Operation Mercy and an Academy of Art Sculptor

In January 1957, members of the Academy of Art’s Student Council came across an article in Newsweek magazine about the plight of Hungarian refugees to the United States following the 1956 Hungarian revolt against Soviet domination. Moved by the story of the artist featured in the article, the students decided to act and conceived and executed a plan to finance a semester of study at the Academy for one of the artist refugees. During the weekend of January 19-20th, Academy students held a sale of their own artwork, and supplemented by their own meager cash funds, raised $2,600 for a fund administered entirely by the Student Council. The Academy of Art added enough funds to present an artist with a scholarship for one year of study.

Members of the student council wrote to various organizations including the American Hungarian Federation and the Central Department of Church World Service in order to identify an artist who might qualify for the scholarship. Under the provisions of the 1953 Refugee Relief Act, from November 1956-June 1957, the U.S. government processed over 31,000 refugees at Camp Kilmer in New Jersey through a program called “Operation Mercy.” Most refugees stayed an average of twelve days before a resettlement location was found for them.

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Detroit News, 18 May 1958, Courtesy Cranbrook Archives

The artist sent to Cranbrook was Laszlo Ispanky (1919-2010), a 38-year old sculptor whose interest in art started at a young age. His father owned a restaurant in Budapest near a large sand mine, which soon became Ispanky’s canvas. His sand art was recognized by a man who suggested that he become a sculptor, so Ispanky eventually graduated from the Hungarian Fine Art Academy. In November 1956, during the Hungarian revolt, Ispanky and a friend escaped to Vienna where they sought asylum in the United States.

 

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“Two Sisters,” Laszlo Ispanky, c. 1958, bronze, 17 1/2 x 9 x 6 inches, CAM 1984.45, Gift of Peggy de Salle. Image courtesy Cranbrook Art Museum.

Ispanky had been unable to work creatively under Communist rule. He once commented “In a Communist country, you have to be a Communist to be supported as an artist.” Described as a “romantic European,” Ispanky was grateful for the total freedom he was allowed at Cranbrook – “the most fantastic thing . . . a huge studio, and you do whatever you want.” While at Cranbrook, Ispanky sculpted over 32 works in terra cotta, bronze and plaster and was given the nickname “Speedy Gonzalez” by his fellow students.

 

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Correspondence from Ispanky to Cranbrook Academy of Art, 1957. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

While he did not receive a degree at Cranbrook, Ispanky was eternally grateful for the chance to study here. In his letter, he expresses his heartfelt sentiments and poetic nature. “My thanks to you for reaching out to me with something that is inherent in the sacred name of freedom and for lending me hope. It feels good! I have waited with anxiety to hold the clay with which to give birth to the flowers blooming in my heart – to the hidden music which lives within me; to turn the material into form and into a million statements.”

After Cranbrook, Ispanky moved to New Jersey where he lived his life as a successful sculptor, specializing in the portraiture that he developed while at Cranbrook.

– Leslie S. Edwards, Head Archivist

3 thoughts on “Operation Mercy and an Academy of Art Sculptor

  1. A war refugee comes to the USA, is welcomed, and sticks around to share their art with the rest of the world? Now, there’s an interesting concept. Another great story of midwestern humanitarianism. I love Laszlo’s work. Leslie, thanks so much for another worthwhile Friday afternoon read!

    Like

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