The Woman Who Lives on a Ladder

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Nellie Verne Walker (December 8, 1874 Red Oak, Iowa – July 10, 1973 Colorado Springs, Colorado) stood a whopping 4 foot 8 inches tall. The diminutive woman was not the image one thinks of when conjuring up a sculptor creating monumental works of art. But she climbed up and down ladders teetering on the steps, leaning in and over her creations to carve sculptures of all sizes earning her the moniker, “the woman who lives on a ladder”.

She first picked up a hammer and chisel in her father’s Moulton, Iowa shop carving gravestones. But by age 17 she carved her first work of art—a limestone bust of President Abraham Lincoln. In a mere 24 days, she had created the bust for the Columbian Exposition being held in Chicago in 1893. Nellie was determined to study art at the Chicago Art Institute and set out on that path in an unlikely place—a secretarial pool as a legal secretary. Within six years she was able to afford tuition where she studied with the famed Lorado Taft with whom she worked until his death in 1936. In fact, when he died, his Herald Square Monument in Chicago which includes statues of George Washington, Robert Morris and Haym Solomon was not completed and Nellie was one of three artist engaged to finish it.

Nellie created famous works, such as, the statue of Senator James Harlan which stands in Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol Building; Chief Keokuk in Rand Park in Keokuk, Iowa; and the Polish War Memorial in Chicago. She also returned, in a way, to her earliest work in her father’s workshop—creating cemetery monuments. But this time, she didn’t carve gravestones but instead created sculptures. Below are three examples of her cemetery commissions.

Milton T. Barlow 1844 – 1930 Forest Lawn Cemetery, Omaha, Nebraska

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Myron Leslie Learned 1866 – 1928 Forest Lawn Cemetery, Omaha

Mary Poppleton Learned 1873 – 1960 Forest Lawn Cemetery, Omaha, Nebraska

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Donald Bartley McMullen 1892 – 1966 Lakewood Cemetery, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Helen Diggins McMullen 1892 – 1918 Lakewood Cemetery, Minneapolis, Minnesota

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4 Responses to The Woman Who Lives on a Ladder

  1. What beautiful statues. I especially like that first one.

  2. Mark B Snider says:

    Miss Walker also was commissioned to do Helen Diggins McMullens parents bronze statuary in Cadillac Mich, it’s absolutely beautiful and is comprised of 3 lifesize figures, one being an Angel.
    I believe Nellie Walker also did the Delos Diggins headstone which is a chiseled large stone w/figures also located in Cadillac. The Diggins/Cummer were relatives so the history is well known.
    I wish i could post a photos.
    Nice article btw

    • Julie Springer says:

      Nellie Walker was related to my family. She was the great, great aunt of my son, James (Walker-Childs) Springer. We have been lucky enough to see the Colorado pieces, and will see the Michigan and D.C. ones soon. While in Colorado some 20+ years ago, we were lucky to meet someone who knew her well. I believe she passed away in a nursing home in Colorado Springs, but it has been torn down. Her work in person is stunning, and I wish more people knew about her.

      • I actually think she was amazing on several levels. First of all, she was first and foremost a very accomplished artist. Secondly, she apprenticed with Lorado Taft, one of the pre-eminent artists of the 19th and early 20th Century. To pass muster with him was no small feat, and again, a sign of her prodigious talent. On top of it all, she was quite small in stature and, as the book about her says, she did most of her work on a ladder which must of made it all the more difficult. She was a great sculptor and as I come across across more pieces, I will post them in an effort to honor her.

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