Joy Lamping Milano (seated) with Virginia Lamping with Blai, 1963

By Susan Spicer-McGarry

American Russian sculptor, Boris Blai, left an indelible mark on the world of art, education, and the lives of countless individuals. Born in Russia in 1893, Blai was a master sculptor, visionary, and innovative educator whose philosophy was to provide individual attention to the needs of each student for personal growth through art as the basis of successful teaching.

Blai sculpting General George Mead

Photographs of Blai offer a glimpse of a man in the full of life, distinguished, robustly fashioned, seemingly as indestructible as his bronzes, alight from within. Those who knew him, and other writings describe him as larger than life, augustly warm, magnetic, and dynamic with the physical presence of a championship wrestler; an artistic force of nature with powerful restless hands who strode through life with might and main — leaving change in his wake.

As a child, Blai exhibited artistic prowess and by age thirteen he was admitted to Russia’s Imperial Academy of Fine Arts. Upon graduation Blai continued his education in Germany and Ecole des Beaux Arts, Paris, where he apprenticed to French sculptor, Auguste Rodin. A close friend to Nicholas Romanoff, the last tzar of Russia, Blai fled his native country before the revolution and served in the French army during World War I. After the war, he came to the United States in 1918, settled in Philadelphia and became a United States citizen in 1931.

Through his friendship with sculptor R. Tait McKenzie, and his prominence in the art world, Blai became acquainted with Philadelphia’s wealthiest families. Through these contacts he taught private lessons in his home studio and later became the director of the Oak Lane Country Day School where he was inspired to found the Tyler School of Art at Temple University in 1935. Believing that art should be an integrated part of the total experience, as dean, Blai created an innovative curriculum combining sculpture, art, dance, music, and drama — emphasizing a student’s mastery of technique within the framework of a liberal arts curriculum.

Blai (center) with Jack Lamping and A. Paul King (far right) at a ceremony for the LBI Foundation

“My relationship with Dr. Boris Blai, started some seventy years ago,” says artist and educator Marvin Levitt. “It is a relationship that literally changed my life and set me on the course I believe I was truly destined to follow.” Levitt, under Blai’s auspices as head of the art department, briefly attended the Oak Lane Country Day School. “I will be forever grateful for the opportunity he gave me to realize my dreams.” In the course of his career, Levitt taught at his alma maters, the Oak Lane Country Day School and the Tyler School of Fine Arts where Blai had been his mentor and inspiration. Levitt believes the relationship was meant to be, as he taught at the LBI Foundation of the Arts for well over fifty years.

Drawn by his love of the ocean, Blai found his way to a narrow strip of sand along the New Jersey coast — Long Beach Island. There he left a far-reaching legacy that continues to touch lives and fan the embers in the souls of creatives; the LBI Foundation for the Arts and Sciences in Loveladies. During his decades on LBI, as an educator, artist and friend, Blai touched the lives of many Islanders and inspired countless students.

Larry Oliphant with bronze bust of his father Joseph

Joseph Oliphant, an LBI builder translated Blai’s vision of the Art Foundation’s building in Loveladies into brick, wood, and steel. Blai memorialized the ensuing relationship in bronze — a bust of his friend. Blai’s friendship with Joseph Oliphant was multi-generational. Oliphant’s son, Larry, recalls a visit to Blai’s studio in his Menlo Park, Pennsylvania home. “He showed me his chair which is now at Things A Drift, calling it his Pondering Chair. Blai explained that while sculpting he sat in the chair to ponder his next move.”

Joy Lamping Milano, formerly of Beach Haven, had the rare privilege of sitting for Blai in 1963. Her parents, Jack and Virginia Lamping, and Blai were long-time friends. Blai offered to sculpt her as a gift to his friends. Watching Blai at work was a unique opportunity which became an event for the Lamping family. “…I thought of Boris as a family friend,” recalled Joy. “He was a person we enjoyed… who was always giving me a sculpting knife and hunk of clay when we visited.”

Bronze sculpture of Blai by Stuart Feldman

Sculptor, Stuart Mark Feldman of Philadelphia, taught for many years at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and was an apprentice to Blai. “Boris always had important wisdom to impart that wasn’t always comprehensible to a budding sculptor, such as, ‘Put the clay in the right place and you have a work of art!’ He never quite defined what the right place was but over time I realized that, with experience, you learn where that is. Which, on reflection, makes sense since his other frequent wise saying was, ‘Time and repetition is your best teacher!’ Now, forty-seven years later, I am finally able to find the right place to put my clay.”

Boris Blai’s influence on art education is profound and enduring. His innovative teaching methods continue to inspire art educators, encouraging them to foster creativity and interdisciplinary approaches. Blai’s own sculptural works, celebrated for their emotional depth and technical prowess, are exhibited in galleries and museums globally, serving as a testament to his talent and contribution to the art world.

Blai’s vision and dedication transformed the landscape of art education and Long Beach Island and has left an indelible mark on future generations of artists and Islanders.

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