From 1924 until the late 1950s, John P. Klassen was the sole embodiment of the art department at Mennonite-affiliated Bluffton College-today Bluffton University. He was the origin of the legacy of visual arts at Bluffton.
John Klassen was born April 8, 1888 in Kronsgarten on the northern borders of the Chortitza colony of Mennonite settlements in the Ukraine. He died in Bluffton, Ohio, on August 6, 1975. When he was about one year of age, his parents and some other young couples and families made a move to some new lands just west of the Dnieper River to establish two new Mennonite settlements, Miloradowka and Yekaterinowka. It was there that he grew up with his three brothers and one sister. The Ukranian Mennonites periodically made such expansion moves as the land in older colonies became filled and new land became available. These "daughter colonies" relieved the pressure on the "mother colonies" and continued the gradual expansion of the Mennonite presence in Russia. Even as they moved, however, the Mennonites always maintained their culture which included the use of Plautdietsch, their Low German language.
Klassen’s father was a successful farmer on a large acreage on the Russian steppes(1) and was also the minister of their small community. So John Klassen grew up living the farm life of that time and place, far removed from the centers of culture and education. He was entering his teen-age years in this setting at the same time that in North America, a world away, a small college was being founded in Bluffton, Ohio.(2) To bring these two together would necessitate a long series of diverse and sometimes monumental events.
The children of these remote Mennonite villages were obliged to obtain their secondary education in schools back in the colony’s principal city. Thus, when a young John Klassen was ready for high school, he was sent to Chortitza, about ninety miles away, to be boarded in a private home and attend the boys’ school, the Zentralschule. There was a similar school for girls, the Mädschenschule just next door. After high school some of the most gifted scholars were sent to universities in Moscow or St. Petersberg or to western Europe for advanced training. Klassen was one of these. He had originally wanted to go to an art school in Moscow, but just as he was graduating, Russia was experiencing its first revolution (1905), and his parents did not feel it safe to send their young son into that environment. So, instead, he enrolled temporarily in a commercial business school in nearby Ekaterinoslaw. He studied there for half a year. It was apparently there that he met Abram Enns, a Mennonite student from the Molochna area. They became close friends. John then prevailed on his parents to allow him to study in Switzerland. His parents were able to agree to this because John’s uncle, Peter Dyck, his mother’s brother, was already in Basel studying theology. So early in 1906, when he was not yet eighteen years old, he boarded a train for the long trip to Basel, Switzerland.(3) He left home with the high expectations of his parents and the community that he would spend four or five years in the study of theology and related subjects and then return to become a minister to his people. For John, though, art school was not yet completely eliminated from his mind. He and his friend Abram Enns apparently had shared plans about studying in Switzerland. Enns was not immediately able to join him on the trip, but did so soon afterward. When not in the same school, these two scholars kept up a close correspondence. Actually, Klassen’s first year of study was in Bischofzell near St. Gallen, and following that, in Basel.
Those early years in Switerland were obviously heady times for John Klassen. He was away from home for the first time at an early age, seeing lands that he had only dreamed about before, lands that were very different from his Russian homeland. He was learning at a very rapid pace. At one time he said that he was studying four languages at the same time - Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and English. He also launched into studies of philosophy, logic, and religion. And all the while he was also engaged in sorting out his own interests and the direction his professional life should take.
The world was also changing around him. Russia had had its first brush with revolution in 1905, and the father of revolution in Russia, Vladimir Lenin, banned from Russia, also took up residence in Switzerland. There he bided his time and worked on his theories. Lenin also courted the support of Russian nationals wherever he could find them. Klassen told how he and other Russian students would gather in the "Blue Café" where Lenin would hold forth with lectures and discussions of his ideology and his hopes for Russia. He added that they also encountered Lenin on the streets of Basel on occasion. Years later in Bluffton, Klassen made a little statuette of Lenin, seated, and busily writing on his manifestos.
