Bosque County sculptor Bobbe Gentry’s bronze “Iris, Goddess of the Rainbow and Messenger of the Gods” adorns Boston’s famed Forest Hills Cemetery
In Greek mythology, Iris represents the goddess of the rainbow and the messenger of the Olympian gods, specifically Hera. Iris serves as a goddess of sea and sky – her father Thaumas as a marine-god, her mother Elektra a cloud-nymph. For the coastal-dwelling Greeks, Iris became the deity associated with the rainbow's arc, spanning the distance between sea and sky.
It’s this ethereal image that Bosque County sculptor Bobbe Gentry managed to capture in her exquisite bronze sculpture “Iris, Goddess of the Rainbow and Messenger of the Gods.” And on capturing the essence, the sculpture was deemed worthy of prominent spots in two nationally-renowned parks.
The larger-than-life bronze was first placed at the center of the Iris Garden at the Memphis Botanical Garden in 2004. And just recently, a second identical statue stands in a prominent spot at the Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston, at the entrance of a newly-restored Dearborn Pavilion.
The name of the sculpture personifies recurring themes in Bobbe’s work: air, specifically wind and the movement it creates in robes and hair is often present; and Bobbe’s love of water – the flow and the movement of it – often captured in the distinct way garments flows away from the elegant figures.
Bobbe refers to it as “putting a little wind in their hair.”
It is exactly that, which caught George H. Milley, III’s eye when he visited the Memphis Botanical Gardens several years back when he took the opportunity for some sightseeing after a training program. Every next visit to Memphis, he would remain drawn to the figure, encouraging his companions to view her also.
Milley has been the president at Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston for 14 years with 30 years prior experience at another cemetery in the Boston area. The Forest Hills Cemetery founded in 1848, has 275 rolling acres studded with art, sculpture, memorials and architecture that are admired around the world. In recognition of its unique qualities, Forest Hills Cemetery was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2004.
Throughout the landscape, carefully cultivated bushes, trees and plantings contribute to an atmosphere that is both restful and arresting - an enchanting combination that celebrates the living, while commemorating the deceased. Sculpture became an essential feature of this serene environment of remembrance and peace as people commissioned local artisans or prominent artists of the time to create individual and family memorials.
The landscape complements the nationally known collection of memorial sculpture by some of the country’s most renowned artists, including works by Daniel Chester French, Martin Milmore, and Thomas Ball. To add something to this illustrious landscape required something special, something with a particular feel.
“I am no art expert by any means, I just have a good eye,” Milley said. “On seeing Iris, I thought ‘that’s beautiful. And it is something that would look really nice at our facility,’
“Some sculptures look great from the distance, but lose their quality as you get closer. But with Iris, you see greater detail as you get closer; she gets more life-like. Just beautiful and so graceful.”
When the restoration of a 170-year old original mausoleum was to be undertaken, Milley knew he had to have a goddess like Iris as an addition to the Dearborn Pavilion project.
Through the years, Milley took pictures of Gentry’s sculpture to other sculptors asking whether they could produce something similar. “You can’t copy someone’s style,” is the answer he got. But in his quest, he was able to find Gentry’s contact information. And so it came to be that the idea of a second Iris was conceived.
When the now semi retired sculptor got the commission from FHC, Gentry hit a major obstacle. The foundry had destroyed the original Iris mold. Luckily, the Memphis Botanic Garden graciously agreed to allow the producing foundry to make a rubber cast of the sculpture on site – in the middle of a reflective pool, surrounded by the most beautiful and delicate irises.
Originally a painter in college, Bobbe discovered sculpture later in life – after the kids reached high school age. Although she has studied with many well-known artists like Stanley Bliefield, Fritz Whte and Lincoln For, Bobbe is basically self-taught. In the late 1990s, she entered the Bosque Art Classic and won the prestigious John Steven Jones Purchase Award. That planted a seed; a plan to relocate to the natural beauty of Bosque County on retirement. The couple built a home and studio on a Mustang Valley hill top.
And eventually moving to Bosque County from Poetry with her husband “Gris” Griswold in 2003, the Bosque County art scene claims her as their own, to the point Bobbe was included in Bosque Museum “The Painted Hills” – a History of Art in Bosque County publication by George Larson. The publication shows a photo of a similar sculpture to Iris, the rainbow goddess – “Fantasy Flight.”
Gentry loves to portray the female shape – her work expresses emotion through body language and composition. She refers to her work as realistic, romantic and traditional with her penchant for angels, sea gypsies and water nymphs a bit fanciful.
Telling how she made a fountain of a female form, the water splashing down from her high-held hands explains exactly the grace, the rhythm and the movement Gentry seeks to portray in her work. And that translates into her “Carolina Breeze” – a figure holding out her flowy dress enjoying the rush of a warm summer wind or the mother and daughter sculpture “Step by Step” – both on tip toe, lightly running – which can be seen at the Lutheran Sunset Ministries Rainbow Village entrance. Another mother and daughter figure called “Harmony” shows a mother and daughter in an arabesque pose, practicing ballet together, also shows those qualities.
Incidentally, the “first’ Iris was the first sculpture Bobbe made when moving to Bosque County – she finally had the time and room in her new studio to create the 97-inch sculpture. Milley also likes to recount the final leg of Iris’ journey to Boston. When the foundry completed the casting, Milley suggested to just ship it, and to fly Bobbe and Gris to Boston. Instead, the couple said, “No, we’ll just drive it up.”
And so the road trip began, driving from Bosque County in Gris’ old pick up to Memphis to pick up the statue, and a quick sightseeing tour of Niagara Falls before ending up in Boston.
“Can you imagine the customs officials’ faces on seeing a carefully wrapped figure in the back of a pick up?” Milley asks.”And after all that, they didn’t even stop for lunch, they straight away went on their way home. They are a wonderful couple, and we thank them for their kind assistance in getting Iris here. It has been a great experience.”
The carbon-copy Goddess Iris and her messenger dove will be able to rest in perpetuity, centered in front of the Dearborn Pavilion, surrounded again by an array of flowers - a great addition to more than 35 diverse sculpture works by local and national artists form a route through the oldest part of the Cemetery grounds.
Instead of the traditional water pitcher Iris is portrayed with, Bobbe’s Iris gracefully lets fly a dove – a more modern day carrier of messages and carrier of the olive branch carrier symbolizing peace. In her new spot at the entrance of a mausoleum, Iris’ beauty, grace and elegance can only hope to offer peace to those coming to the cemetery, in remembrance of loved ones lost.
Photos by SIMONE WICHERS-VOSS & courtesy of BILLY-JO GAULEY
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