By DARLA MCCAMMON
Lakeland Art Association
Gardens receive much focus in the spring. In the 1900s wealthy Americans hired landscape architects, a new term at the time, to design their country estates. The Olmsted Brothers developed quite a reputation for their work in designing these gardens. The brothers utilized the natural scenery in each space but also worked with the owners who sometimes preferred a European style formal garden setting. Part of their designs usually included a variety of sculptures and fountains that were also beautiful sculptures. The brothers set up a partnership with sculptor Johan Selmer-Larsen to create some of these accents and decorative sculptures. Selmer-Larsen began working with them in 1912 and ended up moving his studio into a barn on their property from which the Norwegian-born artist became famous for the pieces he sculpted for clients of their firm for over forty years.
Johan Selmer-Larsen left his home in Sarpsborg Norway at the age of 17. He went to live with an uncle in the United States and trained to become an artist in his spare time. He stayed in the states for ten years, honing his skills. He then returned to Norway to work as a sculptor and painter. After a time he decided there would be more financial success and acceptance of his work if he were to return to the United States, so he returned and was subsequently employed by the Olmsteds in 1912. He made free-standing sculptures, fountains, flagpole bases and more. Some of the famous estates and work produced by Selmer-Larsen were the Cloisters at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, The Crane Estate in Ipswich, and much for the Rockefeller family. He also created the entrance to the Marblehead High School with the sculpted figure of a town crier since town meetings were held there. Larsen also taught school at the Worcester Art Museum and became an instructor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology Architecture School where he taught sculpture modeling.
Demand for his work was high during this period. He kept his barn studio with the Olmsteds but he moved his home to live full time in Marblehead, MA with Margrethe, his wife with whom he had four children. He enjoyed this area of the coast and said it reminded him of Norway. He founded the Marblehead Arts Association, and in addition to his lovely works for the Olmsted firm, he became skilled as a designer of model yachts he constructed. He kept up with his art through the late 1950s then passed away at the age of 91 years in 1967. Much of his work is still visible and appreciated today. Gardens today continue to be a place where the focus is on not only the flowers and shrubs but the accessories adorning the garden. Today we may find kinetic (moving) sculptures, stonework, metal designs, and much abstract work, but the work of Selmer-Larsen is timeless and in many cases matchless.