Klassen eventually made his decision to leave theology and pursue his training in art. This later took him to studies in Munich and Berlin. As it turned out, Enns made a similar decision and turned to art history, languages, and philosophy. The two students, though, continued their correspondence. Enns somehow saved many of his letters from Klassen and miraculously they still exist. They came to light in 1987 when Harry Loewen, a Mennonite scholar from the University of Winnipeg, was interviewing Enns in Lübeck, Germany.(4) Enns had by then become a prominent art critic, historian, and poet in Lübeck(5) where he had settled after the First World War and lived the rest of his life.(6)
Enns apparently felt these letters were of interest historically and arranged to have them placed into the archives of the city of Lübeck. He offered Loewen copies of the letters, forty in number, and then Loewen provided copies to me. They are a treasure trove of Klassen’s thinking and intellectual development during his student years.
In 1910, during these student years and after he had made his decision to study art, Klassen’s father Peter Klassen had a serious accident with a horse on his farm in which he suffered a severe kidney injury. He had to go to Yalta in the Crimea to seek medical treatment. At that time Klassen returned home to be with his mother. In one of his letters to Enns he described in stark terms the hostility that his decision to leave theology and to study art had engendered in his home community:
I now stand alone in this world. I must be strong and courageous. At home I was received with tears. It is most difficult. My father is in Yalta all by himself and very sick. My art is a real devil for all my relatives. My mother tries to agree with me because of her deep love, but she too does not understand anything. Oh my friend, the people here are too pious to see the beautiful and the good in the world. I expect trouble upon trouble. My father will not understand me, that is impossible . . . it is frightful. Everything and all are against me. I feel as if they don’t wish that I continue to live. . . . My heart cries out toward them: Treat me as you will, but I will still love you! If only I were not so completely alone.(7)
The next month he went with his mother to Yalta on the shores of the Black Sea where his father was dying. There, during this painful time, he wrote a remarkable letter to Enns concerning his immense struggle to reconcile his decision to become an artist with the opposition that his parents’ pious beliefs generated. This poetic letter laid out a fantastic journey of the imagination which evoked some startling mental images, while also expressing his deep sensitivity and insight into spiritual ideals:
My parents are most pious people. One day my mother said to me with tears in her eyes: "Why is it that our father does not get well? I’m praying so much about it. Often I feel that I’m not being heard nor answered." I didn’t say a word. Yet everything was clear to me. "Poor little mother!" my heart cried out, "You can pray for a long time before someone up there will hear you."—I was beside myself. "This joke must end," I cried aloud, and rushed out toward the sea. It was very windy. The sea raged. Dark clouds covered the immense sky and hung down black and thick. I was driven by the storm. The waves were high and beat powerfully against the shore. In an instant I found myself in the midst of one of the tallest waves. With great force it drove me higher and higher. I stood firm on it, however, and did not even tremble. The top of my head touched the edge of a cloud. I was terribly agitated. Enraged I began to tear down the clouds and to throw them into the turbulent sea. Then with all my strength I broke through heaven itself and bellowed into it as loud as I could: God, where are you! I want to see you! There was no answer. . . . With giant steps I crossed the wide and eternal expanse up there to all sides, but I found no trace of God, nothing up there . . . no answer, only silence and quiet. . . . I fled back and came to the place I had broken through. I was startled — now I realized what I had done. My heart trembled, my hair stood on end, my eyes wanted to pop out of my head. In the depth there lay the clouds in disorderly heaps and around me there yawned the terrifying chasm— "Fool that I am! What have I done?!!!" I, who wanted to become an artist, had destroyed the greatest of all works of art. —For centuries and millennia humankind had worked laboriously and painfully on this beautiful work of fantasy until it was finally accomplished in all its splendor. They had placed a god and many angels into it. And now, impudent fool that I am, what have I done?!—All lies at my feet, destroyed and broken. . . . And I wanted to become an artist. Instead of devoting my imagination and talents to the glorification and further development of this great monument, I have discarded everything. What shall humankind now worship? You fool, do you think that you can give humankind what you in your impudence have taken away from it? A work of art before which men and women bowed down and worshiped day and night? Where will you direct the hopes of those who suffer, and where shall the blessed abide? I had no answer — only a desire and drive (Lust), a powerful drive to create, create, create filled my heart. I went back to my parents. But they were still praying. Then nothing was destroyed and lost after all? Can one, still today, pray and hope? Yes I said to myself, who- ever can, can certainly do so. But what shall I do, I who wish to be an artist and now know everything? "Build heaven again," a voice within me whispered. "I don’t need it or wish to know anything about it," I answered. "Then you are not an artist," the voice growled and fell silent. —There I am again. My friend, this was only a walk through other lands of thinking.(8)
