Pratt’s ‘Mother’ returns to Salem

This part of the state lays claim to two major figures in music and visual art from the same family.

In 1839 Oramel Whittlesey founded the renowned Music Vale Seminary in Salem, credited as being the first conservatory of music in New England and the first school in the country to confer music-teaching degrees. The conservatory closed in 1876.

And, in 1867 in Norwich, Whittlesey's daughter, Sarah Victoria Whittlesey Pratt, gave birth to Bela Lyon Pratt, who is considered one of the most esteemed and prolific American sculptors of the 20th century. He died in 1917 and is buried in Salem.

Serendipitously, while The Salem Historical Society was busy planning the 175th celebration of the founding of Music Vale, a marble bust titled "My Mother" sculpted by Bela Lyon Pratt, resurfaced after many years out of sight. It had been in the possession of a descendent of the sculptor, and the Whittlesey family is donating the bust to the historical society, which is transforming the recently purchased oldest house in Salem, built in 1690 - across the road from where the musical school stood - into a museum. It will be called The Whittlesey Museum at Music Vale Seminary.

The bust will be unveiled on Aug. 28 at the historical society. Cynthia Kennedy Sam, the granddaughter of Bela Lyon Pratt, and family historian, will give a presentation on the artist, who created close to 180 sculptures by the time of his death at only 49 years of age.

According to David Wordell, president of the Salem Historical Society, the bust weighs well over 100 pounds and is made of Carrara white marble that is believed to come from the same quarry in Italy from which Michelangelo drew materials to carve his famous statue, "David."

Sam, of Cambridge, Mass., graduated from New London's Connecticut College (for Women) in 1958. Inspired to share the extensiveness and variety of Pratt's work and life, she has created a website where users can research the artist's life and works through personal correspondences, periodicals, journalistic references and personal photographs.

Although Pratt was at the height of his career when he died due to heart failure, his coins, medals, portrait busts, ideal figures and monumental works are exhibited throughout the country. His work has been displayed in close to 100 professional exhibitions.

Pratt's "three pairs of figures" and "figure of philosophy" stand in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. His designs were used for the 25-cent and 50-cent U.S. Mint coins, issued in 1908. Many of his sculptures are displayed locally, including a bronze statue of John Winthrop in New London near the Regional Multicultural Magnet School, and a bronze memorial bust of Captain James Avery in Groton.

"These geniuses often lived short lives," Wordell notes. "Perhaps all the energy that came out of them made them short-lived."

Born and raised in Norwich, where he attended Norwich Free Academy and went on to study at Yale School of Fine Arts in New Haven and The Art Student's League in New York City, Pratt lived in Jamaica Plain, Mass., during most of his career, where he was the head of the sculpture department for the School of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

Wordell explains that Pratt returned to Salem in 1910 and bought back the Music Vale Seminary property where he lived until he died.

Wordell is thrilled that the bust of Sarah Victoria is being donated to the museum. He received a letter from Jean Whittlesy Bodman of New Jersey informing him that she had the bust, a family heirloom that came down through the generations to her father John Whittlesey Pratt, and ended up in her possession.

Bodman's sister, Mary Kenner, is traveling from Canada to unveil the statue, Wordell says.

"When I came to Salem in 1961 when we purchased this property, people didn't have that much knowledge of Music Vale Seminary," Wordell says. "Because I was interested in history, I started getting things on display from Music Vale.

"The local schools aren't teaching the real history of their own towns," Wordell continues. "The historical society is trying to regenerate that interest. We now have a youth outreach committee. Barbara James goes into the Salem Elementary School and teaches about Music Vale, about local history. It's all about educating the public. Music and art has a huge history here."

IF YOU GO

What: The unveiling of “My Mother” by Bela Lyon Pratt; lecture and presentation by his granddaughter, Cynthia Kennedy Sam

When: 7:30 p.m., Thursday

Where: Salem Historical Society,
Route 85, at the Salem Town Green.

Info: Call David Wordell, president of the Historical Society, at (860) 859-5336. For information about the sculptor, visit www.belalyonpratt.com.

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