylized frog near the waterfalls in Cuyahoga Falls, and McDog (1985), who peeks out at passing traffic from the shrubbery along an exterior walkway at the Cleveland Botanical Gardens—would have chuckled in delight.