As curator of a Cleveland Museum of Art exhibit on Viktor Schreckengost in 1999, Case Western Reserve University art historian Henry Adams continually heard people refer to the artist and industrial designer as "an American Leonardo da Vinci."
It comes as no surprise when Adams was asked by the Viktor Schreckengost Foundation in Cleveland to write a book to honor Schreckengost's 100th birthday on June 26 that the work's title, Viktor Schreckengost: American da Vinci (Tide-Mark) would pick up on a compliment paid many times to the artist.
Just as versatile as his 15th Century Italian counterpart, Schreckengost is "not only a noted painter, potter and sculptor, he also excelled in product design—everything from artificial limbs to velocipedes," writes Adams.
Schreckengost's iconic works span the "Jazz Bowl" produced by Cowan Pottery in Rocky River, Ohio, for Eleanor Roosevelt and his series of Murray bicycles and pedal cars and American Limoges dinnerware.
American da Vinci also reveals new works recently found among Schreckengost's vast archives that he collected over decades of his career. These include forgotten batiks, as seen in archival photographs of an exhibit in Akron, and drawings that showed various versions of his industrial designs—as well as drawings for designs that were not produced.
"Viktor had a genius for creating objects that are friendly and fun," says Adams who became acquainted with the artist during research on a different project about Charles Burchfield and Rockwell Kent, artists from the 1930s.
What stands out in the art historian's mind is how Schreckengost is playful, surrounding himself with simple wheeled toys such as a duck with an odd shaped egg that moves.
"A part of Viktor is still that child of nine years old," said Adams, noting that child wonder allows him to bring that perspective to his art.
Schreckengost, known to his friends as "Vik," was born in Sebring, Ohio. His father was a potter, and Schreckengost learned from an early age how to work clay. He would refine that talent at the Cleveland School of the Arts, now the Cleveland Institute of Art. He continued his art studies in Vienna with potter Michael Powolney and architect Josef Hoffmann.
He returned to the United States and Cleveland in 1930 and began his "triple" career as a teacher at CIA, designer and artist. Today, he continues to make art, a testament to that zest that has propelled him through life, said Adams.
The expert on American Art, Adams also credits Schreckengost as one of the pioneers of modern industrial design, a field that came to be in the late 1920s just about the time Schreckengost started his professional career.
"My work has been constantly involved in the struggle between fine arts and their development into some functional form of what we call the applied or commercial arts," Adams quotes Schreckengost. "It took many years for me to realize that they need not conflict."
Because so many people collect different facets of Schreckengost's work, Adams has divided American da Vinci into chapters that focus on those areas—"The Jazz Bowl Story," ceramics, sculpture, two-dimensional works, theater and costume design and industrial design.
Adams also ends the work with a list of 100 celebrations that mark the centennial birthday of Schreckengost and pay tribute to a man who has become a legend and touched the lives of almost every American through his designs and artwork.
Schreckengost's career has left a wake of innovation from aerial maps for the military, flashlights, pedal cars, riding lawn mower, ceiling lighting and dinnerware/
So many of his designs were readily produced and accessible to a public that shopped or bought products from Sears, Roebuck and Company, J.C. Penney, Goodyear, Delta Electric and others.
But tucked away in Schreckengost attic is treasure trove of drawings, notes, painting, artwork and more. What remains in the public perception is just a minute part of this man's long career as an artist and pioneer in industrial development, says Adams.
Case Western Reserve University is committed to the free exchange of ideas, reasoned debate and intellectual dialogue. Speakers and scholars with a diversity of opinions and perspectives are invited to the campus to provide the community with important points of view, some of which may be deemed controversial. The views and opinions of those invited to speak on the campus do not necessarily reflect the views of the university administration or any other segment of the university community.