For four decades, a large plaster statue of a nude woman greeted visitors to the Pink Palace Museum. The sculpture was created by Memphian Marie Craig. Craig was born in 1908 to Charles “Charlie” and Lillian Craig. Her father worked as the vice president of First National Bank and recalled that his daughter “preferred to mold pretty little things like flowers and figures from…sticky mud” instead of making mud pies. Marie took her first art classes at Central High School before enrolling at the James Lee Memorial Art Academy to continue her studies. She created the plaster “fountain piece” as part of her application to the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts, which offered her admission and a scholarship. After she was offered admission, Mrs. Burr Chapman, the president of the Art Academy, offered to loan the plaster sculpture to the museum in April 1935. Burton Callicott, the artist who painted the murals in the mansion, remembered being asked to patch the statue several times because fingers were broken. The Memphis Art Association, which replaced the Art Academy, donated the statue to the museum in January 1943.
Marie had a distinguished career at art school, winning several more scholarships for her studies. One award allowed her to attend the L’École des Beaux Arts in Fontainbleau, France, an hour south of Paris. The L’École des Beaux Arts was created in 1923 as a part of the Conservatoire Americain, which was founded in 1921 at the insistence of General John Pershing to improve the quality of American military music. The Conservatoire focuses on music education while L’École des Beaux Arts concentrates on painting, sculpture and architecture. Craig lived and worked in the chateau while at the school.
After her time at Fontainbleau, she returned to the United States and opened a studio in Boston. She worked in bronze and marble and received praise for her work. Noted sculptor Loredo Taft once wrote her, “Your figures show grace and charm; I shall watch your progress with much interest.” Her marble statue of a reclining maiden Lilith, was accepted into an exhibition at the Chicago Art Institute. It was also shown at the 1940 sculpture festival hosted by the National Sculpture Society at the Whitney Museum in New York City. Additionally, her piece Autumn, of a child with grapes, was displayed at the New York World Fair in the Fine Arts Building.
When World War II began, Marie trained as a nurses’ aide before deciding to enlist in the Women’s Army Corps in 1942. She trained at Fort Des Moines, Iowa, before being stationed in Boston where she was killed in a traffic accident in August 1943. Some of her pieces can be seen in the Crystal Grotto at Memphis Memorial Park Cemetery, and her Study in Marble is part of the permanent collection at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. Unfortunately, the plaster woman at the Pink Palace was broken on Halloween 1969 when it was moved. No record remains of what happened to it afterwards.
Thanks to Marilyn Masler, Associate Registrar at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, for providing information for this post.
Robert Talley, “Statue to Become Memorial: Momument for Marie Craig to Be Own ‘Study in Marble,’” Memphis Commercial Appeal, 1944.