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Bringing clay to life


WORLD Radio - Bringing clay to life

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Wednesday, August 5th. You’re listening to WORLD Radio and we’re so glad you are! Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Myrna Brown. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: bringing clay to life.

For centuries, sculptures have inspired humanity. You’re likely familiar with some of the most famous works: Michelangelo’s David, The Thinker by Auguste Rodin, and The Terracotta Army in China.

REICHARD: Here now is our latest installment in our occasional series, What Do People Do All Day.  WORLD’s Sarah Schweinsberg met up with a modern-day sculptor to find out what goes into creating these works of art.

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: Benjamin Victor is hard at work in his Boise, Idaho, studio. He’s sculpting a famous American icon. A life size and life-like cowboy. 

VICTOR: I gave him a little bit heavier eyelids and I’m gonna give him some more crow’s feet by his eyes. He’s looking out into the sunset, maybe sunrise. 

The cowboy sits on a tall quarter horse. One hand holds the reins and the other rests on his hip. 

VICTOR: I’m about two months in the cowboy on the horse…

The clay sculpture is nearing completion, but it started as a skeleton of metal bars, wires, and wooden dowels. These create the object’s basic shape. 

VICTOR: And then I’ll go over it with clay.

An oven keeps the yellowish clay Victor uses warm. That makes it moldable.

VICTOR: Feel that—so it works very easily. But then if you feel right here, that’s it room. So it hardens. Yeah, the colder it gets the harder the clay is. 

As he adds clay, he fills out the body shapes. Victor is classically trained. That means he tries to create sculptures that imitate real life as closely as possible. To do that he consults real objects. He has a skeleton in the corner. 

VICTOR: I’m always looking at the anatomy…I’ve got lots of little tools for reference. 

By his workstation, Victor has taped pictures to a cork board of cowboys on horses. The cowboys wear different styles of chaps, bandanas, and hats. 

VICTOR: I’m looking at the pictures and I might want to add like a blanket over the back or the lasso on the side… 

Victor says if he doesn’t constantly reference anatomy or objects, his statues won’t end up looking like they could come to life. And that’s important.

VICTOR: The actual structure, the construction of the figure matters.

Right now, he’s working on creating the cowboy’s denim jeans. He takes pieces of clay and rolls them into long tubes. He places the tubes around the cowboys hips, knees and boots. He uses his fingers and tools to bend and massage the clay. 

VICTOR: I’ve got all kinds of different tools. These two I made. The homemade ones you can feel right there, there’s teeth on it…and then I’ve got like, all kinds of these rubber tip tools. And these helped me get into little areas. 

Slowly, he turns the clay tubes into jean wrinkles. Then he backs up. 

VICTOR: I walk back and forth, 20 feet back Back, over and over again because you can’t get a perspective on it, right when you’re making it, you know?

Victor’s commitment to creating objects that imitate real life has paid off. Last year, he became the only living artist with three statues on display in the U.S. Capitol. 

Nevada chose to display his monument of a Native American educator.

VICTOR: I did Sarah Winnemucca.

Then in 2014, Iowa selected his depiction of Norman Borlaug.

VICTOR: Norman Borlaug was the father of the Green Revolution. 

And last year, Nebraska sent his 9-foot-tall creation of a Native American chief to Washington D.C.

VICTOR: Chief Standing Bear, Ponca Chief Standing Bear.

He got his start sculpting in college. When he was 23, he completed his first life-size carving of Sampson. 

VICTOR: I sculpted him with the jaw bone in his right hand. At the moment when he’s killed 1,000 Philistines. I just felt like that moment was a good moment because he hadn’t finished his life.

The artwork caught the attention of art critics. Since then orders have rolled in. 

VICTOR: It started out a professional career that’s just snowballed into this crazy career where I’ve been busy ever since.

Cities want monuments dedicated to soldiers. Families want likenesses of loved ones. Businesses and universities want to commemorate founders. This cowboy is for a town in North Dakota. 

Sometimes filling all of those orders on schedule is difficult. 

VICTOR: My pieces notoriously take a really, really long time.

When he isn’t doing commissioned statues, Victor creates his own works. He’s drawn to shaping Biblical characters because they are what he calls “heroes with warts.” 

VICTOR: They’re real people that weren’t perfect. But they accomplished a purpose. I’ve seen that in my life. And I think when I read those stories, that it’s something that resonates with other people too.

Besides Sampson, he’s imagined Bathsheba, Delilah, and Joseph.

Some Christians take issue with Victor’s depictions of the human form that leave little to the imagination. 

Victor says, like the Greeks and Romans, he thinks human anatomy should be celebrated in sculpture. And he notes the Bible gives graphic descriptions of some characters and situations. 

VICTOR: Bathsheba started as a figure. David’s looking down…and he’s looking on her beauty… and she’s looking up at him. So there’s, you know, there’s some thought there and it puts you in the story. 

This cowboy will probably be a less controversial piece. 

Once he’s finished the clay carving, it will be time to cast it in bronze. That’s a complicated process. He’ll create molds of each part of the sculpture and then fill the molds with a molten wax that hardens. The hardened wax will be dipped in a ceramic shell… 

VICTOR: And then the shell is passed through a high temperature oven, which melts the wax out. And then that cavity where the wax was, is refilled with molten bronze. And then you have a bronze that’s identical to your wax section and those sections are welded back together.

And oolah, a statue is made. What does Benjamin Victor want people to think of when they look at this cowboy and his steed? He says that’s one of the best and scariest parts of his work. He creates. You decide. 

VICTOR: I don’t consider my work over the top controversial, but it’s funny because I don’t as the artist control the viewer.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg in Boise, Idaho.

(Photo/Sarah Schweinsberg)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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