Many people know Tom Blaske as a trial attorney; many more know Mary Steffek Blaske as executive director of the Ann Arbor Symphony. Less well known is their role as art patrons. They’ve turned the yard of their home near Huron Hills golf course into a sculpture garden.
There’s a sculpture of a violinist by artist Thomas Yano. Some limestone pieces. Jane DeDecker’s sculpture of “Mary and one of our dogs,” says Tom by phone. “It’s not really me,” interjects Mary, who’s also on the call, but it’s so evocative that they’ve claimed it as their own. And there are two pieces by Andrew DeVries: “Sparrow,” a nude woman with a dancer’s body, reaching up as if caught in a moment before flight or transformation, and “This Man Who Flies,” similarly ecstatic, but male. “Tom actually wrote a piece of poetry about the Sparrow when it was dedicated at their home,” recalls DeVries, also by phone, from western Massachusetts. (Blaske is no slouch at poetry–Mary says that he’s been published in the New Yorker, under a pseudonym).
Their connection to DeVries “began as a curiosity of a friend, Catherine Carignan,” says Tom. The retired U-M music prof grew up near where the artist lives and works, and “about twenty years ago, she saw a sign as she was wandering a back road through Lenox.” It was DeVries’ studio, “where he casts and finishes his own works, high in the Berkshire foothills.”
Born and raised on a dairy farm in upstate New York, DeVries dropped out of school when he was fifteen “because the school he went to wouldn’t let sophomores use the art supplies,” says his wife, Patricia Purdy. “They were reserved for seniors.” So DeVries worked on his dad’s farm until he was twenty, then “loaded all his art supplies in a truck and took off. He traveled the country, going to art museums and galleries, and ended up one night in Denver, at a Pizza Hut. His waitress was a ballerina who said, ‘Oh, you need to meet my mother, who owns Ballet Denver.'”
Her mother “allowed him to draw dancers in her ballet studio for about two years,” Purdy says. Then, one night, she “put clay in his hands and said, ‘you really should try clay.’ And he said it was like angels came out of the sky, and he knew he’d be a sculptor the rest of his life.”
“When I was very young, coming from a dairy farm, I only saw dance on public television,” DeVries says. He responded to its “extreme beauty.” So did the Blaskes when, at Carignan’s urging, they went to Massachusetts to see his work. Since then, they have purchased several smaller sculptures of his that they display inside their home, and “Sparrow” and “This Man Who Flies” for their sculpture garden. Tom calls the latter his “daily dose of adrenaline,” inspiring him as he goes to work each day to “do battle in the battlefield of lawsuits.”
“What we love about Andrew’s sculpture,” Tom says, “is that it makes us try to imagine what the very next moment will be … about the very next thing that the bronze will do if all the rules … were somehow suspended for a moment.”
DeVries says that in his nearly forty-year career only seven or eight clients “have believed enough in the artwork, and what it says, to commission a piece. It’s a big jump” financially. In 2013, the Blaskes took that jump, commissioning DeVries to create the giant version of his sculpture “Other Side of Eden.”
“It’s the fifteen-foot version cast in eighty-six parts,” says Purdy. “And it’s been a lifelong dream of Andrew’s to do this piece.”
“It’s that thing about destiny,” DeVries says. “Certain people in your life show up. They’re there for a reason.
“I could never have done this piece on my own. The first [version of the sculpture] was only twenty inches. You have to remember I was only twenty-two years old when I first started casting bronze. I was basically trading labor for my rent–I didn’t have formal training.”
The vision first came to him “back in 1979 when I was drawing a dancer in the ballet studio. A dancer hit a wall, but [he imagined that] I saw him go through a wall. And I saw that sculpture, and I’ve always seen it that size … it’s always been in my mind, someday, that this piece would be that large.”
He spent more than three years casting the parts. He had just moved them to his main studio for assembly last November when his foundry burned down.
The piece “basically has two personalities,” says DeVries. “For me–and I don’t know about Tom and Mary–we all have these walls that we try to push through … My wall right now is rebuilding my casting studio.”
While that was one kind of wall, “often these walls are mental,” says DeVries. “They’re your belief system. They’re things that are challenging you to grow.”
Tom sees that. “On the entering side of the wall, the dancer’s face is turning sideways. So you see half of it, and the entry face is anguish and troubled and worried, and the exiting side is joy and triumph and happiness … It’s about having the courage and optimism to jump through the walls that confront us.”
Ultimately, “we hope this installation will be a permanent part of Ann Arbor or the university,” Tom says. “But for a while at least, we get to enjoy it in our garden right by our house.”