Elisabet Ney Elementary, a proposal

Photo: Deborah Cannon for The Austin American Statesman

Recently I was asked to present, to the Robert E. Lee Elementary Campus Advisory Commitee (‘CAC’), a rationale for renaming the school after noted sculptor and Hyde Park resident Elisabet Ney. Here are the comments I made:

I would like to express my gratitude to the CAC for hosting this forum. I also want to thank the other members of the community who have taken the time to help us understand more about each of the people and places who have been nominated for this honor. I’m really humbled by this opportunity to talk about Elisabet Ney and the future of our wonderful school.

In fact that’s why we’re all here tonight, because we all care deeply about the future of our school and the children whom we put into the care of the incredible faculty and staff of this place. It truly is a special place graced with many people who want nothing but the best for this school.

I’ve been asked to speak about Elisabet Ney and why I think she is a great candidate for naming the school. I’ve been in touch with a number of people regarding the nomination include some of our alumi. I want to share their thoughts:

I attended Robert E. Lee elementary from 1953 to 1958. Great school and fond memories. […] Because our home on Duval was close to Shipe park, we went to the playground just about every day in the summer and the Ney studio was […] next to the park. The presence of the studio in the Hyde park neighborhood culturally influenced the area and created an awareness for sculpture and fine art[.] […] I think naming the school for Elisabet Ney would be most appropriate. [T]he fact that she was a woman creating and participating in the area influenced us as well. I am well aware of her impact.
By unbekannt, Nachlass Elisabeth Ney (Stadtmuseum Münster) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When Elisabet Ney and her husband Edmund Montgomery were expecting their first child, they fled for America during time of war that was wreaking havoc in Europe. Eventually they found refuge in Southeast Texas where they settled down to farm and raise their children. They loved the landscape, but to their neighbors they were “odd misfits.” Ney kept her hair cropped short, wore pants, and refused to ride her horse side-saddle, like the other women in town. I’m sure the neighbors were quite shocked to find Ney never took her husband’s surname.

Around this time tragedy stuck the family when their oldest son contracted diphtheria and died at age 4. Despite the loss, Ney persevered and took on the responsibility of raising their surviving son and running the farm while her husband Edmund, a renowned writer of scientific and philosophical texts, continued to study and write. It was also, during this time Edmund worked as an advisor to the founders of what is now known as Prairie View A&M. It is the second public university in the state of Texas, founded specifically to educate African-Americans to become teachers.

Ney had put aside her career as a sculptor for 20 years to raise her son and to farm. But she was drawn to Austin. She looked to it in hopes to start her career as a sculptor anew. She was also drawn to the community of artists, intellectuals, and statesmen who would, in turn, be drawn into Ney’s orbit.

Soon she landed her first commissions to create life-sized sculptures of Stephen Austin and Sam Houston to be displayed at the landmark Columbian World Exposition in Chicago. She sought out space for a studio in Austin.

It was then Ney discovered Hyde Park, Austin’s first master-planned community. She purchased the most remote and wildest part of the development and began construction of her studio and residence which she named “Formosa,” beautiful in Portuguese.

It was here in Hyde Park that Ney found there was no longer any shame in displaying her eclecticism. Events of all kinds were held at Formosa, almost always outdoors, along the banks of Waller Creek. Beneath the trees, Ney would greet guests of all kinds — writers, politicians, society ladies, visiting luminaries and artists, and of course, children, whom Ney took delight in hosting.

Ney continued to sculpt and entertain for the next decade and a half, but her health slowly diminished until her death in 1907. Soon thereafter, Edmund sold Formosa to one of Ney’s many protégés.

In 1911, the Texas Fine Arts Association (‘TFAA’) was founded at Formosa, arguable making it the home of the first art museum in the State of Texas. Notes from the early meetings of the TFAA suggest that Board Meetings be held on benches on the banks of Waller Creek “as was Miss Ney’s custom.” The TFAA later spawned the creation of The Austin Museum of Art. TFAA then became Arthouse. Both Arthouse and The Austin Museum of Art have been unified and are now known as The Contemporary Austin.

What an incredible legacy for an artist. This lineage positions Ney as the fountain from which springs the the fine arts community in Austin. It would be difficult to identify another visual artist who’s impact on Austin is quite so significant.

The other night when we met I told a story from Ney’s life when she was refused entry to a university because of her gender. During that time, it was more than difficult for women, no matter how ambitious, to be anything more than a wife and a mother. But Ney was ambitious and creative and wanted nothing more than to become a sculptor. Her parents absolutely forbid her from attending school until finally, after a hunger strike, they relented and she was allowed to go to the school.

When we reflect on this story we can obviously see that there have been great strides in the education of women. Now it would be absurd for a school to refuse entry to someone simply because of their gender. But what about other institutions? In Fortune 500 companies, only 20 are lead by women CEOs. That’s 14%. In the US House of Representatives, there are only 84 women or about 20%. And the Senate only 20 women total. And only one is a woman of color.

It’s my opinion that naming the school after a woman is symbolically, educationally, and civically important. I think it’s incredibly important for children, regardless of gender, to see women represented as figures of inspiration. I would take this another step further. As a school in the McCallum vertical team, we take on a mission that is “Advancing Academics Through The Arts.”

Photo: City of Austin

Not only do I think Elisabet Ney’s life and legacy gives us many opportunities to achieve that advancement, the nearby Elisabet Ney Museum provides us with incredible infrastructure to foster that advancement. The museum and grounds in itself provide access to hands-on learning opportunities including:

  • Architecture
  • Sculpture
  • Visual literacy
  • Philosophy
  • Women’s rights
  • Immigration
  • Texas history
  • Beekeeping
  • Hydrology
  • Technology
  • Native plants
  • Invasive species
  • Waller Creek
  • Ornithology

The vastness of opportunity here is unmatched in the City of Austin.

And the opportunity for growth on the Ney museum site is just as fertile. Try to imagine a near future where a continued redevelopment of the site includes anything from art installations to outdoor classrooms. We don’t know exactly what will become of the museum site in the future, but our willingness to use this opportunity to partner with a facility like this can only help turn that image of the future into a reality that positively impacts not only our school, but AISD, and more.

And when I think about the future and what I want for my kids — and I think our community agrees — that future begins with a name that can inspire us — children, teachers, parents, and alumni. A school is alive and constantly growing, changing, and adapting. It deserves a name that reflects that. We ask no less of our children that they grow up to be just as willing to change and adapt to the future. The reason I believe Ms. Ney to be a great candidate for naming our school is simply because she inspires. She inspires through her words and deeds. And the legacy of her life and the legacy of Formosa can be an inspiration to our community and a guiding light for our children that shows them a willingness grow, accept change and to not accept the status quo. An acceptance of difference (not merely tolerance). And a refusal to accept being told “no you can’t” because of your gender or the color of your skin. And I believe this inspiration can continue for many generations.

Thank you again for this opportunity.

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