Discover more from Michiganography
A Quiet Corner in a Tender Land
Michigan Sculptor, Nancy Leiserowitz
The kneeling boy doesn’t reveal what he’s doing here in this small mid-Michigan plot surrounded by alfalfa fields. The green granite base beneath him gives only a name and dates: George J. Eisele, Aug. 22, 1959 – Mar. 2, 2006.
“Here” is a small, mowed lot enclosed by an old, wire fence. The wooden sign by the gate says “Eisele Catholic Cemetery.” There’s no parking. No shoulder on the narrow two-lane. If you weren’t concentrating on finding this place, you’d likely drive right past it.
According to the date on the stone, George Eisele was forty-five when he died; so who is the serene-faced boy on his gravestone? And what is a lovely contemporary sculpture doing among this scattering of weathered headstones from the last century? Only two things are immediately obvious: whoever George was, he was deeply loved, and whoever executed his memorial was a master.
George Eisele’s monument stands back from the road under a white pine, its muted color and soft lines blending into the palette of pine needles, old granite, moss. It is the work of renowned Michigan sculptor and retired Michigan State University professor Nancy Leiserowitz. Her pensive “Cassiopeia” and stolid “Caritas” are just two of her many public works in the Lansing area. It was “Caritas” that first connected Leiserowitz and the Eisele family, according to George’s brother, Father James Eisele, pastor of St. Michael Parish, Grand Ledge.
The two brothers, the oldest of six siblings, grew up on the Eisele farm, still firmly in family hands after 140 years. George left the farm just long enough to get an agricultural technology degree from MSU. From the time he was a young boy, he raised exotic chickens: Polish, known for their outlandish head feathers, and Araucana, for their green eggs. George never married, and when he contracted an aggressive and incurable form of lung cancer his family cared for him. As they helped him make final arrangements, they suggested that George might like a granite headstone, in Spartan green, his favorite color. He told them that what he really wanted instead was a statue. Of himself. And his chickens.
Finding the right sculptor turned into an intriguing project for George and his brother, Jim. Neither of them knew exactly how to go about it. Eventually, a parishioner reminded Fr. Jim of Nancy Leiserowitz’ statue “Caritas” in the garden of Lansing’s Sparrow Hospital. The humble strength of the figure resonated with the two men. Jim contacted Leiserowitz, and he and George went to visit the artist on her farm in Mason. They found her then—as she is today—luminous, generous, welcoming. The brothers and the sculptor liked each other immediately.
Leiserowitz was born in York, Nebraska, in 1935.
She moved to Michigan in the 1960s with her husband, artist Mel Leiserowitz, whom she had met when the two were in art school at the University of Iowa. After Iowa, she studied in Munich, Salzburg, and Paris and taught at Connecticut College and eventually at MSU. Leiserowitz’ early training as a nurse gave her an intimate familiarity with the mechanics of the human body. She combines this knowledge with a deep compassion for people. In her figural work, gesture is a richly saturated language: the bend of a knee or wrist or the turn of a head convey emotion like lines of verse.
The sculpture she created for George Eisele speaks in this language of gesture as well. A long-legged boy, his eyes closed, he is all patience, waiting with an outstretched hand full of grain. He’s barefoot, in shorts, with one t-shirt sleeve slightly bunched under his armpit. The only movement in the piece is the confident stride of the bird as it comes toward him. Stillness and movement are in perfect balance.
Making the scale work out between a bird and a man of George’s physical stature was a challenge. Leiserowitz’ “brilliant insight,” Fr. Jim recalls, was to have the figure kneeling beside the bird and to make the figure a boy. It was a solution George was thoroughly happy with.
George Joseph Eisele did not live to see the final piece completed. After his funeral, the sculpture was installed on a green granite base—shaped to suggest an Araucana egg and carefully engineered to resist the undulations of a thawing farm field. And so it was that the vision of a farmer, the love of a family, and the hands of a nurse combined to create a tender corner in Michigan’s tender land.
Note: The author thanks Michigan photographer Jeff Westover. If it hadn’t been for his book Ghost Highway: A Photographic Elegy for Southern Michigan, which includes a photo of monument, she never would have known about it. Westover’s new book Junction: Photographs 2006–2018 is now available for order: https://www.blurb.com/b/11513680-junction.