"Teaching is magic"

Sidney ("Sid") Larson, 1923-2009

Columbia College Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Art passes away at age 85

Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Art Sidney Larson passed away on May 21, 2009 in Columbia, Mo. after a long and successful career as an art teacher, muralist, judge, restorationist and painter. He taught painting, drawing, art appreciation and principles of art at Christian, now Columbia, College for 50 years and was chair of the department for 29 years.

A memorial service will be held Saturday, June 20 at 10:30 a.m. in Launer Auditorium with a reception to follow in the Banquet Room of Dulany Hall.

Dr. Terry Smith, executive vice president and dean for Academic Affairs, said: "Sid was many things to me: a model teacher, a counselor, a friend. The best art lesson I got in my whole life I got from Sid. He also took me to school several times playing pool! He was truly a renaissance man. I will miss him terribly."

Sidney Larson never intended to be an artist; he wanted to go to medical school and become a doctor "like my hero, my brother-in-law," he said in a 2002 interview. He said he had always liked art but doubted its commercial viability, so he studied premed at the University of Missouri.

When World War II erupted, he followed the call of duty like most of his generation to serve as a surgical technician in the U.S. Navy. In addition to taking care of wounded soldiers brought back to the ship, he had to go ashore to tend to injured soldiers and comfort the dying after two of the bloodiest battles the United States has ever fought, the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Larson said much later that "scribbling, I wouldn't call it drawing" kept him sane during those years. One of his more personal paintings is entitled "Memories of Iwo Jima."

On returning to the States, he re-enrolled in pre-med at the University of Missouri. While working at Noyes Hospital he met George Ann Madden, a registered nurse whom he married in 1947.

But he had to have a humanities course and only an art course fit his schedule. His instructor was Fred Shane, who would change Sid’s life. He fell in love with art and told George Ann he thought he would like to be an artist. She told him to follow his heart, and he would go on to earn a bachelor's and a master's degree in art.

As an art student, Larson said he was surprised at how satisfying it was to help and instruct fellow students, and thought teaching could be his m├ętier. After graduation, he briefly taught at Oklahoma City University. A job became available in Columbia, Mo., with Christian College during the college’s centennial year in 1951 and he happily returned to Columbia.

“I fell into art," he said. "I think I would have made a decent doctor" but it just didn’t move him as art did, especially teaching art to eager young students. "Teaching is magic," he said, especially "watching the process of [student] self-discovery."

Largely through Larson's efforts, the art program grew from a one-person department to a program rivaling those of well-known universities in creative talent and teaching ability. Larson also was chairman of the college's 1967 planning committee and helped shape the renaissance and transformation of Christian College into Columbia College.

Paulina A. ("Polly") Batterson, professor emerita of history, writes in Columbia College: 150 Years of Courage, Commitment and Change that Larson stood out among the new faculty in 1951:

In a report to the board at the end of the 1951-1952 academic year, [President] Miller's description of Larson's work proved prophetic: "The art instructor, Mr. Sidney Larson, has proved himself to be an excellent teacher and a fine influence among our students. He has gone far beyond the ordinary teaching and counseling responsibilities in attempting to stimulate interest in art. He has an excellent reputation in this part of the Middle West and certainly shows promise as being the type of teacher who will attract art students to Christian College."

Sid, painting
Larson would end up attracting and teaching a staggering 10,000 students over the next half-century. In 2008, Ruth Purschwitz Meissen, 2007-08 Illinois Teacher of the Year and recipient of the college's 2009 Professional Achievement Award for outstanding regional and national recognition, said she decided to attend Columbia College after reading about Larson and his connection to Missouri regionalist and muralist Thomas Hart Benton.

"I thought, I have to go there," Meissen said. After earning her art degree, Meissen enjoyed a successful career in the commercial art world before her teaching success. She is quick to credit Larson and other Columbia College instructors for preparing her so well to instill passion in students.

Largely through Larson's efforts, the art program grew from a one-person department to a program rivaling those of well-known universities in creative talent and teaching ability. Larson also was chair of a 1967 college planning committee and helped shape the renaissance and transformation of Christian College into Columbia College.

Larson waited until the college's sesquicentennial year of 2001 to retire. After 50 years of exemplary service, the board of trustees, upon the request of the Faculty Association, formally established the title of "distinguished professor" with the intent that it be incorporated into Larson's last contract.

Larson met Thomas Hart Benton in the late 1940s through his own art instructor Fred Shane at the University of Missouri. Larson and Benton formed a close friendship that would last until Benton's death in 1975.

Larson helped Benton restore his mural "The Social History of the State of Missouri" in the capitol building in Jefferson City, Mo. He went on to restore many other works, including more than 50 portraits and other creations of Missouri painter George Caleb Bingham. His ability to restore old murals, create new ones and his vigorous, idiosyncratic paintings gave him a unique reputation among Missouri artists and contributed to his popularity as a teacher.