Before he died in on May 28, 1910, Peter Klassen became reconciled to his son’s decision to become an artist. John Klassen then felt completely liberated, even though his community was still strongly against his decision. He wrote that "no relative missed an opportunity to tell me the truth . . . but ever since I devoted myself to art, I find myself on a height where nothing can touch me."(9) And in regard to his assessment of his people’s appreciation for artistic beauty he wrote: "Art is something so foreign to our dear people that all their knowledge in this regard is equal to zero."(10)
That may sound like a severe indictment of the people he grew up with, and a measure of bitterness. But such was not the case. He pitied their blindness to art but remained devoted to their goodness as a people. Eventually he became one of their leaders in the migration that brought thousands to safety in Canada. What these thoughts do clearly show is the great difficulty and resistance he encountered in forging a path new and strange to their culture.
At this point Klassen’s oldest brother Henry, who had taken over the family farm, provided him the financial support necessary to continue his studies. He was forever grateful to his brother for that help. He then completed his art studies in Berlin and Munich, just in time to be called back to Russia when the First World War broke out. Pacifists there were given an alternative service to perform and he served several years in the train-ambulance service. There he experienced immense tragedies which had a profound impact on his art. Then, to add yet more to the calamitous scene, Russia disintegrated into revolution and civil war. Those events were played out all across the Mennonite lands of the Ukraine with great loss of life. The end result was famine, disease, and vicious attacks by the likes of Nestor Makhno, one of the most murderous and feared anarchists of that time.(11) His marauding bands pillaged the Mennonite villages with a special fury. All this is also reflected in the art John Klassen produced from that time forward.(12)
The Joining of the Waters
The Russian Mennonite communities were left in shambles and the only solution seemed to be to seek migration to another country. Klassen was soon involved in this and worked hard to seek the permission needed to emigrate.(13) He said he made eight trips to Moscow toward that end. Permission was eventually secured and in 1923 the first of some 20,000 left to seek refuge in Canada. Klassen had married by this time - to Anna Dyck the youngest daughter of Aeltester Isaac Dyck, the Bishop of all the Chortitza churches.(14) They and their first son left Chortitza in a train of cattle cars, traveling only at night, on a two week trip to Latvia, then by ship to England, and finally on the ship The Empress of Scotland to Quebec, Canada. There they boarded another train which finally brought them to Rosthern, Saskatchewan. They were met there by Mennonites who had left Russia fifty years before.(15) The last piece of this long journey, then, was a move to Edmonton, Alberta, where the young family lived for the next year. In Edmonton, Klassen worked as a laborer in a brickyard and contemplated the possibility of working in a coal mine in the far north. It was not a promising future for the artist and his family, but better than a similar fate in Siberia which was dealt to many others in the next years
Meanwhile in Ohio, Bluffton College was seeking ways to consolidate its gains. As a Mennonite institution they were keenly aware of the events taking place in Russia. The formation of the Mennonite Central Committee, the relief arm of the church, was born as a response to the famine in Russia, and people and churches all across the country were involved. Samuel K. Mosiman, then president of Bluffton College, somehow heard about John Klassen, the highly trained artist working in a Canadian brickyard. Apparently he was also in need of an art instructor. The Bluffton University archives contain a hand-written note by Mosiman, asking his secretary to type a letter to John Davis, the United States Secretary of Labor, urging the admission of Klassen to the United States so that he could be employed to fill the art position.(16) Things apparently moved very quickly for within a month the family was in Bluffton. My speculation is that Mrs. Mosiman must also have had a hand in this. She was a very sophisticated and forceful woman, always interested in humanitarian causes and in people from foreign lands. She herself grew up in Marienberg, in West Prussia, home of the distant Klassen ancestors. Knowing her, I am sure that her interest in this development was quite intense, and she would undoubtedly have urged her husband to pursue the matter vigorously.
