Marshall Fredericks: A Monumental Talent

by Nancy Sajdak Manning

Sculptor Marshall Fredericks was one of the most prolific and celebrated artists to shape the state's culture. He created scores of commissions including fountains, memorials, freestanding sculptures, reliefs, commemorative medals, and portraits. His monumental sculptures, influenced by mentor Carl Milles, include The Spirit of Detroit in downtown Detroit and Christ on the Cross at Indian River. They are among the largest of their kind in the world and continue to inspire countless viewers-just as he'd hoped they would.

Marshall Maynard Fredericks, the youngest of four children of Frank and Frances Bragg Fredericks, was born on January 31, 1908 in the mostly Scandinavian community of Rock Island, Illinois. His paternal grandparents, Matt Frederiksen and Anna Christensen, had emigrated there from Norway and Denmark in the 1860s.

Fredericks began sculpting early in life. As he described it, "When I was a little kid, very little, I did quite a lot of things in soap and softwood and tar and natural clay that we dug up, but it was all more or less for fun and inspired greatly by my family who were quite artistic."

When Fredericks was young, his father's employment required the family to move to Florida and then to Cleveland. In Ohio, Fredericks attended grade school and high school, then took art classes at John Huntington Polytechnic Institute, which sparked his interest in the field.

Fredericks used scholarships and earnings from construction jobs to pursue professional studies at the Cleveland School of Art, from which he graduated in 1930. There, he took classes "in everything from anatomy to lettering to perspective to colorimetry, painting, drawing, oil painting, water color, ceramics-all of it, everything you can imagine."

European Study

His hard work at art school paid off when Fredericks was rewarded with a fellowship that enabled him to travel and study extensively in Europe. Since the fellowship had no travel restrictions, he made his way to Sweden to seek out internationally famed sculptor Carl Milles, whose work he had admired for years.

When Fredericks first met the sculptor in his Millesgården studio near Stockholm, he was awestruck. He said, "And there was Carl up on a big scaffold, and he was working on the clay model for the central figure of Poseidon for the big Poseidon fountain in Gothenburg. It was like being struck by lightning, I suppose, because I couldn't even speak as I was so overwhelmed with the vision of this famous man up there and this gigantic figure. Maybe that's why I always like[d] to do big things."

Milles gave Fredericks work with his granite and marble stone carvers until winter approached and then suggested the young man go to Munich to study more about the mechanical end of sculpting. As Fredericks' son Carl noted, "Milles and his wife Olga sort of adopted my father and arranged a [sculpture-related] grand tour for him."

For about a year following, Fredericks visited Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and North Africa. He met, studied, and worked with professional sculptors and was introduced to varying aspects of the art. Of the experience, Fredericks said, "[Milles] gave me a feeling of what professionalism was all about and that's what I should try to be-a professional."

Milles as Mentor

Milles, who notably assisted in Auguste Rodin's Paris studio, was known for his traditional approaches to sculpture and sculpting materials, his elongated and heroic-scale figures, and his exceptional fountain group sculptures.

When Fredericks met the artist, Milles had just completed 11 years as a professor at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm. He was busy preparing to come to America to exhibit, secure commissions, and become the resident sculptor and director of the sculpture department at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

When Milles arrived in late 1931, Cranbrook-the arts and education community established by newspaper publisher George Booth and his wife Ellen Scripps Booth-was still developing. A few months later, the artist invited Fredericks, then teaching part-time at the Cleveland School of Art, to assist him in Michigan. Additionally, Fredericks soon began teaching at the Cranbrook schools and art academy, taking time to work on his own sculptures when possible. He created smaller pieces and then outdoor sculptures there, including the whimsical granite ape The Thinker (1938) for the front steps of the Cranbrook Art Museum.

In 1936, Fredericks received his first big break when he won a national design competition to create the Levi L. Barbour Memorial Fountain at Belle Isle, a Detroit city park.

His design for the fountain featured a circular screen of waterfall jets and a tall bronze leaping gazelle surrounded by smaller granite creatures native to the park-a rabbit, hawk, grouse, and otter. Fredericks chose the gazelle as the central element because, to him, it signified a "sort of perfection of the four-leggeds.and seemed to set itself up as a natural in that marvelous natural environment which Belle Isle was at that time."

