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Walker, Nellie Verne
(December 8, 1874–July 10, 1973)

–sculptor—was born in Red Oak, Iowa. While still an infant she moved with her parents, Rebecca Jane (Lindsey) Walker and Everett Ami Walker, to the town of Moulton, Iowa. As a young child, she learned the art of stone carving from her father, who carved tombstones for a living. At age 17, Walker used her father's tools to carve a bust of Abraham Lincoln out of a block of Bedford limestone. The next year she exhibited her sculpture in the Iowa Building of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

    Working as a secretary for an Ottumwa lawyer, Walker saved enough money to move to Chicago in 1900 to study with one of the great sculptors of the time, Lorado Taft. Taft, who had studied in Paris at the École des Beaux-Arts, was a leading proponent of that school's neoclassical style of sculpture in America and taught at the Chicago Art Institute. Over the next few decades, Walker worked closely with Taft both at the Art Institute and at his Midway Studios, creating many works of art that followed the Beaux-Arts tradition.

    In 1903 Walker returned to Iowa to carve a bust of Governor Albert Baird Cummins in a temporary studio space in the state capitol in Des Moines. Although Walker and the carving survived a fire that broke out in the Iowa House chamber in January 1904, the state declined to purchase the bust after its completion. In 1907 Walker received a commission to create a sculpture of another Iowa politician, Senator James Harlan. The life-size bronze portrait was installed in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

    Walker completed what is probably her best-known work in her home state in 1913. That year, the Daughters of the American Revolution dedicated a bronze statue of the Sauk chief Keokuk in the Iowa city that bears his name. Standing on an 18-foot-high base, the larger-than-life figure of Keokuk is depicted in a western plains-style war bonnet. He holds a sacred pipe and a robe and resolutely gazes over the Mississippi River valley on to land once inhabited by his people.

    Walker's other Iowa commissions included a plaster bust of Cornell College president William F. King in 1920. She also created two bas-relief panels for the original library building on the Iowa State College campus in 1924 and a suffrage memorial panel in the state capitol in Des Moines 10 years later.

    Walker also completed several out-of-state commissions, including a Polish-American War memorial in Chicago in 1927 and a Lincoln memorial in Vincennes, Indiana, in 1934. She created cemetery monuments in Grand Rapids and Battle Creek, Michigan; Colorado Springs, Colorado; and Chicago.

    During her decades in Chicago, Walker was active in the city's artistic and literary circles. She was elected to the exclusive literary club, the "Little Room," and helped organize the Cordon Club for artists, writers, and musicians. In 1911 she was elected to membership in the National Sculpture Society.

    As modernism replaced the Beaux-Arts style in the 1920s and 1930s, Walker found herself out of sync with the prevailing artistic trends of the time. The number of her commissions declined, until failing eyesight finally forced her to retire in 1948. Nellie Verne Walker died in Colorado Springs, Colorado, at the age of 98. She was buried in Moulton, with her parents.
Sources Files containing Nellie Verne Walker's correspondence and papers are located at the State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines; the Newberry Library, Chicago; and the Archives of American Art, Washington, D.C. See also Louise Noun, "Making Her Mark: Nellie Verne Walker, Sculptor," Palimpsest 64 (1987), 160–73; and Inez Hunt, The Lady Who Lived on Ladders (1970).
Contributor: Greg Olson