No. 47 Carl Hallsthammar
As a boy in Sweden, when the other kids were reading the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen, Carl Hallsthammar was poring over flame-colored books, translated into his native tongue, reciting the adventures of Buffalo Bill and the American Indians. He gathered all he could find about the Indians and also about Abraham Lincoln, who became involved in his youthful imagination with the red men.
In 1924, when he was 27, Hallsthammar came as a tourist to the United States to see the Indians and to carve them in wood. He had already carved them in boyish exuberance, along with their ponies and buffalo, in the bark of native Swedish trees on his father’s big farm from the crude pictures in the translated “thrillers.” But for four more recent years, he had worked with Anders Zorn (known in America for his paintings and his etchings, but not for his sculpture); had become quite expert with carving tools; and wanted to do something of the Indians by way of “art.”
Landing in New York, he was disappointed in finding no Indian tepees along Broadway of Fifth Avenue. He couldn’t even find the wigwam of Tammany.
But he knew some English, learned in anticipation of ultimately crossing the Atlantic, and by inquiry found that there were some real red Indians in the state of New York at Salamanca, over near the Pennsylvania border and the Allegheny River.
Thither he journeyed, and introduced himself to the Indians as a heap big friend. The older Indians were suspicious and stood aloof with arms folded, but the youngsters, when they found he could whittle, flocked eagerly around him. As Hallsthammar cut his little figures, likenesses of the old chiefs and warriors, they gradually relaxed. He learned their sign language. “White people no good!” they had muttered in the little English they knew, but now they made an exception in his case.
For six months he stayed among them, earning his living by selling his little carved figures to tourists. The Indians didn’t disappoint him. He found them quite as interesting as he had dreamed they would be.
So interesting were they, indeed, and so well did his whittlings well that Hallsthammar gave up his status as a tourist and resolved to become a resident and citizen of the United States. He began carving some more important pieces than the “souvenirs,” including a statue of Abraham Lincoln, half life-size. The Anderson Galleries, New York, “discovered” him, gave him a show, sold the Lincoln and some other pieces, and Hallsthammar was on his way.
Shortly afterward, he sent some of his things to Chicago for exhibition at the Swedish Club where his success was even more marked. So much so, that he left his Indian friends and came out here to live. Besides, it was “the great West,” where he would find even more interesting Indians.
He came here, but instead of going to a reservation of red men, he hid away for six months in the basement studio of a friend in Austin, carving wood night and day, denying himself all social engagements, until he got enough pieces ready for an exhibition at the Art Institute.
The Institute show proved a sensation. From it, he sold “Singing Brothers” to Charles H. Worcester. This and “The Junkman” and “Church Collection” established him as not only an artist but a humorist as well.
Demands for his carvings elsewhere led him to organize a traveling exhibition, which toured the United States for three years. From this touring collection, the Los Angeles Museum secured “Devotion,” an old woman reading her Bible, which had won for him first prize in a national exhibit in wood carving staged in Stockholm in 123, the year before he came to America. In the Stockholm show, there were about 500 exhibitors, most of the famous painters and etchers entering wood carvings along with the sculptors.
]Hallsthammar developed early as a prize winner. At 12, he was awarded first honors in his home community for a carving of a funeral procession. Even then, he was “making pictures, in wood.
His funeral procession may suggest something morbid, but two years later the boy won local renown as a humorist. The postmaster at Vastros (where he was born, June 24, 1897) struck him as having a funny face — “a caricature direct from the workshop of nature,” Hallsthammar says. So he carved him realistically. Neighbors saw the statuette and laughed. A bookstore showed it in a window. The postmaster saw it. To him, it wasn’t funny. He said he’d “break that kid’s neck” if he could catch him. Hallsthammar, genuinely terrified, kept out of the man’s way. For years afterward, he remembered his lesson and didn’t let his sense of humor run away with him again.
But by the time he got to Chicago and Austin, this old sense reasserted itself with “Singing Brothers” and the others as a result.
But while he let humor have its way, Hallsthammar wasn’t through with the serious nor, though he had drawn on Swedish memories for the funny things in his Art Institute show, was he through with his Indians.
He was now in funds and he went really to the West, to the reservations of the Shoshone and the Arapaho, in the vicinity of Yellowstone Park. Here, at last, he realized an ambition of years — a great, serious Indian piece, “The Sun Dance.”
