Photo | Lagniappe
Daphne artist Fran Neumann may be known locally for her prominent sculptures on the Eastern Shore, but her career has also included packaging and logo work, set design, painting and more.
Locals may have seen her work in front of Daphne City Hall or atop the bluff in Fairhope’s Utopia Park. Most recently, she’s left a mark inside the Fairhope Public Library. But artist Fran Neumann has also had an international audience.
Long before she sculpted the statue of the mythological nymph who shares her name with the Jubilee City, or before she immortalized organic educator Marietta Johnson or library founder Marie Howland in bronze, Neumann broke into the art industry by designing displays for the 1964 New York World’s Fair.
As an employee of Chicago’s Silvestri Art Manufacturing Company, she was handed an assignment to create exhibits inside the Simmons Mattress Company’s “Land of Enchantment.” The Epstein architecture firm, which designed the temporary, three-story futurist building containing the displays, described them this way:
“During the Fair, Simmons used this building to tell the ‘story’ of sleep which through the use of five incredibly ‘whimsical,’ or if you prefer ‘kitschy,’ displays collectively called the ‘Land of Enchantment’ that followed man’s progress from a ‘rock’ pillow to the Simmons Beautyrest mattress. This first floor exhibit area included animated, think Chuck E. Cheese, displays showing sleep pixies digging sand for the Sandman, historical figures like Shakespeare, Napoleon and George Washington, all having trouble sleeping because they didn’t have a Beautyrest mattress, as well as a secret Simmons laboratory where ‘sleep scientists are developing newer, quicker ways to (visit) Slumberland.’”
Neumann has a more humble memory: “It was fun. I think a lot of people saw it. I don’t know how memorable it was — parts of it might have been thrown in the trash since — but it was a great experience.”
At 92 years old, Neumann has had many experiences. Even before the fair, her most recognizable work was on supermarket shelves around the globe.
“Someone I knew at an ad agency called and asked me to do the Chicken of the Sea logo,” she said of one of the most ubiquitous brands of canned albacore tuna. According to the company, the mermaid logo is modeled after actress Grace Lee Whitney, who portrayed Janice Rand on the original “Star Trek” television series, but Neumann added a little more to the story.
“They wanted a woman to design it because a man would make her too sexy,” she said.
Originally printed on a simple three-color label, Neumann’s design shows the mermaid poised tastefully, using one hand and a wand to gesture to the brand’s name. Both the color and design has been embellished significantly since, but the subject and pose remain the same.
Neumann was assigned another huge project in the early 1980s, one that will be under millions of Christmas trees or in stockings this week. At the time, she was working with Richard Arnesen Design Associates, constructing and installing American International Toy Fair showrooms for Kenner Products in New York. Kenner had obtained the rights to produce the original “Star Wars” franchise of action figures and toys, but was also known for bubble machines, Easy-Bake Ovens and the Spirograph geographic design kit. Between 1970 and 1991, the company also owned Play-Doh.
“They asked me to redesign the logo,” Neumann said. Already widely recognizable, Neumann improved upon the existing two-dimensional font and illustration of a smiling, rosy-cheeked boy in a red beret and used the modeling clay itself to make both elements three dimensional.
Toy behemoth Hasbro purchased the product from Kenner in 1991. Subsequently, the font was redesigned slightly in 2000 and the boy was dropped from the logo in 2002, but it remains three dimensional today. Neumann has her design hung on a wall in her Daphne home studio.
“I used tools and sawed things out and built it up to 3D,” she explained. “It’s not much different today, but I like mine better.”
After retiring from commercial artwork in 1987, she briefly designed page layouts for books before moving from Illinois to Lake Forest in 1993. But she wasn’t done creating.
“I designed this house,” she said of the open and high-ceiling golf course home in which she resides.
All around the home are pieces of her work over the years including watercolor landscapes, latex portraits, bronze sculptures and examples of her most recent work, decorative wooden boxes used to store napkins, curios and trinkets.
“I had some beautiful paper I didn’t want to waste, so I started wrapping it around these boxes,” she explained.
She’s designed game concepts and graphic components, accompanied with instructions and informational material. On one table, she’s assembling a 890-piece 3D puzzle of the estate from “Downton Abbey.” In her music room, where she occasionally gathers with friends to perform Christmas music and classics, is a harpsichord she built herself. Above it is a portrait of Mozart she painted.
“[The harpsichord] looks elaborate, but it was easier to build than you would think,” she said. “I read the instructions in a book that was written by a writer — not a designer — so it was very easy to follow along. I couldn’t move a piano in here and I always wanted some sort of stringed instrument, so I built it on the living room floor of my house in Evanston, Illinois.”
