Warm brown against the cream wall of the UCH Common Room, hanging next to the enclosed and lighted LaGrone Scholarship wall display case, front on and symmetrical: you’re looking at a 1980 hanging wall plaque, Mask, sculpted by Oliver LaGrone.
In 1968, shortly before moving from Detroit to Harrisburg to teach at Penn State, LaGrone had been invited by friends in Togo to establish a base there, from which to explore the history of West African culture. The experience was significant for him. It expanded his understanding of African art – his art education and experiences in the U.S. had given little value to African work. Learning of the advanced cast bronzes of the historic kingdom of Benin (circa 1400) in today’s southern Nigeria, LaGrone recognized that his own sculptures were of no primitive roots.
As early as the 1300s, the Empire of Benin had nurtured the sophisticated lost-wax process. Prized court art was fashioned by first sculpting in clay; coating the work with wax; then encasing the coated work with a thick block of clay, employing struts to keep the wax layer stable. The wax was then melted out, or “lost,” so that molten metal could be poured into the narrow channel, creating in bronze an exact duplicate of the original clay sculpture.
LaGrone was strongly impacted artistically by learning more about this proud sculptural history. “I work in bronze because that was the metal of my ancestors. Don’t tell me they didn’t possess a sophisticated knowledge of metallurgy,” he once told the Philadelphia Daily News.1 In constructing Mask, he was aware of plaster as a first step in a potentially complicated sequence, still used today. He later commented, “My African ancestors invented the lost-wax method of casting, so whenever I work in bronze, I am reminded that I am carrying on the work begun by my people.”2
UCH members Paul and Lydia Fritz encouraged their friend Oliver LaGrone to sculpt a piece specifically for a UCH fundraiser, anticipating that he would want to honor African heritage through it. The Fritz family acquired Mask as high bidders at a New Year’s Eve party benefit for the Oliver LaGrone Scholarship Fund. They subsequently gifted it to UCH in 2016. It joins three other UCH works by LaGrone: Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver, and Ballet to Disco.
1Philadelphia Daily News, April 30, 1982, p. 44
2Albuquerque Journal, May 1987, Sec. C, p. 1
Cordell Affeldt, ed. Bart Carpenter, The Reporter, August 2022