Editor’s Note: The following article was written by Visual Arts Master Instructor Bob Nowalk. Nowalk also serves as the coordinator for the Culver Visual Art Collection. The Spirit of Culver statue is featured on the cover of the spring issue of the Culver Alumni Magazine.
Culver’s most beloved statue, The Spirit of Culver, was created by a young apprentice of the notable American sculptor Lorado Taft. Her name was Helen Doft. Born in Iowa in 1900, Doft studied at the Art Institute of Minneapolis and, upon graduation, moved to Chicago to attend the Art Institute. Shortly after arriving, Doft’s portfolio caught the eye of Lorado Taft, and she began work as a student apprentice at Taft’s Midway Studios.
Artists at Midway, though primarily supporting Taft’s commissions, were also encouraged to pursue independent projects. In the year of Doft’s proposal to the Culver Class of 1929, she was awarded a medal design by Fidac, the inter-allied veteran’s organization, and sold work at the 1928 American Society of Painters and Sculptors Exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago. Though it is not clear how Doft was chosen to create the 1929 CMA class gift, her winning proposal, which most likely included a drawing, allowed enough time for the finished bronze to be mounted on its fountain pedestal by the 1929 Fall Alumni Festivities scheduled for Nov. 16.
In the same year The Spirit of Culver was embodied as the goddess of wisdom, Helen Doft married Lawrence Crunelle, son of sculptor Leonard Crunelle, both of whom worked at Midway. Doft entered many competitions after marriage, but occasionally encountered prejudice against women in the arts. One story, related by Dr. Camille Crunelle Hill, Doft’s daughter, told of Doft entering a highly competitive international competition to design a French medallion. She submitted her design under the name H. Crunelle, won the competition, and was to be awarded first prize. However, when the French authorities found out that the H in H. Crunelle stood for Helen, they awarded the commission to the man who had taken second place! Thankfully, the CMA grads of 1929 bore no such thoughts.
The Crunelles remained with Midway Studios until it closed in 1944. Retiring to Wisconsin, Helen Doft Crunelle kept busy doing terra cotta sculptures and teaching in local children’s programs. The Culver Minerva, however, was among her first major commissions, and though Ms. Doft Crunelle designed many more classical figures to grace monuments across the Midwest, Culver remained precious in her memory. On May 18, 1994, at the age of 93, Helen Doft Crunelle returned to the Culver campus with her daughter to see, once again, her most important effort. Bob Hartman, Culver Historian, met and accompanied the aged sculptor as she walked across campus and lovingly touched the work, which, at that time, was still on its pedestal outside West Barracks.
As years passed, the sculpture’s connection to Minerva lessened and the formal title, The Spirit of Culver, became the sole reference for many in CMA and CGA. By the early 1970s, the sculpture was listed only by that name in the Academies’ inventory. With its patina a gun-metal grey and its fountain base inoperable, protecting the aging bronze from the elements became a priority. In 2010, the work was dismounted from the base and restored to its former finish by Francis J. Nowalk Studio in Pittsburgh, Pa. It was formally reintroduced to the Culver community with the dedication of the Crisp Visual Art Center in October, 2011. By this time, Helen Doft Crunelle had passed away in 2001 at the age of 101. Memorable as the sculpture had been in her career, Helen Doft Crunelle had no idea of the continued importance her Minerva, The Spirit of Culver, would have for innumerable men and women of CMA and CGA in the 88 years since it took its place at Culver.