ERWIN FREDERICK FREY, Sculptor (1892-1967)

William Oxley Thompson, by Erwin Frey, dedicated June 7, 1930

The hulking bronze statue of Ohio State University President William Oxley Thompson in front of Main Library is one of the most familiar statues in the state of Ohio. Every day for the past 80 years, thousands of students, faculty, and staff have walked past it. It is one of the most photographed objects on campus. It has served as the backdrop for numberless graduation photos. The statue is iconic, immediately calling to mind Ohio State. It has appeared in legions of promotional photos for the school. The statue even has campus folklore surrounding it. (It's long been said that if a virgin ever graduates from the university, the statue will come to live, start flapping its arms, and wing away west across the Olentangy.)

As well-known as the statue is, the man who made it is much less well-known.

Erwin Frederick Frey

Born Lima, Ohio

Studied at/with

Rookwood, Zanesville Encaustic Tile

New York


New York, Paris

broke and in love

Came to Columbus Museum of Art, then Ohio State

Sculptor-in-residence, professor at Ohio State 1927-61

4387 Olentangy Blvd. in Beechwold

Chief Tahgahjute and other sculptures at Indianola Middle School, 1927-29

One of Frey's more unusual commissions was a 1928 sculpture officially called The Prehistoric Sculptor, although it was better known as The Mound Builder. This life-size representation of an ancient Ohioan of the Mound Builder culture, working on an arrowhead, was displayed for many years in the Ohio Archaeological and Historical Society Museum on W. 15th Ave. in what is today known as Sullivant Hall.

Society directory Henry Shetrone, an archaeologist who excavated at Seip Mound, Mound City, and The Hopewell Group, worked carefully with Frey to ensure the accuracy of the figure:

The sculptor, Erwin F. Frey, effected the restoration by using an actual skeleton from a Hopewell-culture mound of Ohio and employing the scheme of anatomical measurements evolved by Dr. J. H. McGregor of Columbia University. The facial features, as the nose and lips, not being determinable by such methods, were posed by a full-blood Indian of the Pawnee nation.

Ornaments, implements, and wearing apparel for the most part are replicas of actual specimens found with mound burials, as copper ear ornaments and bracelets, necklace of fresh-water pearls and bear teeth, copper axe, pottery vessel, and flint implements. The wearing of feathers in the hair and of moccasin-like sandals is suggested by vestiges of each found in place with skeletons. The loin cloth is reproduced from actual woven fabric with colored designs accompanying mound burials.

--H.C. Shetrone, The Mound Builders (1930)

Shetrone was so impressed with the final work that he reproduced it in a full-color plate at the beginning of his landmark work The Mound Builders (1930). For his part, Frey didn't much enjoy the project, finding it too scientific and insufficiently artistic.

William Beatty, Knights of Pythias home, 901 w high St, Springfield, Ohio, 1924

Dryad, 1929