Sculptor Leona Evelyn Raymond's career reached its pinnacle in 1958 when she removed a flag to unveil her 7-foot bronze statue of education pioneer Maria Sanford in the rotunda at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Raymond won the $25,000 commission from the Legislature to commemorate the state centennial, crafting one of Minnesota's two sculptures in Congress' Statuary Hall.
But 25 years earlier, Raymond's promising career seemed to be over when her mother's heart weakened on the family's 600-acre, 160-head dairy farm 8 miles outside Duluth. She dropped out of art school in Minneapolis to take her mother's place, rising daily at 5 a.m. to cook and wash dishes for a team of farmhands. She led what she called a hermitlike existence for eight years during the Great Depression.
After her mother, Nellie, contracted cancer and died at 51 on New Year's Day 1938, Raymond carved a remarkable career restart. She became a lifelong art teacher and prolific sculptor with large works gracing churches and businesses. Her artistic longevity spanned more than a half-century, from a 1942 bas-relief on an International Falls football stadium to an abstract 1997 stainless steel "Celebration of Peace" with circling doves. Raymond died at 90, 10 months after that 27-foot-tall work was unveiled near her longtime home in St. Louis Park.
"I don't really need publicity but, hell, I think I've contributed a lot, and at 89 you need to give yourself credit," she said in 1997.
Shy but feisty, Raymond was once barred from a stoneworkers' union because she was a woman. But she never thought her gender stymied her success.
"I don't think men or women have a corner on sensitivity or strength," she said, "and all art should have both."
The third of six siblings, Raymond was born in Duluth on March 20, 1908. Although her given name was Leona, she went by her middle name, Evelyn. Her grandfather built homes in Duluth and her father managed road-building crews in the North Woods when she was a child, while her mother ran the summer work camps of 200 men, according to a 1998 Minnesota History article (tinyurl.com/EvelynRaymond).
The family stayed in tar-paper shacks during the road-building years, traveling light with no toys, prompting her creativity. "That's where I began to start creating things … out of twigs and our imagination," she said. "I learned how to make a whistle out of a willow."
As a senior at Duluth Central High School, Raymond won first place in a national competition for her charcoal drawing of kids on school stairs. But she yearned to sculpt — more interested in the texture of wood and stone than two-dimensional images or color.
In 1928, Raymond landed a scholarship to attend the Minneapolis School of Art (later known as Art and Design). She quickly started bucking authority, creating abstract sculpture despite the school director's disdain for modern art. When the school dumped two of her favorite teachers, she staged a "little rebellion," making good on her petition drive to quit if the teachers weren't retained. Joined by 25 students and an ousted teacher, Raymond helped start their own school in the Sexton Building in downtown Minneapolis.
Despite being "basically a shy kid," Raymond said, "If I wanted something, I seemed to have enough wherewithal to go after it."
During her hiatus from art, cooking and washing dishes on the dairy farm, Raymond devoured art books and magazines. The job market was bleak after her mother died in 1938. But as with many Depression-era artists, the Works Project Administration helped rekindle her passion.
To prove she could still sculpt, she created a squat, streamlined figure titled "ERG" after a unit of power. That led to a series of busts, wall carvings and monuments financed by the WPA's Federal Arts Project — including her 12-foot-high, 18-foot-long concrete depiction of football players in International Falls.
That piece reflected WPA art's "sturdy realism," according to Minnesota Historical Society curator Thomas O'Sullivan. It also forced her out of her introverted shell as she worked on a full-scale clay model in front of throngs at the Walker Art Center.
"If you've been a hermit for eight years, you get pretty shy," she said. Then you "look around and see all those people staring at you, and then you're doing your first big job, it's not all easy."
Seventeen male WPA workers helped install the piece in January 1942 when International Falls temperatures remained below zero. "I used to kid myself that I was Snow White and the 17 dwarves," she said.
She was on her way to becoming one of Minnesota's most noteworthy sculptors of what she called "big stuff" — blending her intensity and humor for decades to come.
"I take my sculpture very seriously — it's the only order in my life," she said in 1981. "But I do have this goofy sense of humor that complicates things."
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.