Other prominent commissions soon followed, including a fountain for the Glass Industries Building at the 1939 New York World's Fair.

War Intrudes

When America entered World War II, Fredericks left Cranbrook to enlist. "All of my family had been in the military for other wars. .I felt very loyal, very patriotic," he explained. Employed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as a training officer, he met and married a reconnaissance driver from Grosse Pointe named Rosalind Cooke. He later transferred to the 8th Army Air Corps and served in intelligence in India and the Far East. Prior to discharge, he was awarded the rank of lieutenant colonel.

The Fredericks, who later settled in Birmingham, raised five children: twin sons Christopher and Carl (named for Carl Milles), and daughters Frances, Rosalind, and Suzanne.

Returning to Michigan in 1945, Fredericks established a sculpting studio in Royal Oak. In 1950, he added working spaces in New York City and at various locations in Norway to accommodate the monumental bronze castings required to complete such projects as a war memorial for the city of Cleveland. In 1960, he also opened the "Greenhouse" and the "Stable": extensions of his Royal Oak studio.

Many public sculpture commissions followed, for government agencies, institutions, and corporations. At the same time, Fredericks was making other contributions to the arts. In 1949, he began anchoring a television series called "The World of Art," produced for Detroit's WXYZ-TV by Chrysler Motors and the Detroit Institute of Arts. In 1971, he became a founding member of the Michigan Artrain, which brought art to communities via rail.

Developing a Style

Over his long and prolific career, Fredericks depicted a vast array of subjects, including humankind, heroes, and animals of all sorts. Some of his most beloved sculptures included granite works titled The Boy and Bear (1954), The Lion and Mouse (1957), and The Friendly Frog (1970), which were created to complement the architecture of early malls in the Detroit area and Flint.

He also tackled more challenging and intangible topics such as time-as evidenced by the Night and Day Fountain (1962) in Port Huron-as well as space; industry; education; science; and government. Inspirational values such as patriotism were evident in works like the 30-foot Victory Eagle (1950) on the UAW-Ford National Programs Center in Detroit and American Eagle (1950) at the University of Michigan football stadium.

His sculptures exemplified an excerpt from his often-quoted 1956 credo: "I love people.I want more than anything in the world to do sculpture which will have real meaning for other people, many people, and might in some way encourage, inspire or give them happiness

Memorable Monuments

Two of Fredericks' most massive and admired Michigan public sculptures are The Spirit of Detroit (1958) at the entrance of the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center in Detroit and Christ on the Cross (1959) in Indian River. The sculptor donated his time and work on both pieces.

In envisioning a design for The Spirit of Detroit-commissioned by the building's architects-Fredericks said he strived to depict the cultural and religious spirit of the Detroit community and to help people feel trust in their government and safety in their surroundings.

The Spirit of Detroit, which was made from start to finish in Norway, is a 16-foot-high sculpture of a kneeling giant, with arms extending 22 feet wide from fingertip to fingertip. The giant holds a gilt-bronze sphere signifying a deity in one hand and a gilt-bronze grouping of a human family in the other. It sits in front of a curved white marble wall bearing the official seals of Wayne County and Detroit, also created by Fredericks. As a finishing touch, he inscribed the wall with a biblical verse, 2 Corinthians 3:17: "Now the Lord is that Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is Liberty."

Of his creation, Fredericks said, "The whole feeling of that figure was to express the spirit of man-through the spirit of man, the deity as expressed in the human family which is the noblest expression of man."

Fredericks did ecclesiastical sculptures for various denominations prior to creating the Indian River Christ on the Cross sculpture, thought to be the largest wood-and-bronze crucifix in the world. This work, which he considered his greatest challenge, was especially meaningful to him.

The founding pastor of the Indian River parish, Father Charles Brophy, asked Fredericks to create a life-sized figure of Christ on the cross to place on the front lawn of his chapel. But, when the sculptor saw the scenic location with its towering evergreens, he knew that a crucifix of that size would appear insignificant there. So he asked the priest, "Why don't [we] do one that will really bring people here?"

