Brandeis’ campus can, to the untrained and uninterested eye, seem to have a random assortment of sculptures and art spread throughout. From our philosophical boy laying outside the library, to the somewhat random sticks placed into the ground in between the Shapiro Student Center and the Office of Admissions, Brandeis’ art on campus can appear forced. In fact, the only sculpture which seems reasonable on our campus is the statue of Louis Brandeis adjacent to Fellows Garden.
But on upper campus, just outside of the Usdan Student Center, stands a sculpture most of us probably walk by without even seeing. There rests a gray marble obelisk which blends into the pine trees to the south of it and blends into the monotony of the brutalist brick to the north of it. This sculpture does not have any plaque associated with it and is almost begging for something more, such as a water feature, around it to emphasize its presence.
With only a quick glance you would be sure to miss it and with a longer look one may think that when you tilt your head a certain way that it seems almost phallic. But, as you come closer to the smooth marble which stands before you one can see that it almost appears to be fountain-like, as if the rock was propelled out of the earth like the water at the Bellagio fountain in Las Vegas. This fountain has nothing immediately around it to suggest its reason for being there and is almost entirely void of any signature or artistic recognition at all.
But on the side of the fountain which faces the Schwartz lecture hall there is a single word: “Hexter.”
As it turns out, this word is all one needs to know to learn the origins of this sculpture and more impressively, the man behind it. Maurice Beck Hexter was the sculptor responsible for the gray marble monument. He donated it to Brandeis University in 1970 despite only starting his career in sculpting in 1951, as recorded by art website Alamy.
But Hexter’s life was not defined, nor did it center around sculpting at first! As recorded by the Jewish American Archives, Hexter was born in Cincinnati in 1891 to two German immigrants. For the early part of his life, Hexter did not leave the Cincinnati area. He worked for a local newspaper distributing papers throughout the city and even graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 1912.
Unsure of where to begin his career due to differing opinions based on his faith and education, Hexter began a life of social work and advancement of social justice through his faith. His involvement with such started as Hexter tought English at the Jewish Settlement House. From there, his desire to work in Jewish charities blossomed because in 1913, Hexter began work in the office of the United Jewish Charities of Cincinnati. However, after only one year of working in Cincinnati he transferred to become the director of the Federation of Jewish Charities in Milwaukee.
But Hexter returned home after two years to re-join the United Jewish Charities of Cincinnati as superintendent. If history is any help when predicting the future, it is clear looking upon Hexter’s short time in social work that he was already moving around a lot while also moving up in his positions at each charity organization. This continued in 1919 when Hexter was given the opportunity to travel east and move to Boston where he would become the Executive Director of the Federation of Jewish Charities.
During his time in Boston, Hexter did not just simply work for the Federation of Jewish Charities, he also attended Harvard University where he received a doctorate in social ethics in 1924. However, Hexter’s ambitions did not end with the attainment of his doctorate either. Hexter also became a professor at Harvard University and Simmons College where he tought social ethics to students until 1929 when he moved to Jerusalem.
Hexter’s social work and philanthropy followed him around the globe as he began work in Israel. He was drawn there because from 1927 to 1929 he worked as the secretary of the Joint Palestine Survey Committee, growing his interest in the conflict and finding resolutions. But his move to Israel was primarily twofold: he was appointed as a non-Zionist member of the Council of the Jewish Agency for Palestine and was also there to direct the Palestine Emergency Fund. Under his purview, Hexter was able to collect $2.5 million worldwide with the Palestine Emergency Fund to rebuild homes destroyed during rioting between Arabs and Jews.
This placed Hexter in a very important role not only in social work and philanthropy but also in politics as between 1930 and 1931 he spent a considerable amount of time negotiating with the British Cabinet on the Palestine conflict. Until his return to the United States in 1938, Hexter continued to increase his work as in 1935 he was promoted within the Jewish Agency for Palestine to lead the agency’s colonization project.
When he returned to the United States, Hexter moved to New York City to join the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies and three years later was made an executive vice president of the federation, a position he held until he retired in 1967. His work in New York City was beyond that of what he had previously accomplished. Hexter was responsible for the allocation of nearly $500 million, made mostly as contributions, to support the federation’s network of health and welfare agencies. And it was under his leadership that the federation was successful in expanding communal planning, services and in leading the federation’s expansion into foster-child care, medical staffing in hospitals and improved services for the elderly.
Hexter’s work was defined by his relentless quest to serve the world and improve it, which is why when given the opportunity he also worked to develop collegiate programs in social work, policy and justice, such as the one he developed here at Brandeis University.
But where does his career as a sculptor ever occur in his life? Why is it that the gray marble statue bears his name? Well, in 1950 Hexter’s daughter Marjorie brought home clay from a summer sculpting course and from there Hexter became deeply committed to learn how to sculpt. He began with clay and soon was able to work with a number of different materials as well. His sculptures were no simple hobby or fleeting interest as he seriously picked up the passion in 1956 after only five years of experience, and in 1979 won two gold medals for his art at the National Sculpture Show.
Hexter’s life is a testament to the power of fortitude and zeal. He was a man whose life was defined, but not confined, by his identity. He expressed his faith and his passion to change the world in every step he took. His life was full of work, people and places which seem from afar to be different and unable to join together. But it is his work which proves that those are only assumptions which can be made when we do not engage with the issues surrounding us and act to improve them. Hexter’s life is evidence of the fact that nothing is beyond repair.
So, as we here at Brandeis walk from lower campus to upper campus and vice versa, as we gaze upon the odd collection of art, infrastructure and architecture here, rather than be confused by it we should be inspired by it. Inspired to know that there exists no world in which different and seemingly opposite things cannot exist in harmony together. Take a moment. Do not just look at the art on campus, but understand it and its history! Because it may not be highly visible, it may not be flashy or cohesive but it most certainly is a testament to our values.
For those interested in learning more about Maurice Beck Hexter, you can read his biography, titled Life Size.