Melva Wilson, the 1882 valedictorian of Morrow High School, became a famous sculptor, creating impressive works around the country. Her most impressive works include the Mortuary Chapel in Calvary Cemetery, near New York City (pictured left) and the Cathedral Basilica in St. Louis, Missouri.
Melva Wilson was born in Marion, Indiana in 1866. Her family moved to Morrow in 1876 and lived in the house, no longer standing, that later became Pine Crest Nursing Home. After graduating from High School, Melva earned three successive scholarships for one hundred dollars plus tuition to the Cincinnati Art Academy. She later moved to New York to continue her study and work.
Calvary Cemetery, New York
Around 1908, Melva began one of her most impressive works, the Mortuary Chapel in Calvary Cemetery, near New York City (photos above and below). Her carving over the main entrance included 16 life-sized figures. She also carved the ten feet, four inch tall sculpture of Christ on the Chapel roof. This figure was called "Christ Triumphant" and she considered it one of her greatest works, taking her two years to sculpt. About the work, Melva said, "I did everything myself, from conception and execution of design to the engineering, overseeing the lifting of the finished statue to its permanent site on the chapel roof. As it stands there it weighs three and a half tons and was cut out of a ten ton solid block of Indiana Limestone." Something that set Melva apart from other sculptors was that she not only designed the sculptures, but went on to carve the designs out of the solid blocks of stone herself.
Melva's work on the Mortuary chapel won her the commission for the 14 Stations of the Cross in the newly constructed cathedral in St. Louis. The 14 carvings are around the curved walls of the transept. She started the work in 1909.
Stations of the Cross
Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis
Machinery Hall, St. Louis Exposition
One of Melva's earlier, massive works was 8 spandrels for two of the facades of the Machinery Hall at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition. A spandrel is the triangular shaped space at the top, outer curve of an arch. Each spandrel was 28 feet by 15 feet and contained colossal figures representing the wheelwright and boilermaker trades. The background consisted of interlaced cog-wheels. Melva had studied in New York under Carl Bitter, who was the Chief of Sculpture for the Exposition.
St. Louis Exposition, 1904
Melva also sculpted other well-known works of the time, most notably a bronze statue called "The Minute Man" which was exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. In 1898, it was reportedly worth $30,000.
Some of her other sculptures were "Bull and Bear", "The Volunteer", and "Polo Player". Her sculptures were owned by private collectors as well as Tiffany & Co. and given as awards by the state of New York. She earned Honorable Mention at the Paris Salon of 1897.
In addition to sculpting, she also wrote poetry and illustrated at least one book.
Melva passed away on June 3, 1921 in New York and was brought back for burial in the Morrow Cemetery. She carved the sculpture of two angels for her tombstone and a very tall sculpture of an angel with her arm draped over a cross for her father's tombstone. Both can still be seen today above the storage building built into the hill near the exit.