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Heavy Metal Animals

A Wisconsin Sculptor's Got a Monkey on His Back

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There's a 1,000-pound gorilla in the Bogucki family's basement. Hunkered down on all fours, massive, hulking, his broad brow and nostrils barely emerging from the blank stare of abstraction, the gorilla holds everyone's

attention.

For the past few days Edwin Bogucki of Racine, Wisconsin, along with his wife, Shirley, and two of his daughters, Kathi and Sheri, has been plastering half-pound hunks of warmed clay onto the gorilla, slowly building up the animal's powerful bulk of bone and muscle.

"We put 800 pounds of clay on in the last two days and nights, and when I say days and nights I mean it," says the wiry, silver-haired sculptor. "The idea of working eight-hour days is sort of funny to me. We go to bed for four hours and then start up again. When I'm really pressed we work 44-hour days. And no eating. Once I worked 60 hours at a stretch.

"This sort of work gives a whole new meaning to the word 'family.' A married artist dovetails marriage into the art. We have a house, but basically it's a studio we live in."

The sculpture the Bogucki family is working on is a portrait of Samson, the famous silverback gorilla who was displayed at Brookfield Zoo until his death in 1988. On May 27 the final life-size bronze version is slated to be unveiled at the entrance to Brookfield's newly redesigned Tropic World exhibit.

Now it's early February, and it's crunch time. Three and a half months is an achingly short time in which to create a large bronze sculpture. The method Bogucki is using, the lost-wax process, has been in use for thousands of years, but it remains as laborious and painstaking as it was in the days of the ancient Greeks.

The clay gorilla in the basement--which is not solid, but rather an outer coating of clay on an armature of steel bars, hardware cloth, and rolled-up newspapers--needs to be finished in two weeks. "That's two weeks of at least 20-hour days," says Shirley.

Then a worker from a foundry near Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the bronze will be cast, will spend a few days coating the clay with liquid silicon rubber. The rubber will cure and be covered with plaster that will hold it firm. Then the rubber/plaster shell, with its exact reverse imprint of every detail of fur, skin, and expression, will be taken off in pieces: head, legs, torso.

The Boguckis will drive the molds from their woodland home to the foundry. Nonstop, of course, in 24 hours. There the insides of the rubber "negatives" will be coated with liquid wax that when hard will form positive reproductions of the pieces of the clay sculpture. The rubber will be removed. A network of wax sprues will be built projecting outward from each piece; they will become the channels through which molten bronze will pour evenly into the molds and air will escape.

Once the sprues are in place the wax pieces will be carefully dipped once a day into a ceramic slurry and allowed to dry. After 18 days of dipping the ceramic will have built up and hardened to the proper thickness.

The wax will be melted out of the ceramic molds--hence the process's name--after which the molds will be heated and filled with molten bronze. The bronze will fill the sprues too. When it cools and hardens the ceramic will be chipped off. Sandblasting will reveal the pure bronze surface.

The bronze sprues will be taken off and the various body parts welded together. A grinding tool will smooth the seams and rough spots. An application of several chemicals will turn the dull gold luster of the finished bronze into the rich dark browns and blacks of an adult male gorilla.

Finally the sculpture will be ready to be trucked back to Chicago. If history is any indication, the trip may take a little longer than planned. Six years ago Bogucki created a life-size pair of thoroughbred horses, with riders, representing the photo finish of John Henry and The Bart in the inaugural running of the Arlington Million in 1981. When they were trucked on an open-bed semi from Santa Fe to Arlington International Racecourse, where they're still on display, passing drivers often signaled for the truck to stop because they wanted to take pictures.

Shirley remembers racing toward that particular deadline, finishing up the life-size clay horses and riders in the foundry. "It would be two, three, four in the morning, and we couldn't get him to leave."

Bogucki, who is in his 60s, has made most of his living, and his reputation, sculpting and painting horses--his pieces stand at such equine pilgrimage sites as the American Saddle Horse Museum and the International Museum of the Horse, both in Lexington, Kentucky. He has sculpted some of the most famous horses in the world, including Secretariat and Man o' War.

