Home » ARTSY FARTSY » JEAN SHEPHERD Gifting–Grab Bag & (59) ARTSY Abstract Visual Relationships

JEAN SHEPHERD Gifting–Grab Bag & (59) ARTSY Abstract Visual Relationships


I’m in the jewelry department one day.  Now we’re getting right down to the basis of guilt here.  Of course in the dime store world guilt exists on two levels, spelled with or without the “u.”  Sometimes they’re synonymous, by George!

Reminds me of that statue just outside the main road that went through Jackson Park in Chicago.  Have you ever heard of a famous sculptor by the name of Lorenzo Taft?  Does that name mean anything to you?  Was there ever such a sculptor?  I don’t know.  This was a fabled name in my family.  Every time we’d drive past this pile of masonry my old man would say, “That was done by Lorenzo Taft.”  He knew who Lorenzo Taft was because he’d read it in The Tribune.  He got his fantasies in rich and copious quantities from that paper.  But somehow it made it more official.  We’d go past that statue and he’d say, “That was done by Lorenzo Taft.”

It was a pile of people standing on one another’s heads and underneath it said, VICTORY OVER ALL—LIFE, ETERNITY, GOD, AND some other thing I can’t remember.  A long curving pile of concrete, people standing on top of each other with flags.  Some of them were holding tridents, those big forks with three prongs.  One of them was holding an enormous cornucopia!  He was pouring grapes and apples and grapefruits and stuff out on the head of a cupid who was sitting there picking his foot.

I was very impressionable at that age.  And somehow the name Lorenzo Taft began to be very important to me, and I suspect that a lot of people voted for many Tafts after that purely on the basis of these early recollections that weren’t pure recollections but were somehow connected with cornucopias and grapefruits and oranges and guys who held up big tridents and cupids that pick their feet.



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I studied industrial design at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute from 1955 to 1959. Its design department featured a near-godlike instructor, Rowena Reed. For three years I had classes she taught. Whatever she said came from a knowledge and understanding of what it meant to make something beautiful as a three dimensional abstraction. (That theoretical understanding could eventually be applied to any functional product.) We students tried to absorb her every word.

She didn’t teach the design of products as one might expect, she taught the pure fundamentals of how solids and concavities fit well together! The theory and practice of esthetic criteria objectified in three-dimensional design problems. She showed and described the abstract essence of what it was to design—what elements of shape and juxtaposition synthesized into an object that was esthetically pleasing and alive–dynamic. Her classes were philosophical exercises in the theory and practice of designed composition. Thus, she’s quoted as expressing the “structure of visual relationships” underlying all art and design, and she also said, “If you can’t make it more beautiful, what’s the point?”


[The bold-type paragraphs to come are from this book,

which is a monument to Miss Reed’s philosophy and activity for most of her life.

Quoted parts are from people she worked with and taught.]

The book about Miss Reed’s work comprises: “a set of lessons for creating and understanding abstract three-dimensional design. Rowena Reed Kostellow helped create this curriculum [with her husband Alexander Kostellow], she refined the program, was Chair of the ID Department at Pratt where she taught for over 50 years.”

 “You took a battery of courses in two and three-dimensional design and the work in one class reinforced what you were doing in other classes. In 2D design you began drawing simple things in line while in 3D, Rowena would have you working in wire–it was the same line in three dimensions. In nature study you might go to the Museum of Natural History and sketch animals on paper. Then in 3D you’d make three-dimensional sketches of animals and the 2D teacher would have you make drawings of the abstract equivalent of animals in line. Meanwhile Alexander was giving color lectures to lay the theoretical foundation and Dean [of the Art School] Boudreau was lecturing on art history and the use of color in the art of Giotto and Rembrandt. The synchronized, simultaneous, reinforced learning experience was the secret.

Abstraction doesn’t come easily to most fledgling designers, but she insisted that an understanding of abstract visual order was at the heart of good design and that by perseverance and hard work students could master that order. She refined a methodology for teaching that led students, step by step, to an understanding of, and ability to use, what she called “the structure of abstract visual relationships.”

Rowena Reed had the unshakable conviction that “foundation” studies aimed at exploring abstract visual relationships are essential to creating and appreciating art and design. She focused her own attention and considerable gifts on exploring these relationships in the three-dimensional realm.

My idea of design (not meant to contradict her, but to expand on what I consider good design) is a phrase I got from Louis Sullivan’s writings: “form [ever] follows function,” which, for me, suggests that if one designs an attractive object for people to use but it does not function well in its purpose, it ain’t a good “design.” Yet, for me, because Rowena Reed was imparting important principles, studying under her was a life-enhancing, exhilarating experience. As Elements of Design puts it, “…she was a person of commanding presence and demanded enormous effort from her students.”

