Creating The Humanity In Bronze Statues

New-York Historical Society / Don Pollard

You know what Abraham Lincoln looks like. You can spot Frederick Douglass’s hair from a mile away. So what could two statues possibly add to your understanding of these two men? According to Ivan Schwartz of StudioEIS, more than you’d think. The New-York Historical Society chose StudioEIS to cast bronze sculptures of each of these men for display outside our museum. But rather than casting another official-looking presidential bust into the mix, StudioEIS set out to capture the humanity of these men. We spoke with Ivan about his old-fashioned methods, fighting against preconceptions of Lincoln and Douglass and bringing these two men to life. But you can just be jealous of that time he got to touch Lincoln’s stovepipe hat.


Walk us through the process a little. Where do you find the models? How do you go about deciding the pose?

The first thing that one has to establish is ‘what is the essential narrative?’ What is it that ties a sculpture, an inanimate object, to a place that gives it its ultimate meaning. I think the narrative has to do with Lincoln and Douglass together, not just one. My view is that they complement each other and they add power to each other in 2011, and that’s the basic thing in my mind. In the history of presidential sculpture making, there are more than 600 official sculptures, and of the 600, more than a third are of Lincoln. So when you think about popular memory, public memory, here we are in 2011 working in a very old fashioned genre, creating this inanimate object, and most people think and feel and respond very differently than in, let’s say, 1908, when a memorial was dedicated in Fort Greene park to revolutionary soldiers. Twenty-thousand people came; today you almost have to pay them to show up! The studio made a really seminal piece unveiled in 2003 for the National Constitution Center of the signers of the constitution, and I thought “who is going to look at this old fashioned thing?” I went to the opening, and after it was open my brother went down and photographed the room and it was filled with kids. You could not distinguish the kids from the sculptures. In a way if you’re the sculptor today, you’re looking for engagement.


What brings that engagement?

The visitor always brings their popular memory, so everybody brings something to it. This is the third Lincoln sculpture we’ve done, and the setting is always different. Lincoln at Gettysburg has the burden of war, and the viewer is so aware of that that you can’t just look at him as honest Abe. You’re up against preconceptions. He was father of the army of the Potomac, great emancipator, etc. We may love Lincoln but people are more interested in who he was as a real man. I think with these two, they feel like real people, not cartoons. There is something about the essence of who we think Lincoln might have been. We measured Lincoln’s clothing and visited Frederick Douglass’ house and photographed it. There is something about that kind of connection to the real articles that adds a power, more so with Lincoln. They’re life sized, so people can even measure themselves physically with these people. In a way I think people are looking to claim something, seeking something, from the historical record, but they want it to be real.

In a way these funny, idiosyncratic old-fashioned objects, if they’re well done and they capture the spirit of the individual they tinker with memory in an important way. If we can somehow connect people who walk the streets today, in a world that is so different, to the memory of these people because of their deeds and struggles and heroism, then I would say one has succeeded mightily. I suppose that’s behind the historical sculptures. The rendering we made of Douglass is not only accurate, but it feels powerful to me because there are almost no renderings. There is something about Douglass, when you put him together with Lincoln, that I think given the struggles and sad history of race in America, these two images together represent something that is unmistakably powerful.


Lincoln’s personal secretary John G. Nicolay once said “there are many pictures of Lincoln; there is no portrait of him,” but that StudioEIS came close. How do you feel you did that? What were the challenges?

He really was right. In a way you have to realize that when I talk about being able to get it right, I’m talking about a physical representation that has an inkling of what a man might have been. If one really delves into the historical record, we’re scratching the surface. We’re making a simple representation of a very complex man. The Lincoln most people know was a man who had the time to sit for photographers, which is an awful lot. He knew the value of the photographic image. But he was in the hands of the photographers who set him up, and their careers were also made on photographing the rich. When you look at the 130 odd images, they fall into a narrow range, but if you read about him you read about a man with a great sense of humor. I think we come as close as we can, and given the advent of photography, it’s kind of an interesting thing.

Even though I can find the parameters for representing Lincoln successfully, given his relative importance, that tells you an awful lot of the regard Americans hold him in, and why there is a lot at stake.  Do I really know him? No. All I can say is as the sculptor, one longs to be in the same room as these people. The statue is meant to be arresting in that he has not been there for the first 75 years, and now he is. It animates the entrance. Hopefully our rendition adds a moment of reflection. That’s why you read books and go to movies, you look for other narratives.


Sculpting and bronze-casting are fairly old fashioned crafts. Why do you do it?

I had a very conventional training at a sculptor. I went to one of the last academies in the 1960s, but within about two years after I finished I became an abstract painter and painted for about thirty years in a completely different visual vocabulary. For me visual storytelling is at the heart of this, whether it’s abstraction or a literal narrative. I think what changed for me is that I became enormously interested in history and the ability to add some small footnotes was a compelling enough reason to continue doing it, and then at the moment when our personal fortunes increased, we were invited to do a whole series of presidents and what that meant was that those institutions, they had to trust us in terms of representation, which meant we were being invited to look at objects in the historical records that very few people had the opportunity to explore. I measured that iconic top hat of Lincoln, and very few people in the world get to do that. An aspect of that made everything I was doing that much more interesting. If we could figure out how big Lincoln’s waist was, that didn’t guarantee a great sculpture but it wasn’t a bad place to start. It was a very important aspect of what we were doing.


Were there any details on these two statues you found interesting or challenging to work with?

Frederick Douglass, he came together more easily. We actually produced the sketches in the rotunda on 77th Street, and the sketches led to the final portraits. Every time you do one of these Lincoln sculptures you look for something you haven’t done before. That made it harder. We wanted to go deeper. With regards to Douglass, he is a compelling looking man, so the easiest things to get wrong were the obvious, the hair and the beard. The materials are so different to real hair, and it could easily have gone wrong, and I think we would have a caricature. But the representation worked extremely well. Douglass is unflinching in his strength of determination, he was easier. The challenges were purely technical, whereas inLincoln you never stop trying to find that essential man. It’s been done several hundred times, and what would be the point of adding yet another Lincoln sculpture? You never know until you finally do the installation and there he is, standing there for the first time. We began by taking a life size photograph to the New-York Historical Society.

I hope it adds a kind of warm and engaging response from visitors who are coming. To me this is how I go through life, finding a narrative that keeps me engaged, this is what I am about. And so in pursuit of work that has meaning and is executed at a high level is what gives me great and deep satisfaction.


Related: The Day Thanksgiving Was Born




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