You will soon be able to commune with lifelike busts of Mark Twain, Thomas Edison, George Washington, and Franklin D. Roosevelt—among others—at a new art museum coming to downtown Waynesboro. Housed in the former Porsche dealership across the street from the Wayne Theater at 518 W. Main St., the University of Science and Philosophy (USP) is preparing to open soon. In addition to the university headquarters, it will house the impressive collection of Walter Russell’s paintings, sculptures, illustrations, books, archives, even hand-carved furniture —which have been in storage for 20 years since the university vacated Swannanoa in 1998. The opening was originally planned for May 3, the 70th anniversary of the university’s dedication in 1949, but the recent discovery of the need for an expensive repair to the sprinkler system may delay that. Another possible date is May 19, the anniversary of Russell’s birth.
“Our mission is to preserve Walter Russell’s legacy,” explained Matt Presti, president of the USP—a tall, fit young man with a black beard and a piercing gaze. “But we also hope to inculcate character. Cell phones should be turned off when you visit; we want people to take the art into their souls, not their cell phones.” After a career as an audio engineer for various Fortune 500 companies, Presti is moving his green-screen A/V studio here.
The 32,500 sq. ft. building is centrally located and an ideal gallery space. It was purchased by USP board member William C. Cranwell and leased to the non-profit USP for $1/year. Additional donors invested more than $60,000 to fund building repairs, upgrades, and utilities. Handicapped-accessible bathrooms and a wheelchair lift were recently added. Last fall, it took seven volunteers nine days to move 64 tons of art, sculpture, and personal effects from their storage warehouse in Cremora to the museum, which will include an art gallery, science exhibit, meeting rooms/conference center, A/V production area, traveling/local art exhibit which will change every six months, and a museum shop to sell books, art prints, and eventually sculptural miniatures. Classes in the fine arts will be offered for all ages, and regular guest speakers—including Oscar-nominated actor Terrence Howard—are planned for the future. “We hope to nurture artistic creativity in our community,” Presti said. The conference center may be rented for corporate meetings as well as events such as weddings, with catering available through the back.
The front of the building features replicas from Russell’s Four Freedoms Monument, which was commissioned in 1943 by President Roosevelt and dedicated to Colin P. Kelly, the first member of the U.S. armed services to die in World War II. The monument was inspired by FDR’s 1941 State of the Union address to Congress, designed in part to rally public support for the U.S. joining the war against Hitler’s fascist regime. In this speech, he declared that “people in all nations of the world shared Americans’ entitlement to four freedoms: the freedom of speech and expression, the freedom to worship God in one’s own way, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear.” The Four Freedoms Monument was dedicated before a crowd of 60,000 at Madison Square Garden in New York City in 1943, and later gifted to Kelly’s hometown in Madison, Florida. Worship is praying, Speech holds a scroll, Freedom from Want holds a cornucopia, and Freedom from Fear holds aloft a bent sword. All four original statues were portrayed as angels, with large wings.
“Walter Bowman Russell (1871-1963) was a creative genius,” said Presti. “He mastered all the five Fine Arts, including music, painting, sculpture, architecture, and literature—plus science and philosophy.” Born in Boston, he was educated in Massachusetts and Paris. During his lifetime he led careers as an illustrator, war correspondent, child portrait painter, sculptor, successful builder, and scientific philosopher. At age 29, his allegorical painting The Might of Ages represented the United States at the Turin international exhibition. He became a leader in the Science of Man Movement and was elected president of the Society of Arts and Sciences in 1927. When he died in 1963, Walter Cronkite called him the “Leonardo da Vinci of our time.” Besides the Four Freedoms and his many busts of presidents and other famous people, his masterpiece is a sketch model for the Mark Twain Memorial, commissioned by the Mark Twain Centennial Commission in 1935, which features Twain surrounded by twenty-eight of his fictional characters. Unfortunately, in the midst of the Great Depression, the money was never raised to complete the full sculpture, but the sketch model replica is on display at the Mark Twain Museum in Hannibal, Missouri along with a large bust of Twain, whom Russell had met at the Authors Club in New York City.
Russell experienced a revelatory event of “cosmic illumination” in 1921, which he described in his Message of the Divine Iliad (1949). He believed that God’s Light of creativity is inherent in all people, and that God is the “universal source of all inspiration.” “Mediocrity is self-inflicted,” he wrote, and “Genius is self-bestowed.” His primary legacy is his unique Cosmogony, developed in his books The Universal One (1926), The Secret of Light (1947), and A New Concept of the Universe (1953), in which he challenged then-current theoretical physics with a new explanation of the relationship between matter and energy, and between electricity and magnetism. He wrote that Religion and Science must come together in a New Age. “The art is inspiring,” Presti said. “There are various messages out there, but Russell’s message has proof to back it up.”
Russell credited his wife Lao, who took this name after the author of the Tao Te Ching, with bringing his philosophy to life. He first wrote his prospectus for a University of Science and Philosophy in 1936, but after he and Lao were married in 1948, they searched for the “sacred mountain” that she had seen in a vision. They opened the University at Swannanoa in 1950 as a world cultural center “founded for the unification of mankind through greater knowledge of the Light.” Their home study course continues to be shipped all over the world. Together they sculpted Lao’s vision of Christ as the Light of the World, with his hands clasped to his chest in prayer, which they mounted on a tiered pedestal to become the 30-foot Christ of the Blue Ridge in the garden at Swannanoa. Its inscription read in part, “to the principle of love and the unity of man which Jesus gave to mankind.” Although this statue was broken beyond repair during the move to storage after Lao’s death, the USP still owns the mold and hopes one day to cast a replica for display at the museum.
“Russell’s sculptures were known for capturing the soul of his subjects in their eyes, where he always embedded a small glint,” pointed out art restoration specialist Jim Porter.
The Waynesboro museum will be open three or four days a week for an admission charge of under $10, less for children. A staff of three—Presti, Shipping Manager Cindy Lewis, and Chief Science Officer Darren Colomb—will be assisted by a volunteer crew consisting of current and former students to provide tours and staff the shop. Parking is available in the public lot just up the street. Volunteers are always welcome, and you may donate to the ongoing fundraising effort at www.philosophy.org.