Donal Hord’s first view of San Diego, from the deck of the steamship Congress, brought tears to his eyes. Unfortunately, these were not tears of joy. The previous winter in Seattle, the fourteen-year-old youth had been stricken by rheumatic fever, which left him with a permanently damaged heart. Knowing he would not survive another harsh northern winter, his doctors recommended moving to a warmer climate. When his mother asked him where he would like to live, he chose San Diego because it was close to Mexico. In his fertile imagination, he pictured the pyramids of the Aztecs and the temples of the Maya. Needless to say, San Diego in 1916 could not compare with the lush greenery of Seattle or the mysterious jungles of Mexico. It wasn’t long, however, before Hord came to love the region, and the arid southwest became the inspiration for many of his sculptures.
He was the product of an unhappy marriage; the future artist’s parents divorced when he was still a child, his mother taking him eventually to Seattle. At an early age, he developed an interest in ancient cultures, particularly those of the Orient and the Americas. Being an invalid for much of his youth, he was not able to attend regular school. Instead, he spent time at the library, educating himself in a wide variety of subjects including history, literature, music and art.
As a teenager, Hord began a modest collection of Oriental art objects using money saved from a small allowance. Thomas W. Furlong, who ran a curio shop on Fifth Street, encouraged the boy, and let him pay off his treasures at fifty cents a week. These beautifully crafted pieces helped develop a sense of connoisseurship in the budding artist which challenged him to strive for excellence in his own work.
As soon as he was strong enough, Hord began to attend craft classes at the San Diego Evening High School. Here he learned the rudiments of sculpture from Anna Valentien, a prominent artist from Cincinnati, who had studied with Rodin in Paris. A chance meeting with a young sailor named Homer Dana in 1920 also had a major impact on his career. Being an invalid, Hord had little hope of advancing past the small clay figures he had been modeling. Having several interests in common, Hord and Dana developed a close personal friendship that later evolved into a remarkable working partnership. Hord’s creativity combined with Dana’s strength enabled them to produce a truly outstanding body of work.
Two incidents in particular helped shape the sculptor’s attitude toward his own art. While studying with the Scottish sculptor Archibald Dawson at the Santa Barbara School of the Arts, the proud, young Donal Hord showed Dawson a piecewith which he was particularly pleased. Dawson looked it and said, “It’s a good start, lad, now go ahead and finish it.” Later, while Hord was studying in Mexico, the great muralist Diego Rivera saw some of his sculptures and referred to them as 11 pretty toys.” Both remarks stung the sensitive youth, but instilled in him the desire to produce the finest quality work he could with each endeavor. Excellence of workmanship and strength of conception eventually became the hallmarks of his style.
Hord felt the need to work in challenging materials, particularly if they were materials that had been used by the ancients. At a time when most sculptors were modeling clay for casting in bronze or having their marble pieces cut by professional stonecutters from plaster models, Hord preferred direct carving in such resistant stones as diorite, jade and obsidian. He also worked in tropical hardwoods such as mahogany, rosewood and lignum vitae. Occasionally he added polychrome to his wooden figures, a technique he had in the churches of Mexico. Except when requested by a client, Hord rarely made a model beforehand, and often used only a crude sketch on a scrap of paper to fix the idea in his mind. He let the properties of the material dictate the form, and let the piece grow and change as he worked.
As Hord reached the maturity of his style, his subjects became less literal, tending more toward abstract concepts and symbolic imagery. Titles such as Descending Sun, Desert Night Wind, and Summer Rain are indicative of his attempts to interpret nature’s forms, moods and forces through idealized figures, often with strong ethnic features.
Hord knew that he was living on borrowed time, but refused to slow down. He continued to accept commissions and never lost sight of his self-imposed standards of excellence. When his heart condition finally prevented him from working, he was taken to the hospital where a heart attack ended his life on June 29, 1966.
Two of the most distinctive features of Hord’s sculptures are the originality of his imagery and the excellence of his craftmanship. The imagery came from deep within, and was often inspired by a natural event he had witnessed or perceived. In many ways, Hord could be considered a mystic, able to draw out the spiritual meaning of the natural phenomena about him. He interpreted in three-dimensional form aspects of things which might not be readily apparent to the emotions or intellect.
His sense of craftsmanship and quality of finish came from his training as well as his study of ancient work, particularly the products of Oriental artists. Dawson had advised him that if he wanted a significant result, he must treat all material as if it was precious. The Oriental bronzes, jades and various objects he studied and collected inspired him to match the work of those great artists. Attention to detail and luxury of surface, however, were never allowed to dominate or overpower his designs. Although he did produce a few busts, the majority of his pieces depict complete figures. Nowhere in his work does one find the truncated torsos so common in twentieth century figurative art.
Like so many others, Donal Hord originally came to San Diego for reasons of health. San Diego nurtured him, inspired him, and helped him fulfill his dreams. He, in turn, left San Diego and the world a legacy of beauty that, like the works of the ancients, will be an inspiration and source of wonder for centuries to come.
This article would have been impossible without the constant support and encouragement of Florence Hord and Homer Dana. Their answers to what must have seemed an endless series of questions were the foundation for the research. Mr. Dana’s scrapbooks, papers, and priceless photographic record provided much of the source material for the project. Additionally, Mrs. Hord and Mr. Dana have made the San Diego History Center the repository for the sculptor’s plaster models, working drawings, tools and other material.
The author would also like to thank Dorr Bothwell, the sculptor’s first wife, as well as the many students, collectors, curators, and librarians who supplied data for the catalogue. Mavina McFeron, grandniece of Anna Valentien, supplied the photograph of the Santa Barbara School of the Arts. All other photographs were supplied by Homer Dana, most of which he took himself. The author would be interested in hearing from anyone knowing the whereabouts of works marked “unlocated” or any additional pieces not listed in the catalogue.
For Further Reading:
Dana, Homer, reminiscences by, A Donal Hord Retrospective, California First Bank, La Jolla, 1976
Ellsberg, Helen “Donal Hord: Interpreter of the Southwest” American Art Review, Vol. IV, No. 3, December 1977
Lovoos, Janice “The Sculpture of Donal Hord” American Artist, Vol. 23, No. 7, September, 1959
Miller, Dorothy C., ed. Americans 1942, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1942
Sullivan, Catherine “Donal Hord” American Artist, Vol. 14, No. 8, October, 1950
Bruce Kamerling was Curator of Collections at the San Diego Historical Society from 1980-1996. He published several articles on the history of local arts and artists. He was President of the Save Our Heritage Organisation, a member of the San Diego Historical Site Board and trustee of the Balboa Art Conservation Center from 1981-1993. He wrote numerous articles on San Diego’s cultural history and published two books, 100 Years of Art in San Diego and Irving J. Gill, Architect. Through his efforts, many of the works of sculptor Donal Hord were located and catalogued. They can be seen in our on-line exhibit of Hord’s sculpture Transcending the Solid: A Body of Work by Donal Hord. Kamerling died in October, 1995.