Sunday, January 24, 2010

It Really Is in the Details

This week is our last scheduled week of sculpting time on the John David Crow project. Next month, the studio team will begin molding the piece. This means that the next seven days represent our last opportunity to see the complete sculpture in one piece until the finish casting is created.

Preparations and work on the project have been such a big part of our work over the past few months that it’s a bit overwhelming to realize how far along we’ve come. And, of course, there’s the immediate pressure of making sure we get everything exactly right. The general fear that many experience when they realize they might have included a typo in a blog post or press release is nothing compared with the fear that you’ve made a mistake on a monumental bronze sculpture that will exist and be seen by millions of people for perpetuity.

Of course there are the mistakes that are subject of disaster nightmares (four toes, untied shoes, etc.), but the reality of the more likely errors is just as frightening. The project itself is so important to so many people, Steven as an artist, John David Crow and his family, the A&M donors who are purchasing the piece, and the legions of fans, that the pressure to “get it right” is enormous.

To the outside observer the sculpture seems all, but finished. Crow nearly sprints off his clay grass. Equipped in his period appropriate uniform, the sculpture features everything from detailed spikes on his cleats to the unique stripping found on mouth guards of that era. And yet, there is still much to do before the sculpture can be deemed, “finished.” I know from experience that it’s this final stage that Steven finds the most challenging. His current work days don’t have the immediate gratification of the early stages of the project. He can’t leave for the day content that there is an arm or leg that wasn’t there before. Instead, it’s a constant processes of evaluating and perfecting - checking on the draping and seams of the uniform and making sure that the texture of the piece is cohesive and suggests the different materials and finishes at play on the figure. It’s a difficult balance between making sure every detail is correct and preventing the sculpture from looking over-worked.

It’s the kind of details that only Steven and John David himself can see. For this reason we were thrilled when John David called late this week to say that he would fly in from Texas to give final notes on the project. It’s clear that in the time between today and his first visit early this fall he has come to terms with the project and accepted both the honor and the responsibility of the recognition. He came to the studio with a small leather (maroon of course) notebook with the list of questions and suggestions that he and his wife Caroline had compiled.

He was concerned about the curve of one of the pads on the figure. Caroline had shared that she thought he might have more muscular carves during his college career, although Crow thought she might have been suffering from a bit of romantic reminiscing. Each comment and reflection brought the monument one step closer to the level of authenticity required to make the final sculpture a true resonating celebration of John David and the era of his great athletic achievement.

One example of the importance of this personal input stuck me as particularly representative of how wondrous this work can be. Before his visit, we had been in back and forth communication with John David about the size of the feet on the sculpture. He kept saying he thought they were too big and we kept 'replying' that they were exactly twice the size of his actual feet and were, as a result, exactly to scale. During his visit he looked at the feet up close. Anxious to prove their accuracy, Steven got out a pair of calipers and measured John David’s feet. As promised the feet of the sculpture were two times as big. John David agreed that this was the case, but off-handedly pointed out that he wore one size smaller shoes when he played at A&M since it had been hard to find a size 10.
With that new information in hand, Steven has begun resizing the feet of the monument. It’s adherence to these kind of nuances that really set his work and the studio apart. I hope John David goes home to Texas and tells his wife that, as she requested, his sculpture is getting a few more muscles and that some day his great-great grandchildren will be able to share the story about how their “Poppa” fixed the size of the shoes on his sculpture.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Letting the Outside World In – Sharing, Showing Off and Cleaning Up

People are often amazed at how available Steven is to the public. There’s a commonly held assumption that the artistic process requires isolation and the kind of extreme concentration that can only come from working in a secluded studio or artist’s garret. In contrast, Steven has always thrived with public interaction, as he reminds me, the public, 'people' are his subject. However, higher profile projects have brought new attention to the studio and it’s been a little bit of shock to see our little world from the outside perspective.

The John David Crow project has brought some nice media coverage including newspaper and magazine articles and a recent feature on a local news program. Since we want to put our best face forward we actually have to clean up the studio. The pace of the project has us adding about 150 pounds of clay to the sculpture a day and none of it happens in a neat and tidy manner. Of course when I mentioned that Steven might want to change his shirt for the interview since the one he was wearing had a spot on it, he explained that he was just going to get clay on it anyway. It’s this slightly prepared, but still messy reality that is now captured on film.

Since the studio couldn’t exist without the support of our staff, much of the media coverage also includes comments by the staff. As always, they do us an incredible service and their comments on the work and the process make us both grateful and inspired. Lord Wellington seems to have made the smoothest transition to print and film. He takes no notice of the extra attention and may be the one true media star of the group.


As strange as it is to see yourself on film, it’s been wonderful to see how well the sculpture itself is photographing. Though still in progress, the piece is definitely taking shape and it’s clear that the finished work is going to convey the spirit and momentum Steven intended.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Balance of Old and New and the Risks of Tradition

We’re deep in the midst of the John David Crowe Monument project. The finished piece will measure almost 12 feet in height and the shear size of the project brings with it a host of challenges. First we’ve had to relocate large elements of the studio to an off-site annex studio with larger ceilings to permit Steven to work on the complete figure. The soaring figure is like a two story building and Steven spends much of his time either up on a ladder or on the new scaffolding we bought for the project. It’s caused a funny dynamic in the studio that reminds me of the power of having the top bunk when I was younger. Once up on the scaffolding, it’s hard to get down and the studio staff is forced to scramble around handing Steven everything from warm clay to glasses of water.

The actual construction of the piece is a mixture of old and new techniques. Steven studied in England and was trained in a very traditional and classical manner. We continue to find our greatest inspiration in the artistic achievements of the past ranging from the Albert Memorial to the Statue of Liberty. These mammoth memorials were produced in pain-stacking protracted techniques. In part it is this struggle that makes the finished monuments so truly awesome. Our monument work is an effort to successfully replicate the spirit of these historic landmarks while taking advantage of the benefits of modern technology.

Today many large-scale works are created with the use of computers in a process called foam enlargement. A sculptor creates a small version of a sculpture and then a computer scans the piece, calculates the rate of enlargement and then programs a laser to cut the larger version piece out of a block of very dense foam. This foam sculpture is then used in place of a traditional clay sculpture to produce the final bronze version of the piece. The process saves huge amounts of time and labor and eliminates many of the risks associated with a project of this size. But for us, the technique takes away from the overall impact of the piece and the distance it creates between the finished sculpture and the artist negatively impacts the artist process and the final creation.

As a result as we move forward with the project, we are constantly balancing the physical implications of the massive volume with our ultimate commitment to creating a product of high artistic quality. All of Steven’s sculptures are created with an armature or base that gives shape and support to the piece. Normally we use the armature to give the general suggestion of the figure, but in order to keep the Crow piece light enough to be even partially mobile Steven has added to the basic metal armature and sculpted the figure out of a new “sculptable” foam. He then lays thin sheets of clay over the foam body before addressing questions of texture and detailed expression.

As with so much of what we do the practicality of the process leads to elements of the surreal. Honored to be involved with such an impressive project, the whole staff remains frustrated with a week filled with rolling out dough/clay and working as a kind of temporary sculpture bakery. With apologies…I guess the project is starting to cook.