artist & photographer



Notes on this project: This project began when Jan Woodward Heffner gave me many boxes of photos, newspaper clippings, postcards and historical documents that had been collected over time by her husband, Bob, who passed away in October 2011. Bob had worked as graphic artist and designer at Fairmont State for over 36 years. As he said, “People always give me stuff and I keep it.” Bob, Jan and I had been friends since our freshman year in high school at Fairmont Senior (1965), so Jan thought I might like to have them to „do something with‟ as Bob had been involved with my sundry projects on Fairmont from the early 20th century. Among the items was the 1908 Fairmont Industrial Guide, which piqued my interest on the works of Andrew C. Lyons. Bob also had notes and photos on his work with Debra Ball McMillan on her research of local buildings for the book published when she was on the faculty of the College. When Bob helped his mother on projects related to the 100th year celebration of the Grace Lutheran Church, he created a file about the mural with photos and notes about the children who appeared as models. I was able to tie in the Stoker connection and take it from there. Over the years, Bob had amassed quite a collection of portraits by Fairmont photographers dating from the mid-1800s. I sorted the materials and gave most of the photographs to the West Virginia Regional Collection at the WVU Library. I began discussions with Dr. John Cuthbert, curator, and read his book on WV artists, where I was happy to find the Stoker references. Jim Blackwood of Blackwood Architects shared information on the cataloging of the Lyons work housed there. Bob‟s collection of old Fairmont Normal photographs led to the discovery of Principal J. Walter Barnes‟ alteration of the Fairmont Avenue building by Lyons to house the bell tower as well as the addition. I kept coming back to Lyons and Stoker. Students in my Spring 2013 Public Administration grant management course wrote the grant for the Woman‟s Club to carry out this project with enthusiastic support of their president, Nancy Bickerstaff. Nancy, who not only is passionate about preservation efforts in our town, admits to roller skating around the cement sidewalks of the Jacobs mansions as a child and that she could be often found gazing wistfully at the lovely photos in Ray Stoker‟s studio window just up the street from where she lived. Finally, thanks to my wife Barbara for allowing me to stack boxes and papers in one of the bedrooms so I could work on my many “historical Fairmont” projects for the past year. Dr. Raymond Alvarez

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The Grace Lutheran Church Mural & William Pflock, Stoker's later Years

“There is Always Something Left to Achieve”—Ray Stoker and the Unfinished Mural at Grace Lutheran Church

The Grace Lutheran Church in Fairmont’s Southside appears today much as it did in 1910 when it opened its doors for parishioners on Gaston Avenue. The interior remains as it did initially due to preservation efforts over the years. The church is known for beautiful pews and woodwork, a grand pipe organ, and an original, hand painted mural that graces the curving chancel wall behind the pulpit. In 1921, Gertrud DuBrau Kogler, a Cumberland, Maryland artist, recreated “The Good Shepherd,” a masterpiece by German artist Bernard Plockhorst for this mural. DuBrau, recognized as one of the country's premier muralists, was prolific; however, her remaining murals from the 1920s and 30s are exceedingly rare.

An educational wing for the church was planned and constructed in 1961. During this expansion, the idea to continue use of religious art in the building brought about another mural project probably can be credited to Julia Morrison Heffner of Fairmont and other women of the church. Parishioner William Hans Pflock of Monongah began to sketch and design a large painting that he called 'Suffer Little Children to Come Unto Me.’ With other women of the church, Mrs. Heffner volunteered her two young sons, Robert and Richard, to be among the models for the mural. Pflock, a Monongah parishioner who worked as a clerk for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, enjoyed painting as his pastime and hobby. He proposed a design that included Jesus as the center figure, ministering to little children. However, the children were not dressed in typical garb of early Christianity but would appear in modern clothing of the early 1960s.

The original setting for the background was to be the WPA-built river stone fountain that used to stand in the lot behind the church. As for selecting the actual models, most were just the youth of the church at the time, culled from the Sunday School Classes. The children posed as a group and photographed by Richard Nigh, another parishioner and local photographer who used a 4 x 5 inch press camera and tripod to capture group poses for Pflock's reference.

Unfortunately, Pflock died unexpectedly on October 15, 1962 before completing the two panels that would have been mounted on the wall of the stairway of the addition. Rather than letting it stall out after many months of prior planning and work, and perhaps at the suggestion of Mrs. Pflock, Ray Stoker, a former Fairmont resident, was contacted about the unfinished project that he eventually completed in what he would call “a labor of love” for his late friend and protégé, Pflock. Since Stoker had left Fairmont in the late 1950s, the delay stretched out the timing for completion to another year, confounding most of the children’s memory of the project today.

