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In full Bloom: Cistern "dig" unearths early works of Davenport sculptor
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In full Bloom: Cistern "dig" unearths early works of Davenport sculptor

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Anne Taylor was astonished. Flabbergasted. Blown away.

All those words describe how she felt that Saturday in August when a man digging in her Davenport yard reached into the ground and pulled out a statue of a girl holding a rabbit, a statue created in the unmistakable style of famed Davenport sculptor Isabel Bloom.

"It was unbelievable," Taylor said.

Here — in Taylor's yard that had once been the home of Isabel and John Bloom — were pieces of Isabel's early art work that she had thrown away, cast into an old cistern, an underground tank for storing water, because for whatever reason, she did not think they were worth keeping.

And now, 60 to 80 years later, they were being dug up, piece by piece. In addition to several renditions of the girl with the rabbit, there was a woman holding a child, a cat, a boy holding a cat, a donkey with two children on its back, a boy with a lamb and parts of an angel, identifiable by its wings.

Taylor was simply beside herself.

Five months later, the discovery and retrieval of pieces of Isabel's early work still sends a thrill through her entire being.

"To have something that she was making with her own hands, with every bit of her consciousness focused on, in my house, that's amazing," Taylor said.

"How many people leave stuff like that? We don't even make stuff like that."

The back story

The house where Taylor lives is believed to have been built about 1870 and was purchased around 1942 by the Blooms as their first Davenport home. It had been vacant and boarded up, and the two artists who had studied under Grant Wood renovated it for themselves and their young family.

They built a studio for Isabel in a walk-out basement of the house — originally a kitchen — with large windows looking out into the yard so that, as she said in interviews through the years, she could keep an eye on her children as they played.

This was when Isabel was first establishing herself as an artist, working in clay and experimenting with different materials and colors. The Blooms lived in the home until they sold it in 1963, and it had five different owners between then and when Taylor bought it in 2015.

"I've always liked old stuff," Taylor, a veterinarian, said. "I am fascinated by things that have endured for a long time."

Taylor had been living for nearly 20 years in a newer, ranch-style home in northwest Davenport. When her sister — who lives in Davenport's historic Gold Coast neighborhood — told her about the listing of the home that once belonged to the Blooms, she was interested.

Taylor set up a showing and when she walked in, "I almost started crying," she said. "It felt so good. There was a ton of light from all the tall windows. I fell in love with it. I said, 'Yep, here's the one.'"

Previous owners had updated the house, so all Taylor did initially was to lighten up the interior paint palette.

But there also was the matter of the front porch. The floor was sagging and the entire structure was pulling away from the house. In considering a reconstruction, Taylor decided she'd like to extend the porch the entire width of the house.

Discovering the cistern; doing the 'dig'

First, though, she'd need to clear away overgrown landscaping. She hired a helper and set to the task, eventually uncovering a hole about nine inches in diameter that she took to be a groundhog home next to a redbud tree.

But her helper knelt down and, peering in, fished out an old brown bottle. Looking more closely, he could see the hole opened up to a cavern.

Taylor put a board over the opening for safety and contacted Gold Coast resident Jack Haberman who came to have a look at what she had discovered. He observed that the hole had a brick lining so, yes, it had probably been a cistern. And after it no longer functioned as a water supply, residents used it as a dumping place.

One thing led to another, and on a Saturday in August, Mike Burggraaf, an expert in old bottles from Fairfield, Iowa, came up to do a "dig." Examining the hole, he located a grate about three feet wide that blocked access, so pulling that out, he "climbed in and started handing stuff out," Taylor said.

"As he's digging, one of the first things he finds is a palm-sized terra cotta statue of a cat, intact," Taylor said. "I was thrilled. It was beautiful. I thought, 'This is so cool,' and then I turned it over, and it was signed by Isabel Bloom. At this point I thought I was going to lose my mind.

"And, honestly, if that was all we found, I would have been happy. I was thrilled to death with it (the cat)."

At that point in the dig, Taylor had to leave for a previously scheduled appointment, but Burggraaf kept working, kept finding things, and when she returned he said, "'I have a surprise for you.'

"And that's when Mike pulls out this full-size model of a cement cast girl with a rabbit that is much more her (Isabel's) style. He had kept it in the hole until I came back. It was unbelievable."

For the rest of the afternoon, Burggraaf, Taylor and other interested friends and family continued to empty the cistern, picking through shards of glass, pieces of crockery, picnic bottles, rusted and degraded metal tin cans, caps from milk jugs, siding, shingles, a car door handle, the workings of a rusted push lawn mower, a potato fork, the head of a rake and, every so often, more of Isabel's work.

Once the cistern was emptied, it revealed itself as a space about nine feet in diameter and 10 feet deep.

Porch construction, stockpiling the 'finds'

Taylor had discovered the opening because she wanted to rebuild and expand her porch, and now that the cistern was emptied, she picked up that thread.

The new porch floor covers the hole where the cistern is, but Taylor had a trap door made in case she ever wants to re-investigate. As for what was retrieved, everything that was truly garbage was landfilled, but anything that looked like art work, and any glass, crockery, china or cookware, she packed in bins that she expects to go through, clean up and examine more closely.

One of the art pieces has her wondering if it might be John's work. It is a boy holding a lamb in his lap, and he's wearing overalls that have straps that cross in the back in an "X." This resembles one of the boys in the "Watching the Ferry" statue along the Mississippi River in Davenport that is based on a John Bloom lithograph. Bloom is not known to have done sculpture, but that's not to say he didn't experiment.

Another observation is that most of the pieces are colored with glazing; they do not have the blue-green-gray cast that became Isabel's signature color.

Amongst the statuary are flat pieces of clay with daubs of color, as though Isabel was trying to determine what certain colors would look like once they went through the firing process in her kiln.

"To see this glazing work is just amazing to me," Taylor said. "It is absolutely beautiful."

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