So now the unlikely scenarios had been played out, both in Russia and in Bluffton. A promising student arose from the steppes of Russia and was trained in the best traditions of the western European art schools. He remained steadfast in his desire to become an artist despite great opposition from his family and home community. He survived wars and famine and the destruction of his homeland. He helped organize a massive emigration, also against great odds, and began a new life far from where he was born and raised. And in Bluffton, a small college had found a way to survive those difficult early years. The art program was not yet a reality, but there was a willingness, and evidently a measure of desire by some key players to establish such a course of study, despite having no clear path towards the visual arts, and having a constituency not familiar with the arts.
Klassen did not disappoint his new colleagues. When he arrived, he knew very little English, but he was immediately immersed in classroom teaching, both in art and in German language instruction. Those early classes must have been quite adventurous, both for student and instructor! In addition to his class work, he was also engaged in producing art for its own sake. He was given a room in a garage building behind the college heating plant’s piles of coal that was made into an art studio that he shared with the college’s truck and mower. There he could work on some of his pieces that required an untidy environment. Otherwise he was quartered on the third floor of College Hall which became the art department for many years. And from these locales came a steady output of art in a broad range of media.(17)
The first major pieces he produced in the very early years were the marble busts of Noah Hirschy and Menno Simons that grace the lobby entrance of Musselman Library of Bluffton University. These beautiful sculptures immediately gave witness to his exquisite skill as a sculptor. It seems very fitting that his subjects were the first president of the college and the founder of the Mennonite church, both meaningful to the college, and both also filling a huge space in his own life story. Also, in the library are his bronze portraits of C.H. and Emma G. Musselman, donors of the building that was constructed in 1929. The next important addition to this emerging art legacy was a piece done by one of Klassen’s early students. This is the bronze sculpture Horse and Fallen Rider by Dietrich Rempel in the main library stairway.(18) Rempel, like his teacher, was also a Mennonite refugee from Russia. He had managed to escape, but his brother was killed in his attempt. This casting is a beautiful tribute to his brother and shows an amazing skill in sculpture for a young student. So began a legacy that increased over the thirty-five years of the Klassen tenure. He was prolific in his output, working on something virtually every day, and, despite its small size, Bluffton began to become recognized for its art.
I always felt that an unfortunate aspect of my father’s art was the relatively small scale of his work. I’m not sure how much of this was by choice and how much by circumstance. He had to spend a great deal of time with students, so his ability to spend time on large size works was limited. Perhaps the fact that he was so prolific was also a factor. Ideas kept flooding his mind so that by the time he had made one piece, several more were already pushing for their turn. Also, working alone had very limiting effects. I remember he once made a life-size polar bear for an ice cream company in Toledo. He said this required a truckload of mud from the nearby Riley Creek. That meant a lot of time-consuming, hard work. When he was teaching himself to cast his works in metal, he engaged the college maintenance man to help him melt bronze and aluminum in the heating plant furnaces. Doing things on a large scale required considerable time that he did not have. Even in Russia he had been frustrated in creating large scale works. He was once commissioned to do a large Kobzar statue commemorating the life of the great Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko.(19)
The Soviet government, however, for political reasons would not permit this expression of Ukrainian aspirations. This was to have been a five-times life size statue overlooking the Dnieper River. So he had to remain pretty much satisfied with smaller works, both in Russia and in Bluffton.
In Russia the waters of the Dnieper river have flowed down from the north forever. It has its origin somewhere west of Moscow, and by the time it reaches Kiev, capital of the present Ukraine, it is joined by several other rivers and is already very large. From there it takes a southeasterly direction until feeling the pull of the Black Sea it makes an abrupt turn to the south. In the old days, by the time it reached the former Mennonite lands, close by Chortitza island, it roared over a series of rocky rapids, but those are now tamed by a hydroelectric dam. The river also opens onto beautiful sandy beaches in places. The lore of this river was great in the Mennonite psyche. From there it flowed on to the Black Sea where all waters turn westward, breaking then through the Bosporous and the Dardanelles and eventually to the Mediterranean and on to the Atlantic ocean.
