State symbol: Artist working on Sarah Winnemucca statue
September 27, 2004
In the quiet of the library exhibit hall, Sarah Winnemucca’s eyes watch as her creator carves the fingers of her outstretched right hand.
Through the still-wet clay, the Paiute princess’s unwavering gaze clearly conveys the strength of spirit which made her the unchallenged choice to represent Nevada in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall.
It will take a month for sculptor Benjamin Victor to add hundreds more carefully researched details to the larger-than-life statue. Those details are designed to complement the overall image, but the soul of the figure is in her face and eyes.
“That will she had was so strong, you can see it in her face,” he said.
When she is completed, the 6-foot clay figure will be carefully packaged for shipment to Loveland, Colo., where one of the nation’s finest foundries will turn her into bronze – suitable to stand alongside the statues representing other states in the nation’s Capitol, including Nevada’s other representative in the gallery, Sen. Pat McCarran.
Victor, 25, says he brings life to his figures by building them anatomically from the inside starting with a metal skeleton called an “armature.” On that, he said, he builds the muscles and flesh, then covers it with skin and finally clothing.
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That way, he said, the finished figure has balance, strength and life.
“Once I get a clear view in my mind what it should look like, it comes together,” he said.
At the same time, Victor said, he uses wood, paper, foam and other materials underneath the surface in an attempt to keep the figure as lightweight as possible. After all, it has to be transported safely to the foundry. He said an earlier work of U.S. soldiers ended up weighing so much – more than 450 pounds – it had to be moved with a forklift.
The Winnemucca statue, he said, could come in as light as 200 pounds.
Victor said the hundreds of tiny details he is working on this month at the Nevada State Library exhibit hall in Carson City will bring the figure to life.
“When you do a smaller work, it’s like writing a really good essay about a great novel,” he said. “But when you do a large work, it’s like writing the novel itself. You get to put everything in there you want to say.”
And that is why he carefully researched Sarah Winnemucca’s life, the history and physical characteristics of the Paiutes.
His enthusiasm for tiny details in her features and clothing aren’t, however, universally popular.
“The foundry hates me,” he said. “They hate all the detail but, without all that detail, it takes away too much.”
Victor was selected from three talented finalists who competed to make the figure, though he is much younger than many of the nation’s leading sculptors. Asked if he might be considered too young, he replied: “Me and Michaelangelo disagree” – noting that the famous Italian did some of his most treasured work including the statue of David while in his early 20s.
A relatively recent graduate from Northern State University in Aberdeen, S.D., he said sculpting is a full-time profession. He has had numerous pieces commissioned, but he regards this project as especially important.
He said he intends to accompany Sarah throughout the multi-step process of turning clay into bronze, doing much of the work himself. That process will take three months or more. And he will accompany her to Washington, D.C., for her installation in the Capitol, expected in March 2005.
“I’m there for all of it. I’m probably more paranoid than most artists,” he said.
A committee headed by first lady Dema Guinn that raised funding for the statue has also raised money to make a second bronze, which will be displayed at the Nevada State Museum.
In addition, the 18- and 36-inch-tall bronzes he made to win the commission and to refine the final design are for sale.
Contact reporter Geoff Dornan at email@example.com or 687-8750.