Born in Racine to Polish immigrant parents, the artist still recalls an early experience that fueled his love of animals. When he was two the circus came to town. "They had a number of horses break loose, big white ones that came across the street toward my grandmother's house, and I looked down at them on the lawn from the window and thought, 'Oh, they're so beautiful,'" he says. "My grandmother went to chase them off with a broom, and I thought, 'Don't do that!'"

Ever since, he has been surrounded by animals. The family shares its five rural acres with a menagerie: four horses, one donkey, one llama, five dogs, one parrot, and uncounted chickens.

From an early age, too, Bogucki wanted to be an artist. His parents took a dim view of the idea. "They thought art was good as a hobby," he says. "My father wanted me to be an engineer, and my mother wanted me to work in a factory. And I am doing engineering all the time, figuring out leg supports and pounds per square inch. All the time I'm thinking of time, motion, acceleration, but it's all intuitive. The tail has to go behind the horse at the same speed the horse is traveling. Many sculptors make bucking horses that look like the rider is being blown out with dynamite--it doesn't hold together. It's got to be realistic, believable."

In 1994 Bogucki was asked to submit a piece to an art show at Brookfield Zoo. He began working on a bronze of Binti Jua, a female gorilla on display there. The zoo didn't show the piece because it was in the preliminary clay stage during the judging (instead they took another Bogucki sculpture, a stag). But when zoo officials saw the finished bronze of Binti Jua they commissioned the artist to create the life-size Samson.

He knew it would be difficult. When he sculpts horses Bogucki can rely on his lifetime of experience around them; he can also touch his subjects, feeling their hide and muscles. With gorillas that sort of intimate contact isn't possible, and he never saw Samson in the flesh at all.

"If it's easy to do you won't see me doing it," he says. "The challenge is the whole thing. Really the only competition any artist has is himself. If you think you've arrived then you've lost everything; you're not growing anymore. If you want to get something beyond yourself, you have to dare. If you're not doing that you're limiting yourself."

Now, in the hectic rush of February, he is building Samson by referring to a maquette, a one-quarter life-size clay version that has been in the works for months. Both sculptures are mounted on plywood bases and surrounded by open wood grids marked with numbered scales like a ruler. By using long wood pointers that hang straight from the tops of the grids, Bogucki can ensure that a given point on the surface of the life-size version conforms to the same point on the maquette.

Sculptors generally prefer to work through the enlarging process from a bronze version of the maquette. But there's no time for that now. Instead a number of bronzes will be made from the maquette this spring. The sculptor will keep one, the zoo will keep one, and others will be sold to donors who contribute to the life-size version. If the fund-raising is successful, the zoo may even commission other gorillas in the future, giving Samson a bronze family of his own.

Bogucki spent months working on the maquette: countless hours of finessing the clay, creating the intricate details of hair and muscle, consulting photos and videos of Samson, and receiving advice from the zookeepers and veterinarians who had known the gorilla. But the work's success or failure lay in the very beginning, as he constructed the inner framework that defined the gorilla's stance and posture. All the detailing flows from this pose, which must be at once realistic and aesthetically pleasing. "If I don't have the dynamic line in the first 15 minutes of doing the maquette armature," the artist says, "then I'm wasting my time."

Creating the armature is a process that links naturalism and abstraction--two types of expression that Bogucki says are really the same. "I try to do pieces that everyone can enjoy," he says. "This particular sculpture has to have the basic function of educating people about what a gorilla is. It also has to be a portrait of an individual gorilla who was seen by many of the same people who will see the sculpture. And someone who loves abstraction can still look at it and appreciate it as an abstract form."

This balancing act requires a certain amount of compromise. Samson had remarkably small ears, almost as small as a human's. After consultation with Samson's keepers Bogucki decided to make the ears on the portrait slightly larger than life, more in line with average gorilla ears.

The result, he says, will be "the best possible statue that could be produced by anyone at this time." But always after he's done there is a small itch. It does not tell him that he did anything wrong, but rather that this was not the only way to build the statue. He calls this his "divine discontent," and has experienced it many times before; it's what drives him to work again, to undergo willingly the agonizingly long days and nights. When he is finished, he says, "I feel satisfied for five or ten minutes, and then already I'm thinking about what I could have done differently."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Cynthia Howe.

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