Two Profiles in Courage
The story of sculptor Franc Epping is a reminder of how much moral progress has been achieved over the past century
Sitting down at my dining room table this morning, imbibing my coffee and the discombobulating news out of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings with Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson that there seems to be much confusion over what, exactly, is a woman, I looked up and noticed the light was especially striking on a sculpture that stands directly across the room. It’s called “Two Profiles” and it was carved in one night on June 4/5, 1955, on a single slab of soapstone from the Berkshires by a sculptor named Franc Epping, who lived nearby in Lenox, Massachusetts. It’s such a timeless piece that it immediately put into perspective the evanescent nature of our modern culture wars. See for yourself:
In a tsunami of culture-war salvos (to which I have contributed) over the nature of sex and gender, along with trans’ and women’s rights, let me tell you a little bit about this sculptor and how I came into possession of this piece, as it serves as a reminder of how far we’ve come in just the last two generations, and how oppressed women were as recently as the mid 20th century. Actually, this is the story of two women—mother and daughter—both named Christine Roselyn Mutchler, and I consider it to be two profiles in courage.
The mother was born in Germany and passed through Ellis Island in 1893 with her parents, who then moved to Alhambra, California. Mother Christine and her husband Frederick and gave birth to baby Christine in 1910 (and a second daughter three years later, all pictured below), but their lives were shattered shortly after that when Fred told his wife he was going out for a loaf of bread and never returned. Abandon by her husband, left with no money or food to care for herself and her two small children, Christine had no choice but to return to her father’s home.
Unknown to her at the time, Fred had wandered off into the county jail with delusions that his father-in-law was after him. After being examined by a physician he was sent to a mental hospital for over a year. During this time, with his delusions in remission, Fred wrote heartbreaking letters to his wife asking about her and the children, but in what was actually a patriarchal era (compared to today) Christine’s father kept the letters from her and she continued to believe that she had been abandoned.
In time she found work as a housemaid for a friend of a successful motion picture executive named John C. Epping, whose wife had recently died. Longing for a daughter and enamored by three-year old Christine, Epping talked mother Christine’s father into forcing her to allow him to adopt the child. Young, poor, scared, and intimidated by her father, Christine reluctantly agreed to the adoption, although a series of articles in The Los Angeles Times (below) show that a probation officer on the case opposed the adoption, declaring “she believed Epping saw possibilities of a future Mary Pickford in the little girl, and that the child should have a home in some private family where home life and education would be the principal features.” Based on the false information provided by Christine’s father that Fred had abandoned them, the judge granted the adoption, and Christine had no power to resist.
Epping promptly changed the name of his newly adopted daughter to Frances Dorothy Epping, addressed her by her middle name, and (unbelievably) told her she was born in Providence, Rhode Island and that his deceased wife was her true mother. Now age four, Christine/Dorothy apparently did not accept the fictional story and rebelled—or perhaps Epping changed his mind about raising a daughter as a single Dad—because he shuffled her around through a series of surrogate parents, including sisters at the Ramona Convent in Alhambra and caretakers at the Marlborough Preparatory School in Los Angeles, before shipping her back east for a year to live with his sister in the Catskills, and then on to Germany where she lived with Epping’s relations. During that period Dorothy discovered that she had a talent for the arts, in particular sculpture.
She then returned to Los Angeles and finished her secondary education, after which she was reunited with her original family and told the truth about the adoption. She went on to college at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C. and the prestigious Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, Germany in the 1930s under the tutelage of Joseph Wackerle who, at that time, was the Third Reich Culture Senator and received praise from both Goebbels and Hitler. (She later recalled being stunned by the hypnotic pull Hitler had on an audience of one of his speech’s she attended.) In the meantime, Dorothy’s real mother, Christine, was instructed by her father to divorce her husband Fred, after which she met and married a vegetable cart vendor in Los Angeles, left her father’s oppressive rule, and began to rebuild her life and new family. But the tragedy of being forced to give up her first-born child haunted her the rest of her life. As the world changed and Christine saw how women became more empowered in the second half of the 20th century, she continually asked herself why she didn’t speak up and oppose the adoption.
Meanwhile, as Dorothy came of age she soon discovered that family law and the adoption courts were not the only worlds ruled by men. Her chosen profession of sculpture was a heavily male dominated one, so to be taken seriously she began using a truncated version of her first name Frances—Franc—and that gained her entré into the German academy and subsequent galleries and museums. She later recalled that when the professors at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich found out “Franc” was a women, she had to listen to lectures from the hallways because only men were allowed inside. Even now one can find references to “his” work, and letters such as this, addressed to Mr. Franc Epping:
From the early 1930s through her death in 1983—by which time it was acceptable for women to shape clay, wood, and stone with their hands—Franc Epping’s work was commissioned for government buildings like post offices (below) and shown in numerous exhibits throughout the United States, including the prestigious Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.
One of her works, “The Man with a Hat,” even appeared in an episode of the original series of Star Trek (“A Taste of Armageddon”, Season 1, Ep. 24, 17:25 time stamp).
Here is the original plaster model from which such copies were made:
I know because I own that piece, along with many other sculptures of hers (shown here), which I inherited from my mother. You see, Franc Epping was my Aunt, her real mother Christine was my grandmother, and I am proud to be related to such a resilient and determined woman. Aunt Franc’s sculptures portray strong women with muscular features in empowering poses—allegories for what women for generations have had to rise to in order to gain the recognition and equality that is rightfully theirs.