GFWC WOMAN'S CLUB OF FAIRMONT, WV

ANDREW C. LYONS
architect

RAYMOND STOKER
artist & photographer

THE ART & ARCHITECTURE
PROJECT


Raymond Stoker
Artist and Photographer

By M. Raymond Alvarez, DHA, MPA
Though probably not recognized during his life, Stoker is among the West Virginia artists detailed in John Cuthbert’s Early Art and Artists in West Virginia, published by West Virginia University Press in 2000. Dr. Cuthbert is Head of Special Collections and Curator of the West Virginia and Regional History Collection and Director of the West Virginia University Art Collection. Preserving Stoker’s art in an archive is an important recognition of his contributions to the state’s art and culture. Many of Stoker’s paintings, especially portraits of prominent Fairmont residents that were formerly displayed for years in the Marion County Public Library, are now housed in this collection including landscapes entitled “Seneca Rocks,” and “Valley Falls.”

The Grace Lutheran Church today still maintains an appreciation of the past, including prominant religious art. The murals by Gertrud DuBrau Kogler and the finishing work of Ray Stoker are unique and one of a kind. Churches, schools and public organizations realize the need to act as stewards in the care of treasured collections. The Marion County Public Library still has one Stoke painting on display. Preservation efforts honor the artist's contributions to our history, reflecting not only a particular period in time, but saving that heritage for future generations.

Stoker Photographs Slide Show

Ena Caldera 1925, Evelyn Durkin 1926, Evelyn Villers 1942, Evelyn Villers 1945, Gwen Stoker 1922, Jimmie Jo Ryan 1950s, Martha W. Lawn 1921, Mary Bryant 1930s, Mickey Caruso 1926, Tidwell Boys 1930s, Mrs. Amos.

email: info@FairmontWomansClub.org or nbicky@comcast.net
web design by Mountain Mama Studio • ©2013 Woman's Club of Fairmont, WV

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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