She plucked a few notes, closed the keyboard cover and moved on. On another wall is a self-portrait and a series of paintings she created for a show at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Fairhope; Amish quilts based on real patterns.
Neumann’s résumé includes an educational background in the University of Cincinnati’s industrial design program, but she’s also taken coursework in psychology, science, language, ceramics, drawing, calligraphy, computers and more at several other academic institutions. Yet she attributes her artistic methods to decades of practice.
“I’m pretty much on my own when it comes to painting,” she said. “I took some workshops here and there, but I’ve always loved to draw. They had a wonderful art center in Evanston with a sculpture department and I went every Tuesday, so I wound up with a lot of terracotta figures. But it gave me a lot of training in how to go about doing things and how to work speedily. A model was only there for three hours, so you had to catch the pose immediately and then do some finishing on it afterward, but you had to work fast.”
When she moved to Daphne at the suggestion of a friend, Neumann immediately sought out creative opportunities.
“The Eastern Shore Art Center seemed to be the only place where they had a decent sculpture department, so I took a class there, but the person teaching it moved to California, so I wound up teaching the class myself,” she recalled.
She taught until a couple years ago — “when I turned 90, I thought it was time to quit” — but a couple of her students from Fairhope continue to practice at her home studio weekly. One, Carolyn Amick, said there is no one else she’d rather learn from.
“It’s really kind of hard to find a sculpture course and I had taken her classes at the art center, so I didn’t want to stop,” she said.
Amick is currently working on a sculpture of a female gorilla carrying an infant on its back, which she hopes to have cast in bronze once complete.
Neumann’s first large local project was a collaborative effort with artists Barbara Casey and Richard Arnold, to create a sculpture of educator Marietta Johnson, a progressive teacher who founded the Organic School 112 years ago. Dedicated in 1997, it depicts Johnson seated in front of two students, gesturing with a book, and with leaves on her lap. A boy to her right listens intently while holding a pine cone, while a girl to her left peers up from her own book. Later gifted to the city from the Marietta Johnson Museum, it was placed on the bluff above the bay in 2000.
For the life-size figure in front of Daphne City Hall, unveiled in 2007, Neumann said she was approached by the Daphne Redevelopment Authority as part of a downtown revitalization project. After months of modeling the sculpture in an oil-based maquette, she had to load the figure onto a trailer and drive it to Sarasota, Florida, the closest foundry at the time.
“It was a little nerve-racking of a trip, you can imagine,” she said, “So I was happy when Fairhope Foundry opened.”
It was at Fairhope Foundry her bust of Marie Howland was cast earlier this year; it was dedicated in the library’s lobby last month.
“One day in January 2018, I got a phone call from someone I didn’t know asking if I were a sculptor and could I do a portrait of Marie Howland,” Neumann recalled. “I did some research at the library to find reference photos and some history about [Howland’s] life. Since she died in 1921, there was very little; one picture of her with her husband when she was young, a drawing of her at age 50 and a full figure when she was quite old. No profile or back view. I kept a diary at the time and found a note to myself saying, ‘This is going to take some time!’ And it did.”
Foundry owner-operator Corey Swindle said he was familiar with Neumann’s work, having worked on the Daphne piece together and other, smaller projects since he opened the facility in 2000. Howland’s bust, as are most of Swindle’s casts, utilized the “lost wax” method, one thousands of years old.
“She sculpted the piece in clay and once she was ready to move forward I went and got the piece and began making some molds, then took those and used my foundry to get it cast. I pour wax, and the bronze essentially takes the place of the wax,” he explained. “Fran has a good eye; she does really good work. I enjoy working with her and she has a real humble personality, but whatever she does is well thought out and planned and very meticulous.”
Since the Howland bust was unveiled, a group of citizens has expressed interest in organizing a fund for Neumann and Swindle to cast more female figures of Fairhope’s history. The effort is in its infancy, but the “First Women of Fairhope” sculpture project is envisioned to inspire young girls and women alike.
Chair Wendy Solomon is establishing a nonprofit to raise money for busts of notable Fairhope women, and nominations have included former slave and homesteader Nancy Lewis, Mayor Karin Wilson and Police Chief Stephanie Hollinghead.
Meanwhile, Neumann is not coy about her age. Her last terracotta, standing about a foot tall, was finished around Halloween. It depicts a cloaked and featureless Grim Reaper, clutching a scythe.
“I’m 92 and I guess you never know how much time you have left,” she said. “I feel fine, it’s all in keeping busy, but I wanted to do Death just to acknowledge it.”
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