Gabriella Polony Mountain: A Life in Art

Exhibit lauds works of prolific artist.

Dragons, copper repousse door
Dragons, copper repousse door.

The ranch home in a quiet, south Kansas City neighborhood is low-slung and shaded, quintessentially suburban. Until you reach the entrance.

The large double doors are striking, jacketed in copper with graceful, hammered-out, repoussé images of abstract nudes. Quite literally, they are works of art – and a fitting gateway to the extraordinary world of Gabriella Polony Mountain.

Inside, from the front hallway to the immense family room to the lower level that once housed her studio, is the life’s work of one of Kansas City’s most talented and diverse artists. Sculptures. Mosaics. Stained glass. Weavings. Polony Mountain’s talents are on display, as well, in homes, buildings, and churches across the region. She designed the stained-glass windows in the chapel at Whiteman Air Force Base east of Warrensburg, Mo. She composed the mosaic floor of downtown Kansas City’s old Main Library at 12th and McGee.

The Kansas City Public Library is opening a new exhibit space in its downtown Central Library, the Rocky and Gabriella Mountain Gallery, named for the now-96-year-old Hungarian émigré and her late husband. Some 40 pieces from her collection are featured in an upcoming exhibit, “Gabriella Polony Mountain: A Life in Art,” that will be the first to go on display there.

It spotlights an artist who, despite her bold, colorful body of work, has remained largely beneath Kansas City’s radar.

“Rocky once said, ‘Why have you done all this?’ ” Polony Mountain says. “I said, ‘Because it was in me. It had to get out. I worked day and night. It was my passion.’ ”

She knew that from an early age. Born in 1918 and raised in the Central European city of Bratislava – in a house atop a hill along the Danube – Gabriella started drawing at about age 12 but appeared destined to follow her father Moritz and oldest brother Emre into law. She studied law for three years, then broke away to attend art school in England.

Painting remained her interest. One day, though, Polony Mountain stepped into the sculpture studio and “it comes from above: You are going to be a sculptor,” she remembers. “This has happened to me often, this feeling.

“I came home and told my father, ‘I’m going to be an artist. He said, ‘It’s OK. You do what you feel you have to do. I hope you don’t need money.’ He thought that he could leave me money but the Communists came (the Soviets liberating the city from German occupation near the end of World War II) and everything was lost.”

Polony Mountain wound up at the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest, and studied further in Rome. Fleeing the Communists with her first husband, Elemer, she arrived in American in 1951 with only their luggage and $120. He was a painter. They had met in Budapest. The couple originally was headed to California but landed in Kansas City with Elemer’s brother and his family.

The outgoing Gabriella assimilated more easily than her young husband, their relationship suffered, and they divorced. But it had been providence again that steered her to Kansas City. Gabriella met Herman “Rocky” Mountain, who was to become the love of her life.

She made her mark as an artist soon after settling in Kansas City, first doing commissioned work. Polony Mountain won a Huntington Hartford Fellowship, awarded by a foundation established by the A&P supermarket heir, philanthropist, and arts patron to foster community creativity in the arts. A year later, in 1955, she received a Louis Comfort Tiffany Fellowship named for the American artist and designer known best for work in stained glass.

Polony Mountain later earned a craftsmanship award from the Kansas City chapter of the American Institute of Architects for the repoussé doors she made for a home in St. Joseph and the chapter’s Art in Architecture for a repoussé fireplace mantle created for a residence in Kansas City.

She continued creating into her 90s. Polony Mountain turned to a loom and weaving after the loss of strength in her hands made it difficult for her to work in other mediums.

Now, she says, she is finished, content to put the work of some seven decades on public display. “I have done everything I wanted to do,” she says.

“I was so lucky. I don’t know how that happens but that’s how it was with me. 
I just had a wonderful life, I have to tell you.”

–Steve Wieberg

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