In what by most accounts is an unusual, even unique, occurrence, American University will present an honorary doctorate of fine arts at winter commencement ceremonies on Jan. 30 to the late Frederick Hart, the artist known for reinvigorating the tradition of classical sculpture in this country.
Professor Edward C. Smith, head of the university’s American Studies Program, initiated the award. He says he doesn’t know of any precedent for awarding a posthumous honorary degree, but it’s appropriate because of his friend’s ties to the institution and his loyalty to the community at large.
“We’ve lost one of the greats,” Mr. Smith says, adding that Washington “was a city he adored.”
The degree will be accepted by Lindy Hart, widow of Mr. Hart, who died on Aug. 13 at the age of 56. Until the onset of a stroke in 1998, the sculptor had been scheduled to be a commencement speaker first in 1999 and then, after a postponement at his request, in spring this year. (National Public Radio senior political correspondent Daniel Schorr will appear on the Jan. 30 program.)
Mr. Hart, a Georgia native whose best-known works locally are the “Three Soldiers” sculpture at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and “Creation” in the Washington National Cathedral, attended American University for several semesters in the the early 1960s about the time he adopted Washington as his permanent home.
In a testimonial Mr. Smith wrote for The Washington Times’ Commentary page only days after Mr. Hart’s death, he called Mr. Hart “the unrivaled master of three mediums of expression: stone, bronze and acrylic … Indeed, it was Washington’s magnificent abundance of outdoor sculpture, especially the bronze portraits of Civil War commanders (mostly on horseback) that served as Rick’s earliest inspiration.”
Both men were born in 1943 and could be considered “renegades,” in Mr. Smith’s word. Both achieved prominence by choosing solitary and somewhat unconventional career paths. Mr. Smith, whose other title is assistant professor of anthropology, is a third-generation Washingtonian who has been on the faculty of the university for 30 years while holding only a high school diploma.
Mr. Hart was a high school dropout who nevertheless managed to be accepted for studies at the University of South Carolina but was expelled as the only white among a group of 250 blacks taking part in a civil rights protest. (The university much later in his life gave him an honorary degree.)
According to an appreciative account of his life by writer Tom Wolfe in the New York Times, Mr. Hart left the South when he learned the Ku Klux Klan was on his tail. He later took a menial job at Washington National Cathedral to be among the expert Italian stonemasons at work on the Gothic masterpiece and was soon an apprentice to the master carver.
The two men met when Mr. Smith one day saw a copy of Mr. Hart’s “The Source” in a downtown gallery window. The inspiration for that work was Augustus Saint-Gauden’s famous untitled sculpture of Henry Adams’ wife, Clover, in Rock Creek Cemetery. (The work is known unofficially as “Grief.”)
He asked historian James Goode, an authority on Washington public sculpture, about the piece and was urged to call Mr. Hart directly. Mr. Smith wanted slides to use in a course he was teaching, titled “The City as Museum.”
No slides existed, Mr. Hart known as Rick to his friends told Mr. Smith, but he invited Mr. Smith to visit his home and studio in Hume, Va. They hit it off at once, Mr. Smith recalls. Their interests coincided perfectly.
“The Civil War and Russian history were his passion (as they are Mr. Smith’s), and we were both traditionalists in terms of taste. We knew something richly rewarding had taken place… . We had a conversation about color, form, patina not part of my working vocabulary.”
Mr. Smith says he had been exposed to art while growing up in segregated Washington because the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian museums were among the few public places to which he was welcomed as a black.
He adds that he felt “reborn” from the experience of meeting such a like-minded soul. Both men were converts to Catholicism, so Mr. Smith says he understood well the spiritual dimension in Mr. Hart’s work.
Knowing of Mr. Smith’s experience as a lecturer on local history for the Smithsonian, Mr. Hart invited him to be an interpreter of his work for clients sent by corporate patrons. “He knew from the beginning that I knew where he was coming from,” Mr. Smith says.
“The thing about Rick what impressed me most was his discipline and the strength of character that artists have to have. And he was simply a great guy to have around. I remember sometime after his stroke, we were having lunch. The stroke came up, and Lindy said, ‘You’re a nicer guy now,’ and he said, ‘Maybe I’ll have a stroke every once in a while.’ ”
Instead, Mr. Hart died of lung cancer that he hadn’t realized he had until he went into the hospital for a bout of pneumonia.
His legacy is well-represented by “Creation,” which took 13 years to complete and which Mr. Smith calls “the most significant and imaginative work of religious sculpture done in the 20th century … a multifigured concert of motion showing mankind emerging into the world of being, ‘ex-nihilo,’ out of nothing.”