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Artist Lily Tolpo dies; celebrated sculptor of Lincoln

Lily Tolpo, the Chinese-Polish daughter of Chicago restaurant owners, started out in life as a violin-playing cutie in the “Hollywood Cowgirls,” a mini-skirted touring revue featuring Dot Hackley and her rodeo rope tricks.

Mrs. Tolpo became a celebrated artist who won Illinois’ highest honor for her sculptures of Abraham Lincoln and other historical figures.

Her monument of the Lincoln-Stephen Douglas debate is a centerpiece of Freeport in northwest Illinois. President Bill Clinton was presented with a miniature replica. She and her husband, artist Carl Tolpo, created the Lincoln head sculpture and bronze bas relief plaques at the Lake County courthouse in Waukegan. Her statue of first lady Julia Grant overlooks the grounds outside the Ulysses S. Grant home in Galena.

Between working on heroic-sized sculptures, she did commissioned paintings of Chicago society figures, prominent physicians and suburban settlers like Fred Pesche, who opened Pesche’s flowers in Des Plaines in 1923. Some of her work is in the collection of the Smithsonian, said her son, Vincent.

Mrs. Tolpo died Jan. 30 at the Elizabeth Nursing and Rehab Center in Elizabeth, Ill. She was 97.

She grew up the oldest of five children in a home where three languages were spoken: English, Polish and Chinese. Her mother, Mary LaBuda, left her hometown near Krakow at 14 to answer a recruitment drive for farm workers in Wisconsin. After toiling for three years to work off her passage, she headed to Chicago, where she had relatives.

She started working at a South Side Chinese restaurant, where she met her future husband, Sing Hong Mark, a San Franciscan who was hoping to become an electrician. Alone and away from their families, their cultural differences didn’t stand in the way of their courtship, Vincent Tolpo said. Trade unions weren’t all that friendly to Chinese-Americans in those days, so they opened a Chinese restaurant at 6219 S. Cicero in the late 1920s.  It operated into the 1960s, when it was a popular destination for pilots and travelers at Midway Airport.

The young Lily Mark took violin lessons and attended Everett grade school and Lindblom High School. Talent won her a scholarship to the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts from artist Ruth Van Sickle Ford, a mentor to Pulitzer-Prize winning cartoonist Bill Mauldin, who went on to join the Chicago Sun-Times.  He received the award for his cartoons of bedraggled but stoic World War II soldiers, works that irked the high command, including Gen. George S. Patton.

When school was out in the summer,  she joined the “Hollywood Cowgirls,” a revue featuring Dot Hackley, known as the “Rodeo Queen” for her lasso tricks, delivered with yips and yodels. She performed with the act from about 1935-1939, her son said. (Twenty years later, Hackley was still doing the tricks in the 1958 C-movie “Dreamland Capers,” starring a young Lenny Bruce and burlesque queens with names like Justa Dream.)

In 1939, she met her husband after an Arts Club of Chicago showing of “Guernica,” Picasso’s painting of the suffering Basque city bombed by the Nazis during the Spanish Civil War. She described their first encounter in a 2002 interview with the Daily Herald.

“There was a crowd gathered in one spot, and I asked some people what was going on,” she recalled. “They told me there was a guy talking about Picasso’s work and when the crowd dissipated there he was, Carl Tolpo lambasting Picasso. And the more he talked, I said, you know, he makes sense. I was mesmerized.”

Carl Tolpo not only found “Guernica” grotesque and brutal. He also picketed the Daley Center Picasso after its 1967 unveiling, their son said. And he wrote letters to the editor to protest the 1975 Rolling Meadows display of Picasso’s “The Bather,” an abstract, nude female statue he called “deformed,” “perverted” and “corrupt.”

The couple wed in 1941 and lived at the Tree Studios at Ohio and State. They had three children. All became artists. Every summer in those pre-highway days, the Tolpos drove to Yellowstone National Park via two-lane Route 20. They stayed the entire summer, painting the canyons and vistas.

“My grandfather was a Buddhist and my grandmother was Catholic. I was baptized at the foot of the Yellowstone Falls by our father,” their son said. “We had our own religious ideas.”

Their mother’s high cheekbones and dark hair and eyes sometimes confused Native Americans around Yellowstone. They “would come up to her and ask her what tribe she was from, and she would say ‘no,’ and they would get angry at her for denying her background,” her son said.

The Tolpos moved to Barrington, where they had a home and studio. In the living room, Vincent Tolpo said, “You would have seen a giant plaster bust of Abraham Lincoln, his original bust that [Carl Tolpo] kept in the home, plaster, 42 inches high. The TV was under it.”

Her husband also created an 11-foot-tall statue of Sen. Everett M. Dirksen (R. Ill.) on the grounds of the state capitol in Springfield. In 1965, his bust of Lincoln’s head was installed at the site of the president’s assassination, Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.

It took 10 years to get funding for Mrs. Tolpo’s Lincoln-Douglas monument, said Mickey Martin, a former City Council member in Freeport. “There was nothing she wouldn’t tackle,” Martin said. In 1992, Mrs. Tolpo unveiled the sculpture, near the site of the original Freeport debate. The fanfare helped lead to Freeport’s re-enactment of the debate, an event televised by C-SPAN.

Before completing the statue, Mrs. Tolpo took a miniature clay model to Ralph G. Newman, one of the state’s foremost Lincoln scholars. He told her Lincoln should be looking at Douglas. “She popped off the head, turned it and said, ‘Is this it?’ ” Martin recalled. “That’s it,” he said, and she modified the pose.

Illinois awarded her the Order of Lincoln, the state’s highest honor, in 2009.

To the end of her life, her violin remained a treasured possession. “She played Korsakov’s ‘Scheherazade’ constantly,” her son said.

Mrs. Tolpo’s husband died in 1976. She also is  survived by her daughters, Christine T. Bader and Carolyn T.  Smith, three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. A memorial is planned in the spring.