PEORIA – Because artist Nita Sunderland didn’t allow the world to tell her that a woman couldn’t create large-scale sculptures from metal and stone, she has left behind a broad body of work that will be enjoyed for years to come.
Sunderland, 92, died July 17 at Generations at Riverview in East Peoria after a series of strokes.
Sunderland was an art professor at Bradley University from 1956 to 1988, and a prolific artist whose work was widely collected. Perhaps best-known for "Cedric the Dragon" outside of the Peoria Civic Center, Sunderland also has numerous sculptures on the BU campus. The Peoria Riverfront Museum is home to a large collection of her artwork, including "Recumbent Knight" and "Ruins I," which occupy prominent positions outside the museum.
"Nita is probably the most recognized sculptor from our area, particularly from that amazing period of time, mid-century work from 1960 to 1990 or so. Her contribution to the region, state, the country is really vast," said Bill Conger, curator of collections and exhibitions at the museum. "Her style was really so recognizable, and unduplicated. Our region should be proud to have artworks like ‘Cedric the Dragon.’ The city of Peoria should be proud of her contribution."
The Peoria Riverfront Museum is home to about 33 of Sunderland’s finished pieces, along with some sketches and preliminary works, said Conger.
Former museum curator Kristan McKinsey was in charge when many of those works were donated.
"A lot of people were collecting her work in the 50s and 60s, and into the 70s. So it was around 10 years ago that people were dying off and downsizing, and they were looking for a home to donate these artworks, and they started contacting Lakeview, and then the Riverfront Museum," said McKinsey. "So I was really lucky to be there at the time that this was happening, so I could start to build the collection. And of course then Nita gave us the big gift in 2016."
Sunderland helped fill in the blanks when she donated her personal collection at the end of 2016, helping McKinsey fulfill her intention of creating an encyclopedic collection of Sunderland’s work.
"The Riverfront Museum is the logical place to have an archival collection of her work," she said.
Born in Newton, Ill., Sunderland spent most of her life in the Peoria area. She built her home on five wooded acres just north of East Peoria in the 1960s and created many of her large-scale pieces in the adjoining studio, which was outfitted with lifts to help her move heavy objects. Though she stopped making artwork and opened a monument restoration business later in her career, Sunderland was strong and active well into her 80s.
Washington-based sculptor Marlene Miller, a former student who became good friends with Sunderland in later years, still remembers the first time she saw Sunderland.
"I met Nita, I think it was 1972, when I was a freshman at Bradley. She was walking down the hallway in my direction, and it was like she was this petite woman emanating this power – she just seemed so powerful to me," said Miller. "The fact that this tiny woman did these enormous projects, I think that influenced me. I wanted to do that – I wanted to be as confident and daring as Nita."
Even though the image of Rosie the Riveter was glorifying a women’s ability to do a man’s job when Sunderland was in high school in the 1940s, she still had to get special permission to take shop class.
"Most of the girls couldn’t do that stuff, and I could do it all," said Sunderland during a 2012 interview. "As a matter of fact, I sometimes stayed after class to help the guys."
As a child growing up in southern Illinois, Sunderland was always building stuff. While her parents were at work in their feed store, she entertained herself by making things with the wood blocks left over from the family’s hatchery business.
Though Sunderland studied art in her undergraduate years, she didn’t decide to embark on a career in sculpture – the most male-dominated discipline in visual art – until she was working on her master’s in art at Bradley University. In the 1950s, she took a sabbatical from teaching to learn stone carving in Florence, Italy, where she worked with three elderly men who made large, classical statues from marble.
Because Sunderland was very knowledgeable about her craft, she insisted that things always be done right. While the tendency compelled her to create flawless work, it sometimes got her into trouble.
"She was very exacting and she didn’t suffer fools lightly – you know, people that really didn’t know what they were doing," said fellow artist and art educator Beth Linn. "Some people thought that was wonderful, and they were very happy to have her teach them and show them how to do things the right way. Then there were some people that were just, you know, dilettantes. That’s when they got into trouble with her because she couldn’t stand people to ruin the craft."
Sunderland’s exacting standards were at the center of a dispute she had with the management of Springdale Cemetery when she was heading an effort to fix crumbling headstones and rebuild monuments in the historic cemetery. Differences of opinion led to a very public feud and ultimately the end of Sunderland’s participation in the long-term project.
"That just really, really, really hurt her. She did a beautiful job of restoring the work there and it was all volunteer work," said Linn.
Over the years, Sunderland repaired many priceless monuments in the area, including Loredo Taft’s "The Pioneers" in Elmwood and the Soldiers and Sailors Civil War Memorial in the Peoria Courthouse Plaza.
Sunderland had many true friends who enjoyed her forthright, passionate spirit. St. Louis resident Kathy Kotteman Wire, who grew up in Peoria, remembers listening to many vibrant debates between Sunderland and her father, George Kottemann, an avid collector of Sunderland’s work. Kotteman also relied on Sunderland’s expertise when making purchases from other artists and with help installing numerous outdoor sculptures.
"She was always around for our New Year’s Eve parties," said Wire.
Miller remembers a friendship that grew out of her early experiences as Sunderland’s student to become an equal partnership of colleagues.
"If you needed her, she was there," said Miller."
Linn recalls 40 years of friendship that began in 1980 when she became the second female art instructor in the history of Bradley University – Sunderland was the first.
"She was appointed my mentor when I came. We became really, really good friends," said Linn.
Though the COVID-19 quarantine kept Linn from visiting Sunderland’s nursing home earlier this year, the rules were relaxed when the end became imminent and Linn was at Sunderland’s side as much as possible.
"She was a wonderful friend. She was a very strong, unique, wonderful person"
Leslie Renken can be reached at 270-8503 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.