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Oct. 15, 2010

Smith College Mourns the Loss of Renowned Artist Elliot Offner

Elliot Melville Offner, Andrew W. Mellon Professor Emeritus in the Humanities and Printer Emeritus to the College, died Friday, Oct. 15, after a long battle with esophageal cancer. He taught at Smith from 1960 until his retirement in 2004. Burial will be at the convenience of the family. A memorial service will be held at a later date. John Davis, Alice Pratt Brown Professor of Art and associate provost and dean for academic development, offered the following tribute to his colleague and friend.


1The Smith community, and the larger world of arts and letters, have sustained an immeasurable loss in the passing of Elliot Offner. Elliot’s talents and passions spanned more media than are commonly found in an entire faculty of art. As a sculptor, his direct carving in wood and his mastery of the bronze casting process unlocked the formal potential of these media. Elliot captured the abstract beauty of movement in the natural world, always with a warmth and richness of surface that reminded viewers of the transformative power of the artist’s hand. Three of his bronze sculptures grace the outdoor campus of Smith College, and his "Great Blue Heron" has become a virtual symbol of the college, with its exhilarating unfolding of wings and elastic curve of neck—lithe and filled with potential.

Elliot had an unsurpassed facility for relief carving. He was devoted to the numismatic arts, and his medals always benefited from his life-long devotion to the expressive possibilities of the finely crafted letterform. Each letter carved by his chisel or issuing from his pen was a work of art. He passed on his love of calligraphy to his many students, and among his friends, Elliot’s correspondence was always saved and treasured for its sheer virtuosic beauty.

Beyond the hand-wrought letter, Elliot, who was named Printer to the College in 1975, was a formidable presence in the world of design and letterpress printing and a champion of the book arts at Smith. His beloved and challenging course, "An Introduction to Printing," ushered students into the centuries-old tradition of page design, typesetting, illustration and printing. Students in this all-consuming class produced limited-edition books of astonishing scope and craft. The fruits of this course were one of the most eagerly awaited end-of-the-semester aesthetic treats in the Art Department, and a complete collection of this work now resides in Smith’s Mortimer Rare Book Room.

As a printmaker, Elliot specialized in woodcut, the most sculptural and elemental of graphic processes. Elliot reveled in the expressive simplicity of black and white, line and space, matte ink and richly textured paper. His prints of the "Mendenhall Porcupine," the landscape of Hampstead Heath, the Camperdown Elm of the Smith Botanic Garden or a simple sprig of Rosemary—a tribute to his wife Rosemary ’53, partner in all of his undertakings—were prized by those who collected his work or who were the beneficiaries of his generous tokens of friendship, always magnificently inscribed and signed.

Late in life, Elliot surprised those who followed his work by exploring still more media, undertaking a renewed study of watercolor and picking up the camera to create an entirely new body of work focused on the open, grassy landscapes of the island of Nantucket.

Elliot’s works are in a number of public collections, including the Milwaukee and Worcester Museums of Art, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and the Victoria and Albert Museum. He received over a dozen major sculptural commissions and was the recipient of fellowships and awards from—among others—the National Academy of Design, Brookgreen Gardens, the American Philosophical Society, the National Institute of Arts & Letters, and the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation. He was a resident fellow at no fewer than four different colleges at Cambridge University, and he served as president of the National Sculpture Society.

Smith College named Elliot the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities in 1974. Such a title is highly unusual for an artist, but the conferral of this chair recognized the deep intellectual foundation Elliot brought to all of his creative work and teaching. He knew more about the history of art than most art historians (and in his early career, gave lectures in the Smith Art Department’s famed art history survey). He loved medieval stone sculpture, and he was a particular champion of historic American art.

Elliot was deeply devoted to the mission of Smith College, and nothing made him prouder than to describe himself as a servant of the institution where he made his life for 50 years. Elliot’s gifts to that institution, its students and its faculty are broad and deep. Within the Art Department, Elliot instilled in his younger colleagues his love for Smith College and schooled us in its history and traditions. We mourn the loss of such a remarkable colleague and friend.


Elliot Offner's "Great Blue Heron" is a familiar sight on the Smith campus.

In memory of Elliot Offner, the Smith College Museum of Art has installed two of his bronzes in the third floor gallery. On view are "Helmeted Head," a gift to the museum in 1997, and "Ruff," one of his many bird sculptures, on loan to the museum by a member of the art department faculty. Offner's large bronze "Bittern Mother and Child" has been permanently placed on view in Trudy's Garden behind the Alumnae House on Elm Street. This sculpture was a recent gift in memory of J. Craig Huff, Jr. and Ann E. Millspaugh Huff '42 by their children Ann Huff Beaty, Deborah Huff Gevalt '70, Carolyn Huff Burns '72, and J. Craig Huff, III.


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