At 93, artist is still turning bronze into 'gossamer'

Elden Tefft sculpture exhibition opens Friday at Lawrence Arts Center


Lawrence sculptor Elden Tefft carefully studies a wax model as he works to further define it in his studio on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013. The 93-year-old artist will display 18 pieces of his work at the Lawrence Arts Center in his show, "Gossamer: Before and After the Sculpture Moses," which opens Friday.


"Toro Antiguo," a bronze sculpture by Elden Tefft. "Toro" is one of 18 pieces to be featured in Tefft's upcoming show, “Gossamer: Before and After the Sculpture Moses," at the Lawrence Arts Center.

At 93, sculptor Elden Tefft prepares for a show

Lawrence sculptor Elden Tefft works in preparation for his upcoming show at the Lawrence Arts Center, “Gossamer: Before and After the Sculpture Moses.”

If you go

Elden Tefft’s upcoming sculpture exhibition, "Gossamer: Before and After the Sculpture Moses," opens Friday at the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 New Hampshire St. The Arts Center’s Final Fridays reception is from 5 to 9 p.m., and Tefft’s 18-piece show will be on view until Nov. 25.

Holding a small plaster rasp, Elden Tefft’s right hand circles over the model in front of him. As amber bits of wax curl through the back of the tool, texture deepens on the sculpture’s surface.

Tefft isn’t sure about the spheres around the fish’s eyes — those will probably have to go. But he likes how the edge around its mouth is developing.

This process is why Tefft loves sculpture. And at 93, while finishing pieces for a new exhibition opening this week, he says there’s “always more” he wants to do.

“Things that are interesting happen that you don’t anticipate,” Tefft said. “When you see those starting to develop, that makes it pretty exciting for me.”

In Lawrence Tefft is best known for casting the towering bronze “Moses” in front of Smith Hall on the Kansas University campus, as well as the Jayhawk in front of Strong Hall. He graduated with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fine arts at KU, where he taught for 40 years before retiring in 1990. The International Sculpture Center Tefft founded at KU in 1960, now based in New Jersey, continues to hold conferences and engage sculptors from all over the world.

Tefft’s upcoming exhibition opens Friday at the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 New Hampshire St. The Arts Center’s Final Fridays reception is from 5 to 9 p.m., and Tefft’s 18-piece show will be on view until Nov. 25.


The exhibition’s theme is one that’s been woven into Tefft’s personal work for decades — and one that seemingly contradicts the idea of sculpting in heavy metal. It’s called “Gossamer: Before and After the Sculpture Moses.”

Like the Jayhawk, most traditional bronze sculptures are smooth, polished and appear to be solid blocks of metal. In truth, they are hollow.

“We decided to start sharing that fact with the people looking at it,” Tefft said of the gossamer-inspired pieces.

In the 1950s Tefft started experimenting with negative space in his sculptures. Results include figures whose arms and legs curve around and frame pockets of air. There are also sculptures like “Moses” with see-through surfaces — some organic like a loosely woven basket, others geometric like laser-cut fabric — that reveal the figures’ hollow cores.

Most of the “Gossamer” sculptures are covered in rich textures, designed to highlight instead of hide the fact that they are made by hand.

Works featured in “Gossamer” span 60 years, with some created in the 50s and others completed days ago.


In his studio last week, Tefft worked in a short-sleeved collared shirt and tie.

He’s typically there Monday through Saturday, son Kim Tefft said, and the tie is always on. It’s hard to get the professor out of a guy who started teaching in the 50s, when even art teachers followed a businesslike dress code.

Making bronze sculptures is physical work, and fiery. Melted bronze is 2,000 degrees when it’s poured, and Tefft’s largest furnace can hold 300 pounds of it.

The two Teffts work as a team, with the younger — a goldsmith by trade but sculptor by birth, as he puts it — doing most of the heavy lifting now.

Elden Tefft was in and out of the hospital early this year, with a recovery period where he couldn’t go to his studio (he calls that part “house arrest”). In between, he was at Pioneer Ridge Health Center’s rehabilitation center, where his son brought pieces of his studio to him.

“He was always wanting something to work on,” Kim Tefft said.

First paper and drawing materials. Then wire, metal rods and tools to shape them. Those turned into an armature for the model of the fish Elden Tefft was working on last week, which he covered in wax after returning to his usual workspace.

“You couldn’t expect me to sit still for that long,” he said.

In nearly 70 years of sculpting, Tefft said he hasn’t accomplished everything he wants to. Like the wax-over-armature fish model — a new approach — there are always more things he’d like to try, and watch take shape.


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