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William H. Calfee (1909-1995), a native of Washington, D.C., was chair of American University's art department from 1946 to 1954. In the 1920s and 1930s he studied art in France, Italy, and the Cranbrook Academy in Michigan, where he studied under the sculptor Carl Milles. It was there that he experienced the process of producing monumental work and the art of casting bronze. During the Great Depression he produced murals for the Fine Arts Section of the Department of the Interior. The murals can be found today in a number of post offices in Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware. During that time he developed an idiom that was both figurative and abstract. His first solo exhibition opened at the James Whyte Gallery (later known as the Franz Bader Gallery) on December 7, 1941.

In the early 1940s Calfee became assistant to C. Law Watkins at the Phillips Memorial Gallery art school, which collaborated with American University in offering a program in fine arts, one of the first in the country. In 1945 he joined Watkins in teaching at the university and became chair of the art department for the next eight years. Calfee, who was soon joined by fellow-artists from the Phillips art school Sarah Baker and Robert Gates, taught the universal principles of art that he discovered in Italian Renaissance fresco painting, but also encouraged innovative experimentation in his students. Classes were also taught by visiting artists such as Karl Knaths, Herman Maril, and Jack Tworkov. Some graduates of the program became faculty members at American University as well as other colleges and universities around the country. Others have gone on to successful careers in the arts. All of them were imbued with the aesthetic principles that were shared by Duncan Phillips and were the basis of his own collection, which opened in 1921 as the first permanent museum of modern art in the United States.

 

 

Calfee, along with other members of American University's faculty, organized the Jefferson Place Gallery near Dupont Circle in 1957. The gallery was organized as a cooperative showing contemporary art in Washington, but also exhibited the work of New York Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem De Kooning, along with local artists such as Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, Gene Davis, Howard Mehring, Sam Gilliam, and Willem De Looper. Calfee was also co-founder of the Watkins Memorial Collection at American University, where he continued to teach for another two decades. One of the best known sculptures from this period is the Monument to Rev. James Reeb, which is dedicated to the civil rights activist whose tragic death contributed to the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1965. The sculpture was later acquired by the National Academy of Sciences. In 1977 Calfee received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from American University for his contributions to the university and the community.

In the late 1970s Calfee moved from Washington to a large home in Chevy Chase, Maryland, where he lived and worked the rest of his life. During this period Calfee and fellow-artist Patricia Friend organized the Kensington Workshop at which they taught their innovative approach to painting for a number of years. Calfee's works are found in numerous private and public collections, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and The Phillips Collection. His last major public commission was for a monumental abstract sculpture that he completed in 1980 for the Rockville Civic Center in Maryland. Calfee's art, as his life, was based on principles of excellence and quiet dignity.