Albin Polasek (1879 – 1965) is heralded as one of America’s foremost sculptors of the twentieth century. Celebrated in his own lifetime, Polasek created figurative works of sound composition based upon the true structure of nature. His goal was to show the essential unity of head or figure and the beauty of “movement,” the flow of one mass into another. He felt that movement made the difference between a work exuding life and something inanimate. Polasek’s ability to capture the spirit of his subject provided inspiration to successors such as Richmond Barthe, Sylvia Shaw Judson and Ruth Sherwood.
Born in 1879 in Frenstat, Moravia (now Czech Republic), Albin Polasek apprenticed as a woodcarver in Vienna before immigrating to the United States in 1901 at the age of 22. After four years working as a woodcarver in the American Midwest, Polasek began his formal art training at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Under the guidance of sculptor Charles Grafly, Polasek learned the traditional classical techniques of sculpting, while refining his own distinct style. As a student he first created Man Carving His Own Destiny (1907) and Eternal Moment (1909), two of his earliest well-known sculptures. In 1909, while still a student at the Pennsylvania Academy, Polasek became an American citizen.
In 1910, Polasek won the Prix de Rome competition, which granted him a three‑year fellowship at the American Academy of Art in Rome. While studying in Rome, his Sower was awarded an Honorable Mention at the spring 1913 Paris Salon. After completing his studies in Italy, Polasek set up a studio in New York City. In 1916, at the age of 37, he was invited to head the Sculpture Department at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he remained for nearly thirty years.
In early 1927, Albin Polasek was elected an Associate Member of the National Academy of Design. This honorary degree is reserved for America’s top painters, sculptors, printmakers and architects and cannot be applied for; it can only be conferred. Polasek received full academician status in 1933, allowing him to place the coveted N.A. after his signature.
Large public commissions such as the Theodore Thomas Memorial (1924) and the Masaryk Memorial (1941) in Chicago and the Wilson Monument (1928), Radigast (1931) and Sts. Cyril and Methodius (1931) in the Czech Republic brought Polasek to the world’s attention. Lionized by the public and critics alike, Polasek experienced the growth of his reputation within his own lifetime. His poignant Mother Crying Over the World (1942) created a world standard for depicting the grief and horror of the Second World War.
In January 1950, at the age of 70, Albin Polasek retired to Winter Park, Florida, designing his home and having it built on picturesque Lake Osceola. His close friend and former student Ruth Sherwood had retired to Winter Park several years earlier. Sherwood and Polasek first met in 1916, just prior to Sherwood becoming his student at the Art Institute of Chicago; their friendship was instant and long-lasting. In December 1950, Sherwood and Polasek married – it was a first marriage for both. Polasek was 71, Sherwood 61. Less than two years later Sherwood died.
Seven months prior to marrying Sherwood, Polasek had suffered a stroke, which left him paralyzed on his left side. Although he spent the remainder of his life in a wheelchair, he was still able to paint, draw, sculpt in clay and carve wood with his right hand, and with an assistant he could carve stone. Post-stroke, Polasek’s efforts were primarily focused on the perfection and reproduction of his best known works, while newer original works became more intimate. After his stroke, Albin Polasek completed eighteen major works, including the politically motivated Victory of Moral Law (1957) as a direct response to the Hungarian Revolution. This work received world-wide acclaim.
In 1961, nine years after Sherwood’s death, Polasek married Emily Muska Kubat. That year the Polaseks set up the Albin Polasek Foundation to share with the public his life’s works. At that time the galleries, chapel and gardens were opened as a museum. Following the death of Emily Polasek in 1988, the residence was opened to the public. Albin Polasek created more than four hundred works during his prolific career, two hundred of which are currently on museum property.
Upon his death in 1965, Polasek was buried alongside first wife Ruth Sherwood in Winter Park’s Palm Cemetery, with his own 12th Station of the Cross (c. 1939) as his monument. Emily Polasek died in 1988. Along with her first husband Dr. Kubat, Emily Polasek was buried in the Polasek family plot.
The foundation has contributed to the culture of Winter Park and Central Florida in many ways, including the donation of sculptures Forest Idyl and Emily Fountain to the City of Winter Park, the long-term loan of Man Carving His Own Destiny to the Winter Park Public Library, as well as art scholarships to the University of Central Florida, Rollins College and Crealde School of Art. Over the years other contributions have been granted to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Brown University and the Art Institute of Chicago. A sister city relationship between the City of Winter Park and Polasek’s hometown of Frenstat, Moravia, was established in 1996.
In the year 2000, Polasek was named a “Great Floridian” by the state of Florida, a distinction that recognizes those who made significant contributions to the history and culture of the state. In 2004, Albin Polasek was inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame, which recognizes those who have made a significant contribution to the arts in Florida.