How It Was Created
Meet the artists behind the development of the intricately constructed figures at America’s Founding Fathers Exhibit, a premier Black Hills attraction centrally located near Rapid City, SD.
As the artist sculpting most of the heads for the Founding Fathers Black Hills exhibit, Jim Maher has enjoyed his role in turning John Trumbull’s “Declaration of Independence” painting and its 47 figures into a three-dimensional, life-size sculpted diorama that people view from four sides.
The Belle Fourche sculptor also carved 11 of Rapid City’s City of Presidents statues, including presidents Ronald Reagan, Harry Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) and Abraham Lincoln. LBJ and Lincoln were two of his favorite statues to sculpt, even though he finds it hard to be completely satisfied with his efforts. He is thrilled to be part of yet another patriotic-themed tourist project in what USA Today calls “America’s Most Patriotic City.”
If the oft-sculpted Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were an artistic challenge, the lesser-known signers – like Thomas Heyward Jr., – pose a practical challenge because Maher has even fewer images of them from which to work, since they lived before photography was invented.
Maher’s goal for the project was to stay as true to the facial images from the Trumbull painting as possible, something that was a challenge when reproducing a complete figure from a face that was only painted in profile, or partially hidden in the painting’s dark background.
But instead of lending his own interpretation of America’s founding to the artwork, Maher is trying to convey exactly what Trumbull painted. Whereas he usually works at capturing the personality of his subject, with the America’s Founding Fathers Exhibit project he worked hard to turn