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Artists among us

Kirby-Smith: life-size art

Posted: February 8, 2013 4:12 p.m.
Updated: February 11, 2013 5:00 a.m.

Come March 29th anyone staying or living in Camden will be able to sit and visit with hall of famer Larry Doby and statesman Bernard Baruch. Not with the actual men of course, but with beautiful bronze statues of these influential men from Camden.

Thanks to the generosity of philanthropist John Rainey and the undeniable talent of figurative portrait sculptor Maria J. Kirby-Smith, these men will soon have a lasting physical presence at the Camden Archives and Museum. Plans are currently in the works for the life-size bronze statues to be erected on the archives’ grounds.

What makes the project so interesting is their placement. These won’t be figures that visitors stand in front of and admire. Instead, they will be welcomed by a curved inviting walkway and a bench where they can sit and enjoy the company of these two men. They are not living and breathing now, but their influence is still felt by many … and this is what artist Kirby-Smith is trying to communicate.

Kirby-Smith has diligently been working on the project in recent months, and has already prepared the life-sized clay forms which are being used to create the bronze statues. She explained the complexity of the process from creation to completion. The process she uses for her figures is called the “lost wax method.”

“It is like any undertaking, whether you are a dentist, or if you are constructing a house, or sewing a dress or putting a meal on the table. There is a lot of preparation that goes into it. The timing, all of the little alterations you have to make,” she said.

Kirby-Smith said it takes dozens and dozens of people to complete a work, but that’s what makes a project like this one so interesting and challenging.

The process has its ups and downs she admits, with the job requiring the smoothing of ruffled feathers on occasion.

“You have always these different craftsmen that you deal with … at the foundry someone is having a meltdown,” Kirby-Smith said jokingly.

Apart from the artist in the studio, the process includes welders, carpenters, researchers, transporters, and foundry workers.

“At the foundry, you have at least a half a dozen people there at various departments. I have been using one foundry in Florida for 22 years -- because it is really important to build up a rapport with someone you can count on to get you on time, meet the deadline and have the quality,” Kirby-Smith said.

She did her best to explain what she admits is a rather complicated process to create the statues.

“It is complicated. It is a series of negative and positive images,” Kirby-Smith said. “Say you have your positive form here and that is in clay and that clay has to have support underneath so it’s usually a welded steel armature and foam and then clay. You make a mold over that which is rubber which picks up all the detail and since rubber is flexible you have to back it with plaster or fiberglass to help keep it and cradle it.”

A single human figure can have as many as 15 separate molds. There are separate molds for each arm, legs, and torso for example. Then comes the wax.

“So then our mold becomes a negative and you have to get your wax positive. You pour your hot wax into there and it cools against the rubber and congeals and you end up with a skin like this. And when it is built up to one-eighteenth of an inch -- your standard thickness -- then you pour out the rest of the hot wax, let it cool down to room temperature and then you take off your outer shell, peel off your rubber and you have a hollow wax replica of your original,” Kirby-Smith said.

The process continues with adding channels for the wax to flow out of the mold for and the gases to escape. This is followed by dipping the wax figure into a liquid ceramic material.

“Your next step is called ceramic shell and that is where you put sprues which are wax channels for the metal to flow in and other channels for the hot gases to flow out,” Kirby-Smith said. “And you take this thing that kind of looks like a bird cage, you have a structure around and you dip it in something that looks like pancake batter. You dip it in, bring it out, dust it with sand, hang it up, let dry. And you build up with 12 coats. So this dark wax ends up looking like a glacial rock. It is a beautiful transformation to watch -- your piece that has all of the details going softer as it gets white and it gets softer and softer. It is like going backwards into modern art. And then you’ve got your ceramic shell and now we are back to positive. And you put the whole thing in a burn out chamber and it heats up the wax and it flows out of those sprues … hence the name lost wax.”

Once the layers ceramic material hardens it is time for the bronze.

“And the ceramic material hardens to like a ceramic plate. And then you’ve got a thin little cavity in there between the walls of the ceramic material. Then again put it in a sand pit. First you have to heat it up -- no water in there -- and then you pour in your molten bronze 220 degrees Fahrenheit. And pretty much immediately it congeals and you can take it out start chipping off your ceramic shell, cutting off your gates and sprues and start welding your pieces back together and you have to retexture it,” Kirby-Smith said.

Once the bronze form is complete, there are generally steel rods that go up the legs that are welded and that give the statue added strength with at least two steel rods down from the bottoms of the form that go down into the concrete and are anchored in a high powered cement.

The completed bronze statues of Larry Doby and Bernard Baruch will be placed in the front grounds of the Archives on a circular concrete slab facing one another.

Kirby-Smith notes that this placement represents the three spheres in which their influence and how our spheres overlap and interlock -- our worlds.

“I don’t know if they (Doby and Baruch) ever met, this is sort of an imaginary meeting. But I want to try and engage the viewers,” she said. “Mr. Rainey knew the two characters he wanted and it was up to me to put the placement together, in these overlapping spheres.”

Currently the slab is ready and can be seen while driving past the Archives on Broad Street.

Doby’s form now stands under the cover of an open storage shed awaiting transport and Baruch is slightly more comfortable sitting in an enclosed building with his right arm outstretched. Both have a number of steps to take before they finally arrive at the Archives for the March 29 unveiling. Kirby-Smith said Wall Street financier and former University of South Carolina board member Darla Moore plans to attend.

Kirby-Smith has completed a number public commissions of prominent figures in South Carolina including King Hagler and Joseph Kershaw at Camden’s Town Green, Matthew J. Perry Jr., Clayton “Peg Leg” Bates, General Thomas Sumter, and Strom Thurmond. Nationally renowned, she also has numerous works located throughout the southeastern United States.

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