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Charmed Life

Larger Than Life

Michelle Gienow

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 1/17/2001

I've traveled down St. Paul Street and back up North Charles about 6,000 times in my life, but until last month I'd never stopped on the rather dingy block of East Lafayette Avenue that lies between the two main streets. Running some yuletide errand, I parked in front of a building on Lafayette that I'd never seen before. Its brick facade was inset with classical reliefs of muses and cherubs and entirely covered by a web of leafless vines. The heavy door bore embossed metal letters: HANS SCHULER, SCULPTOR.

Curiouser and curiouser. Schuler, one of Baltimore's great monument makers, was long dead--or so I'd assumed. This was the man who created the mighty Pulaski Monument in Patterson Park, the titanic Martin Luther at 33rd and Hillen. Folks just don't sculpt like that anymore--certainly not with the conviction evident in Schuler's works. I looked again at the door and saw smaller, hand-painted letters on a carved escutcheon, identifying the place as the Schuler School of Fine Arts. This too surprised me: Although I'm an illustrator and I know a few artists around town, I'd never heard of the place.

Intrigued, I read up on Schuler. On top of his career as sculptor, he served as director of the Maryland Institute, College of Art from 1925 until the forces of modernism finally breached the gates, in 1951. He died a year later, but his son and daughter-in-law, Hans Carl and Ann Didusch Schuler, started their own school in the ancestral studio at 5 E. Lafayette. It opened in 1959, dedicated to teaching the classical techniques the elder Schuler not only practiced, but pugnaciously championed. (As MICA's director, Schuler père once declared that he was "not going to allow modernists to display their meaningless stuff in the galleries of the school and counteract the true art education we are giving.") Hans Carl died just two years ago, having devoted his life to his father's philosophy and craft; his own best-known work is probably the ceramic mural on the north wall of Hampden Elementary School.

Ann Schuler, now 83, still teaches painting at the Schuler School, which is run by her daughter, Francesca Guerin. Guerin's older son Andrew also teaches there, and younger son Hans is a full-time student. (The faculty also includes Ann Schuler's nephew Frederic "Fritz" Briggs, who teaches drawing and watercolor.) The cluttered room in which they graciously sat for an interview is done wall-to-wall in landscapes, still lifes, medallions, and statues--all by family members, all highly polished, all in a style of dramatized realism.

I couldn't help but be impressed by the sheer skill and craft on display--and by the sense that I'd stepped back in time. In many ways, I had: The Schulers run an old-fashioned, family-based atelier. They're unaccredited. They never advertise. Their students learn not only how to paint, but how to make paint. Despite the prolonged reigns of successive modern "isms," the clan carries on, faithful to empirical reality, living, teaching, and making art in their vine-covered compound on Lafayette Street, sitting tight through the roller-coaster fortunes of their Penn-North neighborhood.

Asked for their favorites among the patriarch's works, his heirs rattled off a dozen titles, including the sensuous Ariadne on display at the Walters Art Museum and a Nereid that (ahem) the Walters has in storage. Then they showed me a table-size model of Schuler's Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. This was to have been his ultimate, gargantuan masterpiece, intended, Andrew told me, for a site "in the harbor." Had this project come to fruition, the ghastly riders would have been about four times life size. Their careening horses, stretched to the point of--dare I say it--abstraction, trample a mound of fallen human beings. No one wanted to pay for these terrifying giants, so the work remained small scale.

Finally we entered the inner sanctum: Hans Schuler's sculpture studio. And here, a confession: I love traditional public sculpture. Statues give the built environment a human face, and people respond to them humanly--often in ways unintended by their creators. Think, for example, of the nude maiden who sits at the base of Schuler's Johns Hopkins monument at 33rd and Charles, her breasts polished to a sheen by generations of fondling. A block north stands Schuler's dioramalike monument to poet Sidney Lanier. It tends to catch street trash, which my brother, who lives nearby, makes it his civic and literary duty to clean up.

As for my own favorite Schuler, I refer readers to page 66 of Neighborhood: A State of Mind (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), a great documentary book about Southeast Baltimore. In one black-and-white photograph by Joan Clark Netherwood, four Highlandtown urchins have clambered up onto the Pulaski Monument. In sharp winter sunlight, the boys' figures blend seamlessly with the naturalistic forms of bronze soldiers and horses.

Visiting the studio, one sees all these landmarks in embryo. Maquettes--small working models of sculpture--crowd the room from floor to ceiling. The clay mock-up of Lanier suffers from a large crack, which the poet eyes mournfully. Hopkins is represented not by the familiar bust, but by an earlier full-figure version in frock coat and trousers. There are two Luthers, one standing, one sitting.

And there are models for sculptures that, like the Four Horsemen, never made it to full size. When I happened to make favorable mention of Laura Gardin Frazer's Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson monument in Wyman Park, I saw a cloud pass over Franscesca Schuler's face. Did I say something wrong? She pointed out her grandfather's Lee and Jackson, in two small plaster versions. A committee, she said, gave Frazer the commission.

I got the impression that the snub still stung, as if the stubborn old master's spirit was achingly present among his works and his descendents. In the studio, there's a portrait of him: a proud, square-jawed man with dark hair parted sharply in the middle. A guy who carved giants and held the fort against time itself--but also a man who made puppets for children and threw parties for friends. "A wonderful man," Ann Schuler says. A man who persists in his monuments and in his survivors' memories. This may be as close as any of us come to beating death.

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