Thursday, May 24, 2018

His LOVE of Art Began in Mooresville

Robert Indiana (Robert Earl Clark) (September 13, 1928-May 19, 2018) was a world-renowned artist best known for his LOVE sculpture, one of which resides at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.  Robert had a Mooresville connection, making him one of the town's most famous former residents.  He only lived here for about three years, but his time in Mooresville had a profound impact upon his life and career.

LOVE postcard signed by the artist
(Indiana Room collection, Mooresville Public Library)
(Click images to enlarge)

Shortly after birth Robert was adopted by Earl and Carmen Clark of Indianapolis.  Theirs was a turbulent life, as loss of work (for Earl, during the Great Depression) and Carmen's wanderlust saw the family move many times during Robert's childhood and teenage years.

Earl & Carmen Clark (ca. 1930)

Robert Clark, age 2-3

Childhood drawing by Robert Clark (ca. 1936)
(Images courtesy of

In 1934 the Clark family moved from Indianapolis to Robert's grandparents' farm outside Mooresville; soon thereafter, they moved into town to a house on Lockerbie Street.  The move was prompted for health reasons--Robert's poor health being attributed to fumes from an Indianapolis automobile factory that was near their home.  The country air was certainly fresher, but in interviews with Richard Brown Baker (1963 Sept. 12-1963 Nov. 7), now housed in the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Robert stated that the move did little to improve his overall health.

Robert attended first grade in 1935-1936 at the Mooresville Academy Building in one of its wing additions that was destroyed in 1936.  Robert's first grade teacher was Miss Ruth Coffman (later, Mrs. Maurice Haase) (1910-1995).  As noted Morgan County Historian Becky Hardin wrote in 1973, "[Miss Ruth Coffman said] that even at that age [6-7 years old], [Robert's] drawings were in perfect perspective, and they told a story."  [Mooresville Times, January 18, 1973, section 2, page 4.]  Ruth Coffman saw Robert's inherent talent and encouraged him to pursue art as a career.  Robert acknowledged her as his earliest inspiration to become an artist.

In a humorous vein, at the time Ruth Coffman asked Robert if she could keep some of his drawings, so that when he later became famous, she would have something to remember his artistic beginnings, and he happily agreed to share them with her.  She kept the drawings all her life.

After the 1936 summer vacation, Ruth Coffman returned to school to discover that Robert and his family had moved away.  She continued to receive cards from him in the mail from time to time.  The last card she received from him was after he had become world-renowned and was vacationing in the Virgin Islands following a strenuous exhibition.

A few digitized clippings from Mooresville Public Library's Indiana Room collection illustrate the impact that Ruth Coffman and Mooresville had upon Robert.  Clearly, Robert's time in town left quite an impression.  One of Robert's vivid childhood memories was attending the funeral of another famous Mooresvillian, John Dillinger, in 1934.

The library has on permanent display an original 1968 poster autographed by Robert Indiana (and given to Ruth Coffman Haase, which she subsequently donated to the library).  See if you can find it next time you visit the library.

1968 Robert Indiana Poster on display at MPL

Would Robert Clark have become eminent artist Robert Indiana had he not lived in Mooresville and not been taught by Ruth Coffman?  Probably.  But that's a moot point.  Robert repeatedly made clear that it was Miss Coffman's interest and encouragement that prompted him first to imagine, then to actualize, his becoming a serious professional artist.  Many people assisted him in accomplishing that dream, but that important first push came here in Mooresville from a dedicated teacher.  That connection makes Robert Indiana one of Mooresville's truly admirable citizens.

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