Isabel Bloom

Time Frame: 1930s

The late Isabel Bloom, an Iowa artist whose lifetime spent experimenting with materials and techniques resulted in a business that manufactures and sells thousands of reproductions of her sculpture each year, is featured. This program aired in 2003.
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Living in Iowa
IPTV, 2007

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Hello, I'm Morgan Halgren. Thanks for joining us for another eidtion of Living in Iowa.

Midwesterners are often admired for their straight-forward, uncomplicated style, their honesty and lack of pretension. The same could be said for the widely admired sculptures of the late Isabel Bloom. Those who knew the Davenport artist say that she had a gift for molding solid Midwestern qualities and her own youthful enthusiasm into each of her creations.

Donna: Basically her style throughout all of it, although there will be differences, is very simple and straightforward, to the point, less is more, say it as simply as possible.

Amy: She said she wanted more people to be able to afford nice art.

Morgan: Davenport artist Isabel Bloom's career spanned many disciplines: artist, mother, teacher, businesswoman, performer and traveler. A student and friend of Grant Wood, she created her own definition of the Regionalist style. Obsessed with Russian art, she pressed its ideas into her forms. A pioneer of both technique and industry, her sculpture made her a Quad Cities icon. Isabel Bloom biographer Amy Bower...

Amy: The reason why I think the artwork kind of caught on, I think, is the subjects, the children being kind of garden pieces. There's something about the concrete material and the Midwest. It's a solid, honest, you know, simple kind of art form.

Morgan: A lifelong resident of Davenport, Isabel Scherer grew up playing in the mud of the Mississippi. Her first sculpture was fired in the family furnace, much to her father's annoyance.

Amy: One of the things that she liked to talk about a lot was Stone City. That made such an impression on her. She was a young woman. She loved Grant Wood. He encouraged everyone at the colony to experiment to find your own way to do things, which is what she needed and what she wanted to do.

Morgan: In 1932, at the age of 24, Isabel spent two weeks studying painting and sculpting at Grant Wood's artist colony in Stone City. The colony was intended as a place for Midwestern artists to develop the Regionalist style Wood championed. Ninety students spent six weeks, living, creating, and sharing ideas at the colony. The experience would solidify Isabel's career as an artist and introduce her to her future husband, Dewitt muralist John Bloom. Over time Isabel Bloom experimented with technique and materials, glazes and finishes and forms. With bronze too expensive for reproductions, she gravitated toward cheap and durable concrete, which is easily formed and molded when wet, yet can be sculpted like stone when hard. The choice of concrete also ensured the affordability of Bloom's pieces. After mixing countless batches by hand in her basement studio, Isabel graduated to an electric mixer as sales increased. The low cost and simple lines of her stylized figures were well received by the public, and the public's love for the artist soon became as important as its love for her art.

Amy: One of her first employees told me she was just kind of a wonder to watch. She'd be working on her artwork, and then a customer would come in and she was just so gracious and so friendly. So I think a lot of people would come back because she was just such a wonderful person to know.

Donna: Isabel was a real likable person. And I think she just had this neat, quaint little shop that you could walk into, and she had her sign, "open by chance or by appointment."

Morgan: As she became more well known, Isabel's work slowly shifted from individual commissioned works to the reproductions of her playful figures. She developed molding techniques to reproduce her art more easily and dying and whiting recipes to achieve the weathered bronze patina she admired. The public responded. By 1979 it took five artists to keep up with increasing sales, but the business side of the operation began requiring more of her time than Isabel was willing to give. In 1981, at her suggestion, four long-time customers bought the company and formed Isabel Bloom Limited. In 1995 three local businessmen purchased the company, and today 200 artisans work on creating Isabel Bloom's art.

Donna: She just has a very good feel for dimension and proportion in the human form and a very good feel for simplifying what she sees and leaving out the detail that's not necessary, so her pieces are very compact and simple and rounded saying it, if you were a painter, in as few strokes as possible.

Morgan: After ten years of assisting Isabel in the completion of her projects, Donna Young took over the duties of creating new work for the Bloom companies. Designing additions for the catalog that will be familiar to buyers yet identifiable as Donna's work has been an easy transition.

Donna: I have no intentions of trying to be exactly like Isabel, and no artist would want to do that. You know, she… she's Isabel; I'm Donna. Even though I'm sculpting for the company, the customer who's bought from us will know that this is an Isabel Bloom piece and this is a Donna young.

Morgan: Bloom's simple lines display the stylized world of an artist's mind, the ability to reduce a complex memory to its barest idea.

Amy: She said a lot of times she didn't know what it was going to look like when she started. She'd just start working and just work on it until it was what she wanted.

Morgan: "Quad Cities Times" columnist Bill Wundram first met the Blooms in the 1950s.

Bill: We always think of an artist or a sculptor as sort of a dour type that sits in a grim room or a cabin someplace... meditating, carving, molding. But Isabel was a marvelously fun person. And I recall one time meeting her at the fair, and she said, "Billy, let's go on the ferris wheel." She thought it was so wonderful that when it was time to get off, she would give the guy another two bucks. "Let's go around again." We kept going around and around and around, and she was laughing and giggling and having a wonderful time. I was getting sick to my stomach.

Morgan: For four years Isabel hosted a children's television show that taught an art lesson each day.

Bill: Isabel loved kids, taught with kids, brought out the best in them. And she would just be beaming. And I could tell that she'd been with kids, because she said, "Kids give me life. They lift me."

Morgan: Children and animals were Isabel's most common subjects for her art, and her youthful enthusiasm emanates from her figures. Each year thousands are given as gifts or cherished as collectibles. A small army of workers hand finishes each piece, extending Isabel's vision beyond her death in 2001 at age 93.

Donna: I think her life was important because not just of her artwork but because of her spirit and the way she went about—she wasn't afraid to try new things. She wasn't afraid to experiment. You know, back in the '30s and '40s when women just pretty much stayed home and raised their family, Isabel raised her family. She did all the cooking and sewing, and she ran a cement mixer and lifted 50-pound bags of concrete. She definitely was a pioneer spirit that we could all learn lots from.


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