Isabel Bloom charmed the Quad-Cities and the world with fanciful home and garden
never-never land cement sculptures that include fat-cheeked cherubs, angels, smiling children and a seemingly endless array of animals, birds,
fish and even hearts and flowers.
She died Tuesday in her Davenport home at the age of 93 after an extended illness. Funeral arrangements are pending at Halligan-McCabe-DeVries Funeral Home, Davenport.
Over more than half a century, she created more than 165 different, cement-cast, big and little sculptures now sold in Isabel Bloom outlets in the Quad-Cities and throughout the Midwest.
Although she sold her interest in the business in 1981, she still was helping to create new designs almost until the time of her death. Many celebrities own her pieces, which have been exhibited from coast to coast. They also are found in many public buildings.
"Animals and children can be cold and reserved, or you can do them with soul. I think mine had soul," she once said. One of her greatest joys was that people enjoyed her work.
The bemused, gentle and fairy-tale quality of Mrs. Bloom's work reflects the facets of the artist's personality. She had been in love with forming clay into shapes ever since, as a child, she scooped mud from the Mississippi River. Her father even forgave her when she tried to "fire" her clay models in the family's furnace.
She and her painter husband, John, arguably were the best-known and beloved artist couple in the Quad-Cities. He studied under famed Iowa artist Grant Wood, and has gained renown for his regional paintings and murals. The Davenport bike path sculpture of two boys gazing toward the Mississippi from a bench is a memorial to his talents.
Isabel Scherer, Davenport, wed John Bloom of DeWitt in 1938. They met in 1932 when both were studying with Grant Wood in Stone City, near Anamosa, Iowa. She graduated from Immaculate Conception Academy in Davenport, and attended Vogue School of
Fashion in Chicago.
At the time of her marriage, she was employed at the L.W. Ramsey Co., a Davenport advertising firm. After graduation from American Academy of Business, she worked for a time as a receptionist and assistant to two Davenport doctors.
John Bloom attended St. Ambrose College and Art Institute of Chicago and, at the time of their marriage, worked for H. Wood Miller Co., industrial designers.
Isabel Bloom was able to present her affection for fantasy in another form in the early years of television station WOC (now KWQC) when, predating the Muppets, she used a clay puppet she had fashioned as an action figure to act out children's fairy tales she read on the air. Her salary: $15 a week.
The Blooms' romance lasted a lifetime, each artist glorying in the successes of the other. They never lost their enthusiasm for their work, even when age and illness forced them to slow down.
Grant Wood arranged for John Bloom to pay for his room and board at Stone City by keeping the grounds clean. In 1932, The Great Depression gripped the country and artists might rightly be described as starving.
Bloom found other dividends in the job. He came upon Isabel, spraying limestone chips as she carved a large piece of rock. He couldn't help kidding, "look at the mess you're making for me to clean up."
Neither dreamed then that they would be married for about 63 years, and would have three sons.
When the children came, John's artwork was not enough to support the family, so, reluctantly he took a job as an industrial designer, devoting weekends to the art he really loved. It was not until the children were grown in 1969 that John picked up his chosen career once more.
Meanwhile, Isabel never had forgotten the wonderful feeling of squishy clay in her hands. Experimenting, she designed figures that could be molded into concrete, polished, painted and serve as large and small sculptures indoors or outside. Everyone who saw them praised them, but she needed a large sales outlet.
She found it in Chicago, where she approached a dealer with a couple of her pieces and photographs of others. He said, "Where have you been? We've been looking for someone like you for a long time."
The dealer placed a hefty order and Isabel Bloom was on her way to becoming a household word. She operated her shop in the Village of East Davenport for more than three decades, hiring more employees as the orders poured in.
She sold the store in 1981 to Quad-City residents Barbara VanVooren and Bernadette Murphy and Minnesota residents Sally Schelle and Patsy Emmer, who formed Isabel Bloom Ltd.
In 1995, the business was sold to Jeff Gilfillan, Hunt Harris and Tom Carter.
The company's success, Gilfillan said, always will remain with Isabel. "When we acquired the business, we also acquired a large responsibility that neither the quality nor the subjects would change," he said. "Her work is whimsical and warm. That was part of her character. She's had a rich life of experience. The company is a representative product of her creativity. Its growth and success is due to her contributions. And it will go on."
Donna Young, the company's director of design and Mrs. Bloom's protégé said the famed Quad-City artist was a huge inspiration.
"I admire the way she can simplify a form," she said. "Her rounded shapes are just so pleasing to everyone."
She also said Isabel "inspired a lot of people and she's always promoting art and encouraging individuals to find their dreams. She always supported me in anything I've ever done. I admired her as a person, and I'm really going to miss her."
Isabel Bloom liked to reminisce fondly about the days in Stone City with Grant Wood: "About a third of the artists there were women. We lived on the third floor of an old building. The men slept in converted ice wagons. There was something there in Stone City, some atmosphere and stimulation of being with other artists in such a setting that made you want to work.
"At night, we would sit at a big table with a checkered tablecloth, with Grant there like a father-figure. He was always so kind and considerate and generally was a rather quiet man."
She never was greatly impressed with her celebrity status in the Quad-Cities. She was amused that some thought there was no "Isabel Bloom," that like, "Betty Crocker," it was only a name dreamed up for a product. She recalled when she once attempted to cash a check and the shocked cashier could not believe she was a real person.
Asked, at the age of 91, whether she ever read books on art, Isabel smiled and replied, "I have enough ideas in my head at my age."
Quad-Citians, such as the Rock Island resident who owns 80 Isabel Bloom pieces, will agree that her ideas were priceless. A Quad-Citian once aptly summed up the reaction most people felt when encountering one of her big green-eyed frogs, or a chubby tot holding a bird: "You can't resist patting the heads of every piece of her sculpture, and if no one were looking, you might find yourself cuddling them, or maybe wanting to steal one away."
Gilfillan said that one of his fellow owners observed that her passing on May 1, May Day, was symbolic. "Her designs oftentimes remind us of nature, children, flowers and all the creatures that represent spring. She loved children so much. I have a feeling that she will be looking over children from here on out. She's a treasure."
(Times reporter Thomas Geyer contributed to this article.)