The Stone City Art Colony and School 1932-1933
Florence Sprague Smith
 

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Florence Sprague Smith (1889-1971) - faculty

Born in the tiny town of Paullina, Iowa, Florence Sprague received her primary art training at West High School in Des Moines, where she was active in the art club, and at the Cumming School of Art, Des Moines. After a ceramics specialization at the Lewis Institute in Chicago, Florence's first experience as an art teacher came immediately after high school when she was hired by Penn College in Oskaloosa, Iowa. Sprague lead painting and sculpture classes from 1909-1910 and directed the School of Art program, encompassing traditional and studio courses. She continued additional training in ceramics and forms at the Institute of Chicago under Charles Mulligan and Albin Polasek. After several years of further, independent study, she accepted a position as an assistant art professor at Drake University, Des Moines (1920).

Sprague’s sculpture classes proved popular with the Drake University campus, even as the art department struggled to retain faculty. Enrollment for the 1923-24 year reached 17 students, 14 of them women. By the 1927-28 academic term, thirty-six art students took painting, drawing, sculpture, and ceramics classes under Sprague, who directed the entire art program. She was named head of the department in 1930. In 1932, she was asked to take part in the Stone City Art Colony as sculpture instructor; she held that position for both of the colony’s summers.

Sprague’s classes were conducted in one of the area’s abandoned limestone quarries. Colony promotional literature features a brochure with Sprague at work on a sculpture. She later wrote the article "Stone City Art Colony is a Decided Success" about the colony's experience for Spotlight magazine, a Des Moines publication. In addition to her colony work, she was well known in the central Iowa area for her sculptures and received many private home and business commissions for garden fountains, figures, and statues. The Des Moines City Waterworks commissioned a Sprague sculpture (four frogs, each on the corner of a pool) for their main grounds in the 1920s; the Iowa State Historical Society purchased her model for a rotunda fountain of their building in 1926-27.

An avid follower of the circus, some of Sprague’s most respected works are sculptures of African animals. She received exclusive access to the backstage areas of the Ringling Brothers Circus in 1929 and maintained a studio across the street from their main offices in the summer of 1930. Her bronze statue of a giraffe named Louise would prove to be immensely popular in an Art Institute of Chicago exhibition in 1930. As a member of the Circus Fans of America, she visited other circuses for inspiration, including the Hagenbeck-Wallace circus of Indiana. The animal sculptures were highly prized by collectors in Des Moines and the Midwest.

Sprague’s sculptures were widely exhibited at the American Annual at Chicago (1931); National Academy of Design, NYC (1931); Iowa Federation of Women’s Club Exhibition (1932); Iowa Artists Club (1932); Drake University (various years); and the Des Moines Public Library (1925-1930). She served in the Drake University art department until 1934.

During the colony's 1933 session, Sprague met Jefferson Smith, the colony's second business manager. Smith, a former St. Louis-area newspaper editor and chamber of commerce officer, had been hired to stabilize the crumbling finances of the great experiment. The couple was married in June 1934 and soon relocated to Los Angeles, where they opened a photo studio and hobby store. Florence continued painting and sculpting and remained in Los Angeles, where she died in November 1971. Her husband was the son of the legendary Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith, a notorious swindler from Colorado and Alaska who gained his fame from saloon con-games during the 1890s.


Online Resources on Florence Sprague:

Coover, D.J. “The West Des Moines High School 1905 Annual.” ©2000. Available: http://freepages.books.rootsweb.com/~cooverfamily/annual_15.html

Sketch (n.d.) Image provided and used with permission of Jeff Smith, Riverside, CA.

Florence Sprague Smith. Selection from the faculty group photo (1933) found on the Resources Page. Used with permission of the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art.

Florence Sprague Smith.  Selection from the faculty group photo (1933) found on the Resources Page. Photo courtesy of the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art.

Florence Sprague Smith at work. (n.d.) Image featured on 1932 colony brochure. Image provided and used with permission of Jeff Smith, Riverside, CA.

Untitled watercolor (n.d). Image provided and used with permission of Jeff Smith, Riverside, CA.

Untitled (n.d). Image provided and used with permission of Jeff Smith, Riverside, CA.

Portrait of her husband, Jeff Smith. Image provided and used with permission of their grandson, Jeff Smith, Riverside, CA.

Portrait of her husband, Jeff Smith. Image provided and used with permission of their grandson, Jeff Smith, Riverside, CA.

   

When Tillage Begins: The Stone City Art Colony and School
Published online October 2003 by the
Busse Library,
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