Larson’s own murals are prominent at Columbia College and throughout mid-Missouri: in Columbia alone, you can see his neoclassical work at the Boone County Court House, Guitar Building, Shelter Insurance, public library and Riback Supply Company.

Larson was still painting and exhibiting well into the 21st century. A 2006 exhibition at the Tiger Hotel drew a large crowd and saw the unveiling of ambitious, even ominous, new works.

His work ran the gamut. He painted pastoral scenes of Missouri, Oklahoma, Colorado and other states; abstractions of the Pacific Ocean and Irish coasts; surreal, agonized portraits of war and its aftermath, including the 1980s hostage crisis in Lebanon; and tender, moving portraits. War haunted his work; a desolate series of paintings in the 1950s is titled "After the Bomb." He traveled extensively and painted scenes in Italy, Uganda, Kenya, Scotland, Mexico, Ireland, Switzerland and Brazil, among other countries.

Among his many portrait subjects are then-Supreme Court Justice Warren Welliver, Columbia College President Gerald Brouder and his wife, Bonnie Brouder. Of a mid-1960s portrait of Kenneth Freeman, then president of Christian College, Allean Lemmon Hale writes in Petticoat Pioneer that "Freeman is aptly pictured, something of the rugged quality of brick and concrete in his face, holding the blueprints for the new Christian College. In the background are the towers of the 1911 Dorsey Hall, the last building of the last great builder, Luella St. Clair Moss."

Larson made an impact on the local community and state of Missouri in other ways as well. In 1961, he became curator of the State Historical Society of Missouri, a role he served for 44 years. In 2004, he was named Curator Emeritus. He was instrumental in building and broadening the society's art collection to include works from artists such as Edward Boccia, Archie Musick and Naoma Powell.

Among Larson's many honors are the Distinguished Service Award from the society in 1989, two commendations by the Missouri Senate and a 1991 award from the Missouri State Council on the Arts "for significant contributions in art." He also received the prestigious Arts and Science Distinguished Alumnus Award from the University of Missouri-Columbia in 1999, capped in 2000 by receiving the University of Missouri 2000 Faculty Alumni Award. He was named Missouri's Outstanding Professor in 1987, and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education named him National Professor of the Year bronze medalist that same year.

Columbia College completed a new art center, Brown Hall, in 1996, and dedicated an art gallery in Larson's name. In 2001, Larson was recognized for his 50 years of service during Alumni Reunion Weekend with a reception, exhibit of his work in Larson Art Gallery, an honorary alumnus award and a commemorative poster of his mural that hangs in the Guitar Building in Columbia.

His colleagues also held him in high regard.

"He liked being a teacher and an artist," current Columbia College art professor Ben Cameron said. "He had a very successful career with the art department. He was there from 7 in the morning until dinnertime. He really loved that job."

Current art department chairman Mike Sleadd appreciated Larson as a person. "The best thing about working at Columbia College was getting to know Sid," Sleadd said.

Opening students' eyes, Larson said, was probably the most satisfying part of his job.

In a 1968 interview Larson said, "Christian College provides unique satisfactions. Unique because they have persisted for 117 years, because they can be believed in and lived by... Somehow, in spite of human fallibility there is distilled here a delicate essence of meaning and purpose which permeates all of us, which is caught and funneled into the air your daughter breathes on this campus [the college became coed in 1970]... the uniqueness I refer to is the degree of total involvement which our faculty assumes as its role."

Few instructors exemplify "total involvement" as did Larson.

Larson was married to George Ann Madden for 52 years until her death in 1999. In 2003, Larson married Mary Wells and is survived by her; two daughters, Cathy Larson of Bloomington, Ind., and Nancy Larson Moneke of Salem, Ore.; a sister, Dorothy Clark; four grandchildren; one great-granddaughter; numerous nieces and nephews; and cousins.

In lieu of flowers, memorials are suggested to:
  • Columbia College
    • George Ann and Sidney Larson Scholarship
    • Sidney Larson Student Art Award
    Inquiries may be directed to Senior Director of Development Lindsay Lopez, Columbia College, 1001 Rogers St., Columbia, MO 65216;(573) 875-7563
  • The State Historical Society of Missouri
    Sid Larson Fund, 1020 Lowry St., Columbia, MO 65201
  • Missouri Cancer Associates
    1705 E. Broadway, Suite 100, Columbia, MO 65201.

Read the Columbia Daily Tribune obituary

A new feature about Sid Larson will be available on the Columbia College home page each Wednesday until the memorial service on June 20.