Ray Stoker was not just a friend of Pflocks, but a talented, well-respected artist/photographer. Born in 1895 near Philadelphia, Stoker embarked upon the study of art and photography after military service during World War I. Born in July, 1895, Stoker and his wife Gwineviere Utteridge, who was a member of a British family of vaudeville performers, moved to Fairmont in the 1920s where he became a leading artistic figure, painter and portrait photographer for over 30 years before retiring in 1957. He exhibited a work titled “The Painter’s Family” at the National Academy of Design in 1931. He also exhibited with the Allied Artists of West Virginia in Charleston as well as Ohio Valley Artists at Ohio University in Athens.

Stoker began teaching art classes and oil painting when he opened his studio on Adams Street and Willie Pflock was one of students in 1926. As his studio grew, he moved it to 311 Cleveland Avenue in the Professional Building, and to a final location at 321 Fairmont Avenue by the 1940s until he closed his business. Stoker had an interesting way to note his name: on photography, he used 'Ray Stoker.' For his paintings, he printed 'Raymond Stoker.'

Stoker soon became an established regional photographer. He was selected to be the 'official' photographer for Fairmont Senior High when the new building was opened on Loop Park in 1930. His photographs had a different quality to them, with use of soft lighting and dramatic poses. This was unusual from the typical photography of the period. Stoker and his wife were active in many local cultural activities, such as theatre groups. Many of his photos of Gwen feature her in costume. He also photographed her show business friends when they visited in Fairmont.

By the 1940s, Stoker began using color photography. Traditionally, photographers used colored oils to make a photograph appear with tinted features. In 1942, Kodak introduced Kodacolor film designed to be processed into a negative image which showed complementary colors. However, the expense of color film as compared to black-and-white and the difficulty of using it with indoor lighting combined to delay its widespread adoption by professional photographers. Stoker experimented with this a year later and continued to use it in many sessions.

After 30 years of operating his studios, Stoker and his wife decided to close the business and retire. They wanted to travel abroad. When he closed his studios, he donated many of his paintings and a book of photographs to the Marion County Library. Over the years, he had selected various community residents to pose for oil painting; many of these works of art were either sold to the subject or given away. It would be hard to estimate the number of photographs or paintings he had made for three decades in Fairmont… myriad graduation photos, wedding portraits and more. As he and Gwen departed the town, probably neither expected to return.

A 1963 article published in “The West Virginian,” (Fairmont’s afternoon newspaper) featured Stoker’s return to Fairmont for the Grace Lutheran project and included his reflections about Pflock, who was only 51 at the time of his death:

“Willie was shy and bashful teenager. He stood against the wall and waited to be spoken to. I immediately recognized that the boy had talent just from the way he went about his work.” Pflock studied with Stoker for a period of time and they actually collaborated on a few landscapes. Stoker recalled that Pflock, like Stoker, branched out into photography and won several awards for his candid portraits. Stoker commented that Pflock’s natural instinct for art came to hand when he took up photography as his paintings were subjects that were most familiar to him: Marion County mining towns, people he loved, etc. Stoker characterized Pflock’s style as impressionistic.

Stoker also told the reporter that “it is possible he (Pflock) achieved great personal satisfaction from his paintings, but he was so talented, it is a shame he didn’t live to achieve real greatness. However, I guess that none of us ever really finish what we set out to do—there is always something left to achieve.” Stoker and his wife had been living abroad for three years prior to this interview. When viewing the unfinished work, Stoker decided to add some new dimensions to the painting as well. He completed the faces of Jesus as well as three boys on the top left row. However, he changed one figure to a black girl who stands to the immediate left of Jesus. He also added a girl in Asian garb on the right side of the painting, beside the figure of Robert Heffner. He included a black boy, seated beside Richard but only seen from the backside. Church members did not object to this inclusion around the time the country was embroiled over civil rights.

The original idea for a fountain in the background was changed to a scene showing the Monongahela River along with mountains and trees typical of West Virginia versus the Holy Land. Stoker added his name and Pflock’s to the finished portrait. He noted ‘1963’ after his name and ‘1962’ after Pflock’s. However, when the mural was mounted on the wall, part of Pflock’s name is covered up by the frame, so Stoker’s name is more prominent today..

Since Stoker changed some characteristics of the children who were originally in the Nigh photograph Pflock used, some are not easily recognized. To this day, the question of who is in the portrait has remained an area of interest; however, the church’s support of art as an important part of the building’s environment continues strongly as a theme.

(Upon completing the mural, Stoker and his wife retired in Philadelphia where he died in December, 1975 at the age of 80)

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