Hannibal News

Hannibal native achieved fame for creating soap sculptures, mannequins

By Herald-Whig
Posted: Feb. 23, 2019 12:01 am Updated: Feb. 23, 2019 11:50 pm

HANNIBAL, Mo. -- A Hannibal-born artist who carved a niche for himself on the New York fashion and social scene from the 1930s through the 1960s is being remembered in a new art exhibit opening March 2 at the Hannibal Arts Council.

Lester Gaba, who died in 1987 and is buried in Hannibal's B'nai Sholem Cemetery at the south end of Riverside Cemetery, will be one of six featured artists whose work will be exhibited through March 23.

Gaba was known for being a sculptor, writer and retail display designer. Nora Creason and Don Metcalf of Hannibal, who collect art, are loaning the HAC their collection of Gaba's paintings and some of the commercial soap products that were developed from his soap carvings.

Gaba initially achieved fame for his handiwork as a soap sculptor -- a skill he developed early in life.

At age 10, Gaba competed in a Procter and Gamble soap sculpture contest. Later, his Hannibal High School art teacher encouraged him to keep developing his soap-sculpting skills, which he continued to do after moving first to Chicago and then New York.

While employed making posters for the Balaban and Katz theater corporation in New York, an art director noticed the soap figurines Gaba had carved and was impressed.

Within a relatively short period, Gaba's figurines started appearing on magazine covers to help illustrate various topics.

According to a 1969 story in The Herald-Whig, Gaba eventually won the approval of the Ivory Soap Co. and developed a series of soap sculptures used for Ivory ads. Gaba then went on to sculpt a number of larger figures that were used in national advertisements for such companies as DuPont.

Gaba even sculpted from soap a large reproduction of Rodin's "The Thinker" statue that received acclaim for its simplicity and detail.

Gaba's work was ultimately developed into a line of commercial soap products featuring such popular characters as Popeye, Shirley Temple, Scrappy, Margy and Yippy.

Gaba's creation of a Popeye soap-on-a-rope earned him the title of "Michelangelo of the Bathtub" in one admiring article.

Gaba's carving skills led to the creation of some unique full-size mannequins, which came to be known as "Gaba Girls." The mannequins were used for commercial widow displays in several New York storefronts.

One mannequin in particular, Cynthia, was made for Saks Fifth Avenue and was "so beautifully executed and lifelike she became the first window mannequin to escape from her glass house," the 1969 story said.

As a publicity stunt, Gaba would carry the 100-pound mannequin to restaurants, nightclubs and parties where she would be seen holding a cigarette while sitting silently next to Gaba.

In 1937, Life magazine dispatched famed photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt to shoot a series of photos of Gaba and Cynthia as they traveled around New York by bus and car. As Cynthia's fame grew, she also appeared on TV and in at least one movie. Fashion designers and jewelers would send her things to wear.

Cynthia's moment in the spotlight ended after she slipped from a chair in a beauty salon and shattered.

Gaba went on to gain fame as a window display expert. From 1941 to 1967 he wrote a weekly column for Women's Wear Daily called "Lester Gaba Looks at Display." Gaba also staged elaborate fashion shows and later taught merchandising classes. In addition, he wrote a textbook, "The Art of Visual Display," and even produced a series of jewelry. He began painting still lifes in his retirement years.

Nora Creason said she first learned about Gaba from her Hannibal High School art teacher, Mary Wiehe, who showed students a book Gaba wrote about soap sculpting.

"We looked through it and thought it was really fascinating," Creason said.

When Creason and her husband moved back to Hannibal about 10 years ago, she said, "I got very interested in the history of Hannibal" and started collecting artwork by some former Hannibal artists.

Creason and Metcalf eventually found four paintings and one lithograph created by Gaba. They also found some of his commercial soap products, magazine covers, a brooch he designed and a scarf he wore -- all of which will be in the HAC display, along with the 1924 HHS yearbook displaying Gaba's photo.

"He was not one of your average Hannibalians," Creason said. "He socialized with celebrities and the elite of New York."

She said his appearances with Cynthia were a type of performance art.

"That's what he did to get a lot of publicity," Creason said. "He wanted to be seen, and he went to the right places. He wanted all the famous people to look at him and what he was doing. That was Lester Gaba."

Creason will speak about Gaba at 6 p.m. Friday, March 2, during the exhibit's opening reception, which is from 5 to 7 p.m. at 105 S. Main.

Brenda Beck Fisher, program coordinator for the Hannibal Arts Council, said the Gaba display is being offered as part of a series of special exhibits in celebration of Hannibal's bicentennial year in 2019.

Fisher said she didn't know about Gaba until this exhibit started taking shape.

"I continue to be amazed at what pops up out of Hannibal's history," she said.

More information about the exhibit is available at HannibalArts.com. A YouTube video about Gaba and Cynthia can be seen at https://bit.ly/2Iv7k6k.