From the pages of

First Bloom sculpture thrown away

DAVENPORT -- A customs official in New York City picked up a carry-on bag, grunted, and said to its owner, ``You must have an Isabel Bloom in here.''

Dispatch/Argus photo by Nobuko Oyabu

Sculptor Isabel Bloom sits in her living room Monday afternoon, Jan. 19. Ms. Bloom will be 90 in Feburuary.

The man was Isabel Bloom's nephew, and he did have one of his aunt's sculptures in the bag. Art lovers nationwide are familiar with her soft green or pink renditions of rounded children and animals.

Although many have Isabel Blooms in their homes, only the Quad-Cities has Isabel Bloom.

The sculptress lives in the Village of East Davenport with husband and fellow artist, John Bloom. Their home is a monument to creativity and their combined talents. John's paintings float above the living room couch, his wood-carved cats with arching backs flank the fireplace and a self-portrait of Isabel's head, cast in bronze, rests near the staircase.

Nowhere to be seen are the figurines that have made her so famous.

``I don't have any in here, but there's one out there,'' Mrs. Bloom said, pointing out a window toward a rosy-toned child beneath a tree, resting her head on her arms. A film of snow graced the child's head like a halo.

The now-famous Isabel Bloom was born Isabel Scherer in Galveston, Texas, in 1908. A year later, she and her parents moved to Davenport, where she has lived most of her life. She will celebrate her 90th birthday on Feb. 10.

``I am happy with my life, very much so,'' the artist said, her hands clasped on her lap.

Bouts with Parkinson's disease have sent Mrs. Bloom to and from local hospitals over the past few months. On this day, she was feeling well, and eager to discuss the twists and turns of her life and career.

Mrs. Bloom can not remember when she began sculpting. Like bits of clay that stick under her fingernails, her work has always been a part of her.

``It seems to me I always did it,'' she said. ``I can't remember exactly when it began.''

She does, however, remember her first sculpture, perhaps because it was greeted with oaths, not applause. ``My brother and I were on a picnic, and we dug up some clay next to a creek,'' she said, smiling.

Her brilliant blue eyes framed by soft white hair seemed focused on that long ago scene. ``We modeled a figure, and I took it home and put it in a tin can and put it in the furnace,'' she said. ``My father was furious! He threw it away.''

Despite that inauspicious foray into the arts, her creative career blossomed. Decades later, no one would dream of throwing an Isabel Bloom sculpture away. Although she is most famous for her sculpture, she does other art forms.

When she was 13, her father paid for painting lessons. In 1932, the young Miss Scherer studied under artist Grant Wood at his Stone City colony. Today, the view from her old home toward the Centennial Bridge is immortalized in oil and canvas on her kitchen wall.

She met her future husband, John Vincent Bloom, at Stone City, too. This year they will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary.

Together, they raised three children and built their artistic careers. While John worked as an industrial designer, Isabel molded garden sculptures in the basement, watching their three sons through the window.

``My children were my inspiration,'' Mrs. Bloom said. ``All my ideas for my sculpture came from real life.''

When she was ready to sell, the budding artist packed up a figure or two along with snapshots of others and traveled to Chicago. She opened the door to Hoops, a garden shop on Michigan Avenue.

``I showed them to the man, and he said, `Where've you been? We've been looking for someone like you for a long time,'|' she said, smiling.

Mrs. Bloom worked out of her basement for years, boxing up finished sculptures and shipping them to Chicago once a week. Soon, it was time to strike out on her own.

She opened a small shop in the Village of East Davenport in 1951. She would design and sculpt an original figure, make a mold, and the four shop employees would produce figures from the mold.

Mrs. Bloom sold the shop in 1981. ``It was a lot of hard work,'' she said, ``and I was getting tired. But I've missed it, in a way. I miss the people.''

The shop was sold again in 1995 to Quad-Cities businessmen Tom Carter, Jeff Gilfillan and Hunt Harris. Today, Isabel Bloom sculptures are sold from storefronts in the Village of East Davenport and on Moline's 7th Street. A third store opened in the Chicago suburb of Wilmette in March '96, then relocated to Naperville in November 1997.

Naperville shop manager, and Moline native, Alex Harris said holiday sales were brisk, with large numbers of Isabel Bloom fans adding to their collections and new fans getting hooked.

Isabel Bloom sculptures also are sold through retailers in Muscatine, Iowa City, and other Midwestern stores. The company recently installed a 1-800 number so out-of-town customers could make purchases more conveniently, co-owner Hunt Harris said.

Mrs. Bloom still acts as an advisor to the business, creating new designs and offering advice to chief designer Donna Young. Ms. Young, also a local artist, has known Mrs. Bloom for years.

``She would come into the shop to have me critique things,'' Mrs. Bloom said. ``She still stops in to see me, and she designs quite a lot of the figures. She deserves a lot of credit and praise.''

Ms. Young has created many of the more than 200 designs in the Isabel Bloom collection, including the popular Christmas trees.

Mrs. Bloom gets new ideas every now and then, she said. ``I was sitting on the porch the other day, and a grasshopper jumped on my hand,'' she said. ``You know, you don't get to see a grasshopper close up very often. That might make a nice design.''

When a young artist asked Mrs. Bloom how to make successful art, the answer was not an easy one. ``You've got to have soul,'' she said fiercely. ``That's not something you acquire. You've either got it or you don't.''

Isabel Bloom has been sharing her soul with the Quad-Cities for decades. The success it has brought her, however, still is a bit of a dream for the artist who began her career as a child, deft fingers buried in river clay.

``I started with a hole in a mortar box, and now the (Isabel Bloom) company employs over 120,'' she said, shaking her head a bit. ``I don't think much about it. I'm just glad people like it.''

-- By Sarah Larson (January 26, 1998)

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