In America the waters take a different course to the same destination. In Bluffton the Little Riley creek flowing through the Bluffton campus can be bone-dry in the summer drought or rage furiously in stormy seasons. It runs north to find the Blanchard river, then the Auglaize and finally the Maumee to find entry into Lake Erie. There it is joined by the waters of the other Great Lakes moving eastward into the Niagara river where all is suddenly cascaded over Niagara Falls. Thence onward through the St. Lawrence river to join all the waters of the world in the Atlantic Ocean.
So now the man from the banks of the Dnieper had taken up residence on the banks of the Riley, a small place, but a place of new beginnings. He brought with him a life already tempered by the most extreme experiences. He had survived much and these experiences had formed his strong character. They also defined his work. To him art had to be meaningful. It had to reflect life in all its beauty and in all its travail. The spiritual element was important to him, although not demanding. Perhaps the echo of that youthful challenge he had made to himself to "build heaven again" if you would be an artist had become his guiding principal. The shallow and the trivial were not worthy of art in his mind. Humor, though, was often very evident. His powers of observation seemed endless. He was a very generous teacher and worked to develop even the most modest talents
John Klassen was very well liked by his students. He frequently made portraits of some of them, and they delighted in his stories. Though the number who still remember him personally is dwindling, they still recall him fondly and many treasure pieces of his art they acquired long ago. He continued to produce art beyond his eightieth year, including one of his finest pieces, The Good Samaritan, a stone carving that he donated to Bluffton College. It now resides on the third floor of Centennial Hall. Its abstract form leaves a powerful impression. Perhaps his most recognizable piece is the Seated Kobzar, now in Marbeck Center. This piece echoes the large commission that was to have been in Russia.
John Klassen and Abram Enns, the former fellow students and close friends, renewed their friendship again when they were both in their seventies. This occurred when Enns made a trip to Canada and the United States. On that occasion the artist and the art critic traveled together to see some museums in Washington, D.C., before Enns returned to Germany. Then, years later, after the letters had come to light, I also had the privilege of corresponding with Enns until his death at the amazing age of 105. I think both these men would have been pleased to see the developments that art has now made at Bluffton University. For John Klassen, the artistic forces that he developed in his student years in Europe that were refined in the crucible of wars and sufferings in Russia, then followed by years of devoted work in Bluffton, have now blossomed into a great legacy of visual art on the campus. In the late 1960s Klassen Court was developed to honor him and display a few of his pieces. In more recent times a Sculpture Garden was created around Centennial Hall where art by some of Bluffton’s notable art graduates is on display. In addition, the Peace Arts Center was established on campus to further both the arts and the peace tradition of the University. Additional art exists in other university buildings, including some beautiful water color paintings by Jaye Bumbaugh and Gregg Luginbuhl’s outstanding Creation Series of ceramic plates in Yoder Recital Hall. There is also a welcoming sculpture, Constellation Earth, in Snyder Circle by noted sculptor Paul Grandlund. Capping all was the building of Sauder Visual Arts Center, giving Bluffton, after all these years, a new and ample home for the art department, complete with a gallery where exhibitions of student and visiting artists can be held. There is also outdoor space for art given by some of Bluffton’s art patrons. The visual arts at Bluffton have flourished. The legacy of John P. Klassen lives on and surely much should be anticipated in the future.
Addendum: John P. Klassen Connections at Bethel College
Previous articles on John P. Klassen in Mennonite Life:
- photo of painting "Plowing the Steppes" in January 1946 issue
- photo of plaque "Weeping Mothers and Children" and painting "Mother and Child" in July 1946 issue
- Betty Miller, "J. P. Klassen as an Artist" (October 1962)
- Larry Kehler, "John P. Klassen—Artist and Teacher" (October 1969)
- "Sketches from a Chortitza Boyhood: A Selection of Drawings by John P. Klassen" (December 1973)
- Larry Kehler, "The Artistic Pilgrimage of John P. Klassen" (December 1973)