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Elliot M. Offner, sculptor and longtime Smith professor, 79

‘‘All of these things that are human characteristics are embodied in animals,’’ said Elliot Offner. ‘‘All of these things that are human characteristics are embodied in animals,’’ said Elliot Offner.
By J.M. Lawrence
Globe Correspondent / November 17, 2010

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American sculptor Elliot Melville Offner saw reflections of familiar human emotions in wildlife: a mother bittern perched protectively over her chick, a pair of bass, a great blue heron poised to take flight.

“I feel that animals are endowed with certain content that expresses all things about terror, fear, and love,’’ Mr. Offner told the Vose Galleries of Boston before his last show there in 2007. “All of these things that are human characteristics are embodied in animals.’’

A longtime Smith College professor, Mr. Offner’s works can be found in public and private collections, including the Brooklyn Museum, the DeCordova Museum, and Springfield’s Museum of Fine Arts. He died of esophageal cancer Oct. 15 at his home in Northampton. He was 79.

A master of realistic sculpture and a printmaker, Mr. Offner began focusing on wildlife in the latter part of his career after many years sculpting figures.

“Elliot captured the abstract beauty of movement in the natural world, always with a warmth and richness of surface that reminded viewers of the transformative power of the artist’s hand,’’ his friend John Davis, a fellow art professor and dean of academic development at Smith, wrote in a tribute.

Mr. Offner’s bronze great blue heron is a familiar sculpture on the Smith campus. The bird’s twin was the first piece of public art commissioned for the city of Darien, Conn., in 1987, and is now in the Darien Public Library courtyard.

Mr. Offner grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y. He was the middle child of three boys. His parents Samuel and Helen (Wolowitz) were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. His father sold sundries to corner stores.

His artistic abilities quickly emerged in elementary school at PS 181 in Brooklyn. “He won the art medal at graduation,’’ said his younger brother, Arnold, who lives in Newton. “And since I have no artistic talent, I suffered immensely when it came to my turn in art class. Oh, did I disappoint the teacher.’’

As a boy of about 9, Mr. Offner made a name for himself when found “doing circus maneuvers on the awning of a local grocery store,’’ his brother said. “He was very acrobatic, very adventurous. All the neighbors were saying, ‘Look at Mel, look at Mel.’ ’’

He won a full scholarship in 1949 to the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art and then earned a bachelor’s degree in art from Yale in 1953, followed by two years in the Army. He was always athletic and enjoyed basketball and tennis.

He was working as a designer at Steuben Glass when he shocked his employer by quitting to go back to Yale for his master’s of fine art, his brother said.

In 1956, Mr. Offner met Rosemary (O’Connell) in New York. They were married for 53 years and had three children. “We were a team,’’ Rosemary said. “He was a very gifted man.’’

Hired at Smith in 1960, Mr. Offner worked in his studio next to his home. “He would come back and forth for a cup of tea,’’ his wife said. “He’d say, ‘Come over and have a look.’ We had that kind of life. It was very close.’’

The couple shared a passion for politics. “We were anti-Vietnam when it was hard to be anti-Vietnam,’’ his wife said. “We would be down on Main Street holding protest signs.’’

From 1974 to 2004, Mr. Offner was the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities at Smith, an unusual honor for an artist. He also had stints as a visiting artist at Brandeis, Yale, the Royal College of Art in London, and Cambridge University in England.

His more than a dozen major commissions for sculpture include a Holocaust memorial in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York.

“We all just adored him,’’ said his daughter Emily Hollidge of Egan, Minn. “He was a great, loving guy.’’

She recalled sensing her parents’ anxiety during her father’s early gallery openings. “In later years, it wasn’t like that, because dad would sell things,’’ she said.

Mr. Offner was first diagnosed with cancer in 2005. He requested that all of his children and grandchildren attend the opening of his 2007 exhibition at the Vose Gallery on Newbury Street.

“He knew it would be his last one,’’ his daughter said. “It was a wonderful night. All of the kids came, and I think it meant a lot to him.’’

Among many awards during his career, Mr. Offner received the National Sculpture Society’s Medal of Honor in 2007 and was named Master Wildlife Artist in 2003 by the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, Wisc.

In addition to his brother, wife, and daughter Emily, Mr. Offner leaves another daughter, Helen Ong of Norwalk, Conn.; a son, Daniel of Santa Monica, Calif.; and nine grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 1:30 p.m. on Dec. 4 at the chapel at Smith College. Burial will be private.

J.M. Lawrence can be reached at jmlawrence@me.com.