1918 — 2012
Mark Ritter Sponenburgh: artist, art historian, writer, archaeologist, mentor and professor, died peacefully of aortic stenosis and complications from normal pressure hydrocephalus on Dec. 6, 2012, at his home in Seal Rock. He was 94.
Imbued with ambition and restless curiosity, Mark traveled the world and lived in Egypt, England, France and Pakistan. He resided the last 30 years at his home in Seal Rock.
Mark Sponenburgh was born in 1918 in Cadillac, Mich., to Ai and May (Mellows) Sponenburgh. After undergraduate studies in arts and sciences at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, he was granted a scholarship at the preeminent and highly experimental Cranbrook Academy of Art, where he enjoyed complete freedom to explore his sculpture. Detroit was an exciting center of European artists and academics, immigrants to the United States prior to World War II.
After Cranbrook, Mark studied the history of sculpture with Ernst Scheyer at Wayne State University, across Woodward Avenue from the Detroit Institute of Art. Scheyer, who had immigrated from Breslau and Cologne, became his mentor and lifelong friend. At Wayne, sculptor, teacher and world traveler Professor G. Alden Smith permanently influenced Sponenburgh’s direct carving and use of natural materials throughout his life.
In 1941, Sponenburgh was awarded a graduate fellowship at the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation at Oyster Bay, Long Island. A major sculpture completed there, “Madonna,” was his first work to enter a museum collection, obtained by the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1941.
In early 1942, Sponenburgh volunteered for the U.S. Army, assigned to Combat Intelligence Training and the Corps of Engineers as an instructor. After working in the cartography section, dictating and reproducing maps as the command prepared for
D-Day, in 1945 he requested transfer to Monuments and Archives (G-5).
As part of the “Monuments Men” whose mission was the retrieval of confiscated Allied artworks, Sponenburgh was assigned to a unit in the Salzkammergut of Austria. After the war, Sponenburgh continued his study of sculpture at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
In 1946, Sponenburgh married Huguette Ozanon in Paris, and returned to the U.S. to join the faculty of Architecture and Allied Arts at the University of Oregon. In 1951 Sponenburgh took a two-year leave of absence as a Fulbright Research Scholar to sculpt, conduct research and write on ancient Egyptian sculpture in Upper Egypt and Nubia.
Returning to the U of O in 1953, Sponenburgh revised the Master of Fine Arts program in sculpture and introduced a course sequence in the History of Sculpture.
Appointed Visiting Research Lecturer on Egyptian Sculpture at the Royal College of Art in London in 1956, Sponenburgh took his first sabbatical from the
U of O. At that time, he also completed his post-graduate studies in museology at the University of London, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and the Royal Numismatic Society (British Museum).
Sponenburgh resigned from the U of O in 1957 to accept a commission from the government of Pakistan to create a new National College of Arts in Lahore. There he was appointed Principal (Dean) and Mayo Professor of Fine Art (John Lockwood Kipling was the first Principal).
As founder of the Pacific Northwest Institute of Sculpture (1955), Sponenburgh recommended sculptor Jan Zach to the university to succeed him. Zach, a renowned Czech sculptor who had been working and teaching in Victoria, British Columbia, and Brazil, joined the University of Oregon Sculpture Department, retiring in 1979. In Lahore, Sponenburgh established the National College of Arts, introducing a Bauhaus-style curriculum.
While in Pakistan, Sponenburgh served as a consultant on fine arts for the University of Punjab in Lahore and the Archaeological Museum in Peshawar. He traveled throughout the country, including memorable expeditions to the Swat Valley. When his wife, Huguette, became gravely ill in 1961, Sponenburgh left Lahore for Paris, where she passed away.
Sponenburgh accepted Gordon Gilkey’s invitation to establish an art history program at Oregon State University in 1962, marrying Janeth Hogue Russell late that year. Sponenburgh traveled and lectured in Avignon, France; Oxford University; Chile; and Lahore, taking a sabbatical leave in 1975 and 1976 to research sculpture in Oxford, Dublin, Paris and Egypt. Sponenburgh retired from OSU in 1983, and began serving as museum consultant for the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport.
The Sponenburghs donated their large collection of Egyptian, European, Asian and American art to Willamette University in Salem in 1990, the year of Janeth’s death. The collection of more than 250 works became the catalyst for the creation of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in 1998.
Sponenburgh completed several public art commissions: “The Guardian,” College of Veterinary Medicine at OSU; “Eternus,” a cast-bronze memorial at Yaquina Head Lighthouse in Newport; a bronze bust of Linus Pauling for OSU; and “Town and Gown,” a cast-bronze sculpture at Willamette University. Sponenburgh set up various travel and educational scholarships and perpetual lectureships at OSU, U of O and Willamette University.
While teaching was central to Sponenburgh’s life, he was a serious and prolific sculptor, particularly fond of wood and stone carving and assemblage. Capturing his love of the natural beauty surrounding him, he created many sculptures of birds, fishes and small animals.
The dramatic sea outside his small cottage on the Oregon Coast influenced his work in stylized wave forms and clouds, as well as offering numerous names for his abode: Oceana, Seaocea or simply Blue.
Throughout his career, Sponenburgh saw his art, art history research, world travel, teaching and collecting as closely interrelated and interdependent. Sponenburgh always felt his most important achievement and title was that of Professor.
At his home he held “seminars” for former and collected students and old and new friends and colleagues, looking over the ocean bluff in a small room he called “the snug.” He regaled listeners with tales of his life and experiences in exotic places and interesting people such as Sir Herbert Read, Brancusi, Sir Jacob Epstein, David McCosh, Linus Pauling, Henry Moore and others.
Former students and colleagues gathered on Dec. 28, 2012, at the National College of Arts in Lahore to recognize Sponenburgh’s contributions. A former student of his and a retired Head of the Design Department at NCA wrote, “He was our Walter Gropius. He was a marvelous companion, mentor, teacher and disciplinarian.” Highly regarded on several continents, many will remember him with deep fondness.
Webster Russell, a stepson by Janeth Russell Sponenburgh, of Georgetown, Texas, survives Sponenburgh, who requested no service.