After receiving diocesan approval, Fredericks set out to acquire a daunting series of other approvals. These included permission from the Vatican to create a Christ figure without a wound in his side or a crown of thorns, because he wanted the sculpture to be inviting, pleasant, and encouraging-not pained or frightening.

Fredericks' resulting design comprised a seven-ton corpus, measuring 28 feet high and 20 feet across, which was suspended from a 14-ton, 55-foot-tall redwood cross. The corpus was modeled in plaster in his New York studio, transported in sections to Norway for casting in bronze, and returned to America by ship. From its port of entry, it traveled up the St. Lawrence Seaway, arrived in Detroit in July 1959, and then was moved by flatbed trailer to Indian River.

In honor of its August 16 dedication, 10,000 gold, silver, and aluminum medals bearing the likeness of the sculpture were made available to the public.

Mid-Career Works

In the 1960s, Fredericks created a number of smaller Michigan sculptures, ranging from a nickel bust of the Roman messenger of the gods to promote Ford Motor Company's Mercury division to the bronze Flying Pterodactyls, in honor of James Holden, a founding Detroit Zoo commissioner.

In 1964, Fredericks completed several important commissions at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. and for the U.S. pavilion at the New York World's Fair. He also concluded 19 years of work on the Cleveland War Memorial: Fountain of Eternal Life.

It depicts the spirit of man rising out of the flames of war and is surrounded by four granite carvings representing the northern, eastern, southern, and western civilizations of the Earth. Predating Maya Lin's design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial by 18 years, Fredericks' fountain incorporates the names of more than 5,000 men and women who gave their lives for their country.

In the 1970s, Fredericks' bronze-on-marble Henry Ford Memorial and historical reliefs depicting Ford's childhood were installed at the Henry Ford Centennial Library in Dearborn. Fredericks, who had met the automaker several times in the early days at Cranbrook, made the Ford figure somewhat larger than real life and depicted him with his favorite gesture of hands in his pockets.

In 1976, Fredericks' Saints and Sinners Fountain debuted at Oakland University in Rochester. For about 30 years prior, the sculptor had worked on this personal project of seven elongated figures whenever he wasn't committed to a commission. The group represents good, evil, temptation, knowledge of good and evil, a saint of the church, a mother and child, and a warrior. Fredericks was said to be pleased with the location of Saints and Sinners, because the figures were youthful and something he felt students could relate to.

In 1983, Fredericks donated the design for Freedom of the Human Spirit to his adopted hometown of Birmingham, in honor of the city's 50th anniversary. The city financed the sculpture through donations of individuals and corporations, and it was erected in Shain Park.

The 1990s saw Fredericks bring to life Milles' design of God on the Rainbow, an 86-foot-high stainless steel arc with bronze figures. This was installed at his mentor's burial site in Stockholm.

Marshall Fredericks toiled until three days before his own death in 1998. His family chose a large model of the Leaping Gazelle statue to grace his and his wife's graves at Birmingham's Greenwood Cemetery.


The massive stone and metal sculptures created by Fredericks mark a place in time that is now past-when the cost of materials, labor, import taxes, and shipping from Europe to America enabled such artwork. Fredericks' sculptures, however, may still be experienced in many Michigan locations and en masse at Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids and at the Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum (MFSM) at Saginaw Valley State University.

The Fredericks Museum, spearheaded by Dorothy and Ned Arbury, was dedicated in 1988 for the purpose of preserving the process of sculpting and displaying his art. The facility houses more than 200 examples of Fredericks' works-mostly plaster models-plus a permanent exhibit of objects from the artist's studio, changing exhibition space, his archives, and a sculpture garden. Fredericks generously contributed to the museum's design, displays, and archival contents. This special legacy is one of only a few American museums to honor a single sculptor.

Nancy Sajdak Manning is a freelance journalist, historian, and editor who lives in Bay City. She extends special thanks to MFSM Archivist Melissa Ford for her research assistance.

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