We youngsters just out of high school, not very knowledgeable about the world outside academia, wanted every moment of her attention. But she spent what seemed to me then, considerable class time chatting with a group of older students recently returned from years in the army. I didn’t know until decades later that Alexander Kostellow, her husband and colleague in their deeply engrossing intellectual life’s work in design and esthetics, had very recently and unexpectedly died and left her bereft. I see now that she must have been seeking solace by communicating about adult matters, probably talking about real life, with those veterans. Maybe they, in their more astute ways, were better at articulating their understanding of both life and design.  Now I can understand it, but then, sometimes, I was jealous and felt neglected.


[More from Gail Greet Hannah’s book about her.]

Rowena Reed influenced her students as much through her presence in the classroom as by her principles. She was quiet and imposing. She spoke softly and authoritatively in complete, precise sentences. She used physical gesture with conscious deliberation and to great advantage. (Once, looking at a snapshot of herself taken by a student, she exclaimed, “Notice how three-dimensionally I’m sitting!”)

“Rowena did influence her students’ designs by her enthusiasm for dynamic movement. She didn’t get as excited about quiet, static design.” But there’s strong resistance to the idea that she fostered a “style.” “There was no more of a “style” being taught in Miss Reed’s class than in a strictly regimented ballet class.”

One of Miss Reed’s reiterated principles was that a design response in her classes should have three major elements: a dominant, a subdominant, and  a subordinate. She also illustrated how strong relationships between elements in three dimensions should not be bland but dynamic, describing this by first placing her two hands together and then separating them, retaining a mirror-image of each other in a non-dynamic way:


Then she’d slowly separate and twist her hands

in the relationship

between them so that a dynamic tension

seemed to exist between the two–

the space itself became an element–it became alive.


This special tension is what she expected in our designs.

Regarding homework assignments, instructors would give specific requirements. I tried to faithfully follow what the instructors told us to do. My responses were not very elegant, and I got only average grades in most subjects. Students who got the applause and top grades were those whose answers to the assignments produced beautiful results—that totally ignored the given requirements. I guess I was naïve. My homework result was once described by Miss Reed as “mediocre.”


Miss Reed and me, bespectacled,

maybe absorbing her theories.

♦    ♦    ♦

In retrospect, I believe that–rather than immediately producing a beautiful response—my answering the problem as given, taught me much more of the essence of her theories by instilling them in me like my second nature. My favorite memory of her demonstrates that belief.

At the climax of each school year, all design students had to organize a little exhibit of completed projects, everyone’s displays amassed in a large room for an afternoon— referred to as “Judgement Day.” Displayed at the summit where the gods lived–for every professor to see our year’s work, and where we would be judged.


One of Rowena Reed’s advanced subjects that year was to apply her principles to a simply realized, sculptured human figure. I don’t remember what I did for that particular assignment. But some evenings later, having finished regular homework, just playing around with some stiff wire—but obviously with her principles subconsciously ingrained–I made a figure about seven inches high. I opened a can of “SculpMetal,” a putty-like substance apparently made of metal powder dissolved in some kind of liquid that, exposed to the air after one used it, hardened to solid metal. I applied it to the wire figure, the shapes emphasizing their dynamic relationships as best as I could. I don’t remember why, but I brought it to class the next day and set it on the long student worktable in front of me.

Miss Reed approached and quietly stared

at my little figure from all sides.

“That,” she said, “is the best answer

to the figure problem I have ever seen!”

Only rarely had I done anything that caught a design teacher’s special attention! She appropriated my figure as her possession, let me borrow it for our annual judgement day, then took it back. After all these decades, I retain both that photo of my judgement day’s unexpected success positioned in front, and the additional, isolated photo I took.eb-judgement-5-1957-2

Without thinking about it,

I’d absorbed her teaching

and properly expressed it.


I wonder where my little

three-dimensional masterpiece is now.

I hope my name is still on it

with her comment about it.

♦    ♦    ♦

The book about Rowena Reed says that  she died of a heart attack in 1988: “Just as she had been surrounded by family and friends throughout her life, she was surrounded by them in her final days. Near the end, as her eyesight failed, she mourned her inability to carry on her daily, ritual reading of The New York Times.”

♦    ♦   ♦


The tool she recommended that we all use for minor sculpting was known among the faithful as “The Reed Tool.” The art supply store had other similar shapes to choose from but this one had her special imprimatur—it was The True Tool The Master Preferred, so, reader, I bought it–and I’m still married to it. More than fifty years and five major homes later, its little battle scars show that I use it for odd jobs around the house. Every time I see it and touch it, I’m reminded of Rowena Reed Kostellow and I revere it.





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