Posted by: Leslie | June 23, 2010

Sally James Farnham, American sculptor

Needlecraft was a needle arts magazine that was published from 1909 until sometime in the 1940s. Headquartered in Augusta, Maine, the magazine ran articles and ads aimed at housewives, not terribly different from many of the women’s magazines of today with the emphasis on personal beauty, cooking to impress (your husband’s) friends, “human interest” stories, and craft ideas. I picked up a few issues in a used bookstore last year and even if you don’t have an interest in fiber arts, they are worth getting for the ads alone — I’ll devote a post to them sometime, but they are surreal mix of misogyny, racism, carcinogenic ingredients, and often beautiful art. The magazine also had a section for questions to the editor, which functioned as a sort of Ravelry of its day (with the editor becoming progressively snippier in her replies as the years went on).

The February 1931 issue (my copy was originally mailed to a Mrs. Orvel Essler of Davenport, Iowa) featured a profile of then-famous sculptor Sally James Farnham. I was surprised to see that the article encouraged women to take time to focus on their own interests and cultivate their own talents, rather than letting their lives be completely consumed by the needs of their families. Farnham, who didn’t take up sculpture until she was over 30, was cited as an inspiration for women who would otherwise neglect their talents for fear of criticism. Although few people know of Farnham today, she achieved renown during her lifetime with memorial sculptures and works depicting military figures such as her celebrated equestrian monument of Simon Bolivar in Central Park. One of her memorials is the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in her hometown of Ogdensburg, New York.


Sally James Farnham in Needlecraft

Ogdensburg is a small town just across the US-Canadian border on the St. Lawrence River. Thanks to my ever-present US student loans, I make a few trips to Ogdensburg every year to visit my bank. Ogdensburg is one of those small American towns that are hardest hit by the recession: one of the two remaining grocery stores just closed, most of the houses along the main street look like they are in need of repair, and the town’s biggest industry — correctional facilities — is threatened by statewide prison closures. (There are are also a couple of small businesses that hold packages for Ontarians who want to save on shipping costs on orders from US.) I’m always pleasantly surprised by how friendly and courteous people are in Ogdensburg, something I’m not used to living in Ottawa, where it’s rare that someone will hold the door for you or strike up a conversation with someone they don’t know.

On my last trip to Ogdensburg with a couple weeks ago I decided to seek out Sally James Farnham’s Soldiers and Sailors Monument. It’s on a hill in a small park behind the library and near the water, across from the volunteer fire station. I was there midday, which is terrible light for taking pictures, but I managed to get a few decent ones.


The monument in Library Park


Artist’s signature


Oh yeah, and take that, Ontario

Unfortunately, despite the quality of her work and the fame she achieved during her lifetime, Farnham’s name has somewhat faded into obscurity since her death in 1943. The Sally James Farnham Catalogue Raisonne Project is a good place to start if you’d like to read more about her, and I’ll leave you with a quote from Farnham herself that I think gives a pretty good impression of her views:

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