We first met Bea Proske in 1984. At 85, she was still active as Curator Emerita of Sculpture at the Hispanic Society of America, in New York City, and as an advisory board member of both Brookgreen Gardens, in South Carolina, and Sculpture Review, the magazine of the National Sculpture Society. Yet she managed to find the time to write the cover article for the June 1984 issue of Aristos, on the early twentieth-century sculptor Harriet Whitney Frishmuth. More important for us, Bea became a dear friend.
Born on October 31, 1899, Bea died on February 2, 2002, at her home in Ardsley, New York. In a brief note headed "Scholar and Gentlewoman" in the Frishmuth issue, we wrote of her:
A true Yankee, raised on a New Hampshire farm at a time when her fellow New Englanders [the sculptors] Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Daniel Chester French were at the peak of their powers, art historian Beatrice Gilman Proske brings to her personal life the same rare mix of qualities she brings to her writing--forthrightness, wit, simplicity, warmth, a respect for tradition and scholarship, and just the right touch of elegance. Much like the "yeast working to expand and enrich American sculpture during the early years of this century" [which she wrote of in her Frishmuth article], Bea Proske has expanded and enriched both Aristos and those of us fortunate enough to have worked with her.
During the eighteen years that followed, we had the pleasure of Bea's company on many occasions. Under her expert guidance we toured Brookgreen Gardens, South Carolina--the outdoor sculpture collection for which she had prepared the definitive catalog (first published in 1936 and revised by her in 1968). Among other outings with her, we attended many of the annual exhibitions of the National Sculpture Society, with which she was long affiliated. As Bea's strength waned in her last years, such trips were no longer possible. But we would continue to visit her in her home, perched on the side of a steep hill in the suburb of Ardsley--where she never failed to enjoy the change of seasons, the neighborhood children (not surprisingly, she was much beloved by her Ardsley neighbors), any birds that would visit, and her highly independent fat cat, "Pretty Boy." She often told us she appreciated the opportunity to "talk shop"--as did we, of course. Equally pleasurable was the small talk--peppered with puns and word play, which Bea loved. She took a childlike delight in silly phrases such as "There's a fungus among us." Sometimes she'd ask us to send her in writing a little joke that had we'd told her in person, so that she'd remember it. One that particularly tickled her was "You can drag a horse to water, but you can't drive him to drink."
Though never pompous or pretentious, Bea had had a remarkable career. Born on a farm, she received her earliest education in a one-room schoolhouse. But she rose to become the curatorial right hand of one of America's most eminent cultural philanthropists, Archer Milton Huntington, and his wife, the sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington.
As summarized by Robin Salmon--who is now Curator of Sculpture at Brookgreen Gardens--in a special issue of its Journal in Bea's honor in 1987, her subsequent life had an almost fairy-tale aura:
[As Bea wrote in 1983:] "Since my mother said that I always had my nose in a book, she thought that I might do well as a librarian and sent me off to Simmons College in Boston, at that time a rare type of college that prepared women for professional careers in science, home economics, secretarial and library work."
As a young woman with a Bachelor of Science degree from Simmons College, Beatrice Gilman was hand-picked, along with five other young women, by Archer Huntington to begin cataloguing the library collections of the Hispanic Society of America [which he had founded] in 1920. Seven months later she was transferred to the Department of the Museum. . . .
[In Bea's words:] "Mr. Huntington had tried putting various people in charge of the museum but had not been satisfied with them. Now he thought of choosing some members of the library staff, since he had long thought women would make excellent museum curators. He called us all together one day and asked if we would like to work in the museum. We enthusiastically agreed that we would. Thereupon he assigned each one a special subject. Paintings, ceramics, and textiles were pounced upon quickly. Then he turned to me and saved me the embarrassment of making up my completely uninformed mind by asking me if I would like to undertake the study of sculpture, in particular, the polychromed wood carvings of which the museum has a good collection. I said that I should like that very much indeed, and from that moment a life-long career was launched."
A prodigious scholar in his own right, Archer Huntington proceeded to provide Bea with the training and background she would need: Spanish lessons, yearly visits to Spain, even classes in the basic techniques of sculpture. When he and Anna Hyatt Huntington decided to create the outdoor collection of figurative sculpture at Brookgreen Gardens, Bea was groomed to expand her knowledge to include the American work featured there, and from the 1930s to the 1960s she wrote and edited all of that institution's publications, also serving on its board from 1937 to 1945. The books, pamphlets, and articles by her, exhibitions she curated, and other professional achievements listed on her curriculum vitae run to ten pages.
Though Bea was blessed with physical beauty, which never wholly faded, it was far outweighed by her attributes of spirit. Among other virtues, she possessed a healthy sense of self, never over-weening--unlike the peacock and the swan about whom she penned this little poem (inscribed on one of the many plaques of poetry displayed in the gardens at Brookgreen):
The peacock, homage to exact,
parades in arrogance of pride:
He clicks his fan-sticks to attract
And courts all glances, argus-eyed
Serene the swan glides coldly proud
Convinced of whiteness here perfected
Not knowing that a rival cloud
In snowy splendor, lies reflected.
Failing health made Bea's last two years quite difficult, but she weathered them with her customary grace and wit, uncomplaining and undemanding. (A favorite Yankee expression of hers was "Use it up, do without. Make it do, do without.") She was proud to have lived more than a century, during which she had adapted equably to dramatic changes in lifestyle and in the world. Though computers and the Internet were foreign to her, Bea was pleased when we would remind her that through them students and scholars would forever have access to information about her work and the organizations with which she had been associated throughout her professional life. (A few relevant links and references appear below.) --Michelle Marder Kamhi and Louis Torres
"Brookgreen Gardens: Verses in the Gardens" (booklet), Brookgreen Gardens, 1938, eighth printing, 1979.
Proske, Beatrice Gilman. Brookgreen Gardens Sculpture, rev. ed. Brookgreen Gardens, 1968.
---- . "Harriet Whitney Frishmuth--Lyric Sculptor," Aristos, June 1984.