Elisabeth Gordon Chandler, Lyme Academy Founder, Dies

Old Lyme — Elisabeth Gordon Chandler, a nationally known sculptor and founder of the Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts, died of natural causes Wednesday at Middlesex Memorial Hospital in Middletown.

The 93-year-old Chandler was active up until her death, writing, teaching and working in her studio. She taught a sculpture class every Thursday at the college.

“We're very sad,'' said Frederick Osborne, president of the college. “But on the other hand, she was 93 and was good up until the last moment. It doesn't get any better than that.

“She was omnipresent, and her spirit always will be here.”

The college is currently in the midst of a 30th-anniversary celebration. An alumni exhibition of 250 works by 150 artists is scheduled to open tonight, and hundreds are expected to attend.

“It's all going forward,'' Osborne said. “Without question, she would want everything to go forward.”

For her 90th birthday, the college threw Chandler a party. Hundreds of her former students were on hand to wish her well.

“I never had any children,'' she said at the time. “Now I have thousands.''

Alan Proctor, chairman of the college's board of directors, said Chandler was a friend and an “icon of American arts.''

“She was a woman of inspirational determination, a gifted artist, educator and mentor,” Proctor said. “We loved her as a friend and admired her as a sculptor, teacher and trustee.”

In a video about the Lyme Academy narrated by Morley Safer of “60 Minutes,” Chandler is credited with the success of the art school.

“Chandler started out as one of her generation's most gifted sculptors and ended up one of its most important educators,'' Safer says on the 15-minute DVD.

Chandler founded the Lyme Academy in 1976 to educate young artists in the basics of drawing, painting and sculpting. She was worried that the modern art movement was eliminating the need for classical training.

“No one was teaching the fundamentals,'' Chandler said in a 2005 interview. “But art is a craft. Everything is a craft first. It doesn't matter what you do. You have to learn the basics.''

Chandler was born in St. Louis, Mo., in 1913, and moved to Lyme with her businessman husband, Robert Kirkland Chandler, in 1962. They eventually built a house and studio in Old Lyme, where Chandler said she was attracted to the quiet. Her husband died in 1967.

Ten years later, Chandler was concentrating on her art and building her new school when she rekindled a friendship with a fellow member of the National Sculptor Society, Laci deGerenday. They married in 1979 and worked side by side in their studio and taught sculpture classes together at the academy. They rode together in the town's annual Fourth of July parade. He died in 2001.

In July, the college hosted “Kindred Spirits,” a retrospective of more than 50 years of work by Chandler and deGerenday. The show featured sculpture, bas-relief and commemorative medals, as well as photographs of the two artists.

Chandler received numerous awards and recognition from various sources for her work over the years, including the National Academy of Design, the National Sculpture Society, the Allied Artists of America and the National Arts Club. She was also awarded the Governor's Art Award.

Her sculptures are on display in New York City at St. Patrick's Cathedral, Columbia University and St. Joseph College, as well as at the Old State House in Hartford, the Paul Mellon Art Center, the Florence Griswold Museum, the British Museum in London and Princeton University.

The college will hold a memorial service at a time to be announced.

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