You may leave your memories, thoughts and condolences in the comment field below.


Terry Lass said...

Sid Larson gave me eyes. Before I came to teach at Columbia College, in 1984, I knew virtually nothing about art. However, I soon gravitated toward the old Art Center and there found Sid. He welcomed me, taught me, consoled me, inspired me. We traded jokes; and always--always--discussed our students, finding new ways to reach and help them.

Everyone acknowledges Sid's excellence as teacher and painter. He was also a superior scholar. Whether painting a mural, restoring an old portrait or discussing American history, his knowledge was broad and deep. In an old-fashioned phrase, he wore his learning lightly. He did not parade his vast knowledge, but you knew it was there, and entirely reliable.
One of Sid's favorite writers was Robert Browning, the English poet noted for his portraits of artists. Here are a few lines from one of Browning's best, "Fra Lippo Lippi." The painter speaks:

we're made so that we love
First when we see them painted, things we have passed
Perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see;
And so they are better, painted--better to us,
Which is the same thing. Art was given for that;
God uses us to help each other so,
Lending our minds out.

In Sid Larson, God and Art collaborated on a true masterpiece.

Terry Lass

Sally Smith Malone said...

I received so many things from the short semester I took Sidney Larson's Art Appreciation class, they are hard to count. He had a definite knack for teaching in a way that helped you remember many similar things. Notably, he would imitate various European statues as they stood on one leg, arm extended. We would all laugh but it was a way to keep that one in your memory bank. Many years later when I was teaching 10th grade biology, I decided to use my students to make a chain of DNA. Not until today has it struck me where that idea was planted in my brain. Thanks to Sid Larson. And years down the road I was lucky enough to travel to Germany, Austria, and France to actually see many of the works we had studied so briefly, but there they were. And his excitement came flooding back. Those I was traveling with could not understand my glee, but they hadn't had the rich introduction provided by that master teacher, Sidney Larson. We are so lucky, those 10,000 of us who sat in his presence and benefitted from his volcanic expression of knowledge. And those of you who learned more than a mere glimpse into the world of art, who stayed longer than a semester, are more fortunate. He did indeed teach individuals. He was a remarkable human being. He will live on in the hearts and minds of his students for many years to come and leave the legacy of his work for all the world to see. He is singing and dancing with the Heavenly Hosts. Sally Smith Malone, Little Rock, Arkansas

Linda (Glick) Gabrilo said...

Obviously, to me, Sid Larson, was truly unforgettable.
It has been 32 years since I graduated from Columbia College, and I will always remember the kindness, support and friendliness which I received from Sid Larson, as one of his students.
He always treated us, his students, with respect. His passion and his appreciation for art were a daily inspiration to his students.
He will be missed.

Linda (Glick) Gabrilo

Anonymous said...

Cousin Sid will be sorely missed. He was such a joy to be around; so funny! We, here in Florida, will miss his visits down South. Our condolences to Mary and the kids and grandkids.

Steven Person said...

Sid Larson was a world renowned art restoration expert who cleaned, patched and repaired priceless works of art daily as students walked by his office. People and institutions paid thousands of dollars for him to treat their precious works. At the end of one semester I had a mishap with one of my final paintings. Something impaled the work I had spent so much time and effort on. Seeing my concern and without missing a beat Sid removed the priceless work from his vacuum table and put my work reverentially in its place. Within 20 min. or so he had completely repaired the painting and the tear was impossible to discern. I didn't have anything to pay him and he wouldn't have taken it if I had. Here's my point: I've never created anything worth that much attention. He cared about me and I cared about the painting, therefore he cared about the painting. I will never forget that act of kindness. I've gotten rid of most of the work I produced in college. I still have that painting because I figure that patch elevated the worth of that painting by about 1,000. The fact that his hand touched it makes it priceless to me. God bless you all. I hope you all had a warm memory of Sid even if you didn't share it.

J. Daniel Fulbright, 77 said...

As a 1977 graduate of CC, I remember Dr Larson the most during the period of 1975 to 1977 when I was also a security guard at the college as well as being on an Army ROTC scholarship for Active Duty Personnel. I most remember every Saturday morning when I would check the art department and Dr Larson was working on restoring some of the paintings from the capital as he watched Meet the Press. I remember him as kind and patient as well as brilliant. I learned a lot during those all too brief encounters. He was always the teacher and the educator, even for those of us who never took a class from him. Blessings!

Unknown said...

I had the great fortune of spending many classroom hours with Sid Larson between 1972 and 1974, and he gave me so much more than art instruction. He could pinpoint what was getting between you and the canvas. He understood the psychological blocks that stifle creativity and could guide you toward inspiration with grace. I will always remember him with great fondness and immense respect.
Gwynn Levy Torres (Berger)