Archive exhibit shares the life and work of Robert C. Koepnick
By Susan Byrnes
Photo: Moses, Robert C. Koepnick; Material: plaster; photo: Julie Walling
Libraries are great places to feed the imagination. This summer, the University of Dayton’s Roesch Library has a special exhibition bound to satisfy any creative appetite. Art for Citizens and Celebrants: The Sculpture of Robert C. Koepnick is on display now through Sunday, Sept. 7. The show provides insight into the life, working processes and art of a renowned Dayton artist. It might be the most inviting place in town to take a little respite from the summer heat.
Koepnick, a Dayton native, was a professional sculptor who made his living by creating work on commission from civic, religious and corporate institutions, as well as teaching art at the Dayton Art Institute. His large-scale public sculptures can be seen on the façade of the downtown Dayton Metro Library, the entrance gate to the Montgomery County Fairgrounds and at Archbishop Alter High School in Kettering, as well as several locations in Cincinnati. His work was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Art Institute of Chicago. He also did logo and portrait work for organizations such as NCR and the Cincinnati Symphony.
Sixteen years after his death, the University of Dayton Libraries received a gift from his family, in the form of an archive of documents and sculptures reflecting Koepnick’s life work. Koepnick, raised Catholic, educated many UD art students through the DAI program. Because many of his commissions came from religious organizations, much of his sculpture was ecclesiastical in nature. In 1995, UD awarded him an honorary degree. The degree citation states, “Through his vision and his art, we behold our spirit.” His son, John Koepnick, said of the archives, “It just seemed like the right place to have them.”
“The exhibit came to fruition after the family of Bob Koepnick donated the archives in 2011, including 10 sculptures and the entirety of papers and archives: sketches, photographs, correspondence with artists and commissioning groups and other documents,” UD’s Communications and Outreach Librarian Katy Kelly said. “These materials served as a basis for the exhibition, which was augmented by loaned sculptures and objects. To develop the exhibit, the library brought in experts.
“We wanted the exhibit done right and we don’t have an exhibition staff,” Kelly said. “A great amount of time and research went into the study of the documents, photographs and letters to piece together these materials to tell the story of this person’s life as a teacher and an artist.”
The historical, biographical and aesthetic tone of the exhibit is the work of three seasoned professionals who collaborated to create an exhibit that educates visitors about the artist, the art and the context of its making. Steve Germann, a museum interpretive planner and historian, headed a team that included Pam Houk, art curator, museum educator and former student of Robert Koepnick and Chicago-based exhibit designer Amy Reichert.
“The three-person team approach often happens in a museum,” Germann said.
Art for Citizens and Celebrants illuminates Koepnick’s process of creating large-scale sculptures. In addition to working in clay, stone and wood, Koepnick was trained in the traditional process of “lost wax” casting, used to create cast metal sculpture that involves several complex steps. The exhibit guides the viewer through this process, using displays of Koepnick’s actual initial clay models, small-scale maquettes and plaster molds and then uses photographs and video to show the completion of works in large scale. Visitors can learn about an important technical process, and witness the artist’s method of thinking through and perfecting forms. Initial sketches and crude oil clay figures develop into refined studies and finished sculptures. A particularly effective aspect of the exhibition is the recreation of parts of Koepnick’s studio, showing his actual furniture and tools, as well as his wooden studio door covered with notes. Translucent window shades depict the garden view from his studio window, providing a glimpse of the artist’s daily creative environment.
Koepnick studied art at the DAI and later served as head of the sculpture program there from 1936-1975. In 1938, he went to Europe to study art and architecture, and became inspired by the modern art styles of Alberto Giacometti, Alexander Archipenko and Ernest Barlach.
“His story is such a warm story,” Germann said. “He came from modest means, spent one year in high school and dropped out, went to work as a plasterer, was a blue-collar guy. He was as much about the physical process [of creating] as the aesthetics. He was a great dad, good citizen, volunteered for World War II and was a good soldier. He is the opposite of some of the popular stereotypes of artists.”
In his faculty role, Koepnick educated and influenced many students from the Dayton area. “I think his greatest strength as a sculptor was his teaching,” his son John said. “He affected thousands of people with his teaching techniques.”
Of the exhibit planning process, Kelly said, “One of the really fun parts was being in meetings with former students and hearing their stories, hearing what a great mentor he was to people who are still working artists today,” his son John said. Currently, the University of Dayton is collecting remembrances from the community to add to the Koepnick archive.
Art for Citizens and Celebrants: The Sculpture of Robert C. Koepnick is on display through Sunday, Sept. 7 at UD’s Roesch Library Gallery, 300 College Park. For more information, please visit go.udayton.edu/koepnick.
Reach DCP freelance writer Susan Byrnes at SusanByrnes@DaytonCityPaper.com.