Departed Hero: Mark Ritter Sponenburgh (b.1916-2012)
December 20th, 2012 | 4:35 pm
Monuments Man Mark Sponenburgh has passed away at the age of 95. A sculptor, historian, and educator, Mark Sponenburgh began his service with the MFAA in late 1945. He was previously enlisted in the Corps of Engineers as part of the 9th Engineers Command. Sponenburgh worked with the cartography section dictating and reproducing maps as the command prepared for D-Day and then crossed France, Holland, Belgium, and the Rhineland. After joining the MFAA, he was initially stationed at the Wiesbaden Collecting Point where he saw the famed Bust of Nefertiti, among other treasures, and was then assigned to the Alt Aussee mine. While at Alt Aussee, Sponenburgh supervised the transportation and packing of artworks and led the first armed convoy to the Munich Collecting Point, driven through the snowy, narrow roads of the Alps.
Prior to World War II, he was graduated from the Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1940 and then began working as a sculptor. After completing his military service, Sponenburgh attended the Ecôle des Beaux Arts in Paris. He later received an AM from the University of Cairo in 1952 and his Master’s from the University of London in 1957. In 1970, he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from the National Council of Arts.
Sponenburgh’s artistic career spanned many decades. As a sculptor, Sponenburgh’s works focused on the relationships of nature to art, which in his eyes “glorify one another,” and particularly those of animals, the sea, and natural phenomena. Found objects and natural materials of the northwest also repeatedly appeared in his sculptures. One of his earliest works, Madonna in Walnut, received an award in 1941 at the annual exhibition of Michigan artists, and may now be seen at the Detroit Institute of Art. Eternus, a bronze relief sculpture of waves, was installed in 1985 at the Yaquina Head Lighthouse in Oregon.
Sponenburgh also had a remarkable career as an educator. From 1946 to 1956 he was a professor at the University of Oregon and then spent the next year as a visiting professor at the Royal College of Arts in London. In 1958, Sponenburgh received a Fulbright research fellowship and taught in Egypt and Pakistan, then taught for two more years at the National College of Arts, Pakistan. While there, he redesigned the academic structure and gave new life to the then 75-year-old institution. It goes largely to Sponenburgh’s credit that today artists of international caliber are emerging from this institution. He returned to Oregon in 1961 and embarked on a lengthy career at Oregon State University, where he was named Professor Emeritus in 1984. A colleague at OSU referred to him as a “superb lecturer and teacher, and most highly respected by undergraduate and graduate students alike.” He endowed the Sponenburgh Travel Award at the University which is awarded to an advanced graduate student every year. In 1990, Mark and Janeth Hogue Sponenburgh donated their art collection to the Hallie Ford Museum of Art at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. The collection consists of over 250 Ancient, European, Middle Eastern, and Asian art objects.
I had the pleasure of visiting with Mark at his seaside cottage on two occasions, the latter accompanied by a good friend of ours, John Olbrantz, director of the HFM. Mark lived the fullest of lives right up to the moment of his passing. Our conversations resembled travel tags of the world as we asked each other, “Have you been to ….?” Wonderful stories always followed, his the more fascinating. This soft-spoken World War II veteran and Monuments Man will be missed by the many lives he touched. With his passing there are now just six living Monuments officers.