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Cherokee Park To The World’s Fair: Remembering Louisville’s ‘Girl Sculptor'

Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

As soon as I shut the door of his black pickup truck, Louisville sculptor Matt Weir asks what I think Enid Yandell’s grave will look like.

My initial thought is something pretty elaborate; I say I think she would have at least designed her own tombstone.

“I mean, I’ve thought of it,” Weir says, laughing. “You know, Barney Bright is buried here and he designed his own.”

We are driving through Cave Hill cemetery, 83 years to the day Louisville-born sculptor Enid Yandell died. Based on her reputation, my guess at an elaborately-adorned gravesite doesn’t seem far off.

Born in 1869, Yandell gained international acclaim in the world of sculpture at a time when it wasn’t a proper place for women artists.

“The criticism for her, at that time, was that sculpture was too rigorous for a 'dainty woman' to enter into,” Weir says.

But she did it anyway -- going on to create strikingly realistic interpretations of the human form (something she partially attributes to growing up in a family where her father, grandfather and uncle were all physicians).

Weir parks on a shade tree-covered curve and pulls out a green folder filled with a stack of yellowing newspaper clippings.

“This is kind of my personal collection of Enid paraphernalia,” Weir says. “In this article it says she was 'of uncommon clay.’"

Weir continued reading: "‘Enid Yandell’s statues won her fame here and abroad and some still decorate her hometown.’”

A Big Break

After graduating from the Cincinnati Art Academy, Yandell’s first big break came in 1891 when she was commissioned to sculpt caryatids -- the traditional Greco-Roman pillars shaped like women -- for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. These would be part of the architecture of the Women’s Building.

While working on this project, she apprenticed under several big-name sculptors assigned to help build the fair grounds, like Carl Rohl-Smith and Lorado Taft.

This gave her the confidence she needed to return to Louisville and start taking commissions -- which resulted in three works many Louisvillians still see on a pretty frequent basis.

There’s the Daniel Boone Sculpture at the base of Cherokee Park. Fun fact: this sculpture survived the “Super Outbreak” of tornadoes on April 3, 1974.

Then comes The Wheelmen's Bench which you can see when you reach the intersection of Third Street and Southern Parkway. And finally, there’s the bronze statue of Pan, which tops Hogan’s Fountain in Cherokee Park.

There are also some of her works in more hidden locations -- like the archives of the Speed Museum.

Kim Spence is the curator of prints, drawings, and photographs at the Speed Art Museum. She says they have several of Yandell’s works on-view currently in the Kentucky collection, including a plaster maquette -- or study -- for the Daniel Boone sculpture, as well as a newly-installed rendering of her sister.

But the Speed actually has a pretty large collection of Yandell’s pieces -- mostly in plaster -- and obviously can’t display everything at once. This makes for some interesting finds in the archives.

“Sitting here on the top shelf is actually one of my favorite pieces,” Spence says, reaching into an open cabinet in the archives. “It’s another painted plaster and it looks like a tankard.”

The tankardis a deep sea-foam green that is intricately decorated. On the lid there’s a small boy, and the handle is made in the image of a mermaid emerging from the sea.

“And when you lift the lid of the tankard, the figure of the boy extends down so that he can give a kiss, an upside down kiss, to the mermaid,” Spence says.

It’s this mix of functionality and whimsy that earned Yandell widespread acclaim. In 1898, she became the first woman ever to be invited to join the National Sculpture Society (and one hundred years later, in 1998, a group of Kentucky women formed ENID, a sculptor collective that still exhibits today).

Louisville's 'Girl Sculptor'

But her career as a woman sculptor wasn’t without snags. She was originally commissioned by a female-board to create the Confederate monument that, until last year, was located in the traffic circle on Third Street. But then the male architectural consultants found out she was a woman.

While they wouldn’t say her gender was a contributing factor in the decision, her plans were ultimately rejected.

According to Weir, however, experiences like this didn’t dissuade Yandell from staying in the public eye. She was known as Louisville’s "girl sculptor" or “bachelor maid” and covered frequently by the society columnists here, in New York and in Paris.

She also held some pretty fantastic Gatsby-style parties. In 1897, she was commissioned to create a statue of Athena for the Tennessee Centennial and International Exposition. But not just any statue; it was set to be about 40-feet tall.

“And rumor had it, she had a party in the chest of Athena,” Weir says. “I think it was about 12-feet-wide You can imagine ladders or whatever it was, but just wine and laughter in the chest of Athena.”

The statue, which was shipped from Paris to Nashville in three pieces, was never cast in bronze so it deteriorated within a year of being erected. But Yandell’s legacy locally still lives on -- just more quietly than one might expect.

Weir leads me across a short patch of grass at the cemetery.

“So here we are on the backside of the lake at Cave Hill and here is her very humble stone,” Weir says.

There’s no intricately-designed bronze decorations, no commemorative bust. All it says is: Enid Yandell, Sculptor, October 6th, 1869 to June 12, 1934.