He saw the last of these dances permitted by the United States government, for the Indian youths torture themselves to show their bravery. They dance for three days and nights around a totem pole, each at the end of a rope. At the upper end, the rope is tied to the top of the pole. At the lower, it is pinned in the breast of a young brave — actually pinned, tied to metal thrust through the flesh.
Hallsthammar regards his carving, showing 14 youths dancing, as important historically — “a museum piece.” But instead of going to a museum, a wealthy ranchman in the West eagerly grabbed it and, until he is through with it, no museum can have it.
The Indians on the western reservations were a bit disappointing after the New Yorkers, in one respect. They were more “tourist-conscious.” When Hallsthammar or any other tourist pointed a camera at them, they would say, “Ten cents!” It was the same when he wanted to sketch one of them with his pencil. It was dirt cheap as model hire, but the commercialism grated a bit on his ideals of “the noble red man.”
A giant “Covered Wagon” — gigantic for being carved in wood — was another of Hallsthammar’s souvenirs of the West.
Bank in Chicago and on trips to the East and elsewhere, Hallsthammar has turned to other phases of American life as he sees it.
Babe Ruth aroused his enthusiasm, for one, and he did a figure of the slugger in action, which a New York collector now owns.
He saw “The Green Pastures,” was intrigued by “De Lawd,” carved Harrison, and Harrison bought the statuette. A canny press agent had it photographed and hundreds of the photos are to be seen in show windows and in homes in Harlem. Harrison was almost as much of a hero as Joe Louis.
Hallsthammar did also another Lincoln, this time a bas-relief and as a companion piece, an Edison. A Franklin is projected.
He has just finished a figure of Will Rogers, half life-size, and there is a project afoot for a life-size figure in wood of Huey Long, to be commissioned by Long’s admirers.
Among local celebrities, combining humor with portraiture is “Vincent Bendix.” The features of Bendix are accurate and serious enough, but the surroundings are ludicrous.
Bendix, a serious executive, is a very busy man. Hallsthammar learned about it and so caught him, for his sketches, having his morning shave and shampoo. In the sculptured group, the manufacturer is sitting in the barber’s chair with an apron around his neck, and the barber rubbing soap into his hair. A manicure is polishing his nails, and there is another flapperish girl, a stenographer, taking dictation.
The piece was commissioned by some of Bendix’s friends as a gift. Bendix didn’t see it until it was “unveiled” after a sober speech of presentation he had accepted as soberly. But when the veil was lifted, he forgot his dignity and roared with laughter. He keeps the group about him now as a cure for the depression blues.
Hallsthammar hasn’t been back to “the old country” since he left eleven years ago. When he does return, he may find himself rated a “primitive.” For when he was 11, he started out for himself to earn his way as an artist. His comparatively wealthy father wanted him to be a minister.
Hallsthammar traveled through the country, a farmer boy at home among farmers. He painted pictures of their houses and barns; not only that, but cared their portraits as ornamental knobs for gate posts — the farmer on one post and his wife on the other. Sometimes his “patrons” preferred the dog. He had a “big time,” as he looks back on it now, the farmers feeding him for a week or two while he was working, and he not only was painting but making love to the farmers’ daughters.
He did this for two years and then went into the army for his compulsory military service. It was wartime over the rest of Europe, and the Swedes, while not in the war, were mobilized, ready for anything. Here again, Hallsthammar had a “good time” for the officers, finding him so handy at carving portraits, commissioned him to do themselves, inviting him to “mess” and excusing him from a lot of the onerous work at drilling.
Leaving the army, he sought a scholarship in the Swedish Royal Academy. But though he made the grade, he wasn’t accepted, since the authorities thought his father rich enough to pay his tuition. But the elder Hallsthammar still thought Carl should be a preacher.
Thereupon Hallsthammar entered the studio of Zorn, where he studied and worked for four years. Zorn took a great personal interest I him for the reason he could carve a face and get a likeness without using sandpaper. Zorn himself couldn’t, and marveled at the knack of the youngster with a knife.
With Zorn, Hallsthammar studied also painting and drawing, and likewise sculpture in granite and marble. His hometown of Vastros has a granite bear from his chisel. But the dust got into his lungs, none too strong, threatening tuberculosis. So the family doctor ordered him to desist. Now he sticks to wood.
The biggest single job Hallsthammar has done was a series of six huge wooden figures for the General Motors Building at A Century of Progress. They range from the muscular mechanic pouring hot metal to the brainy engineer designing and assembling a car. After the Fair, the figures were presented, for posterity, to the Rosenwald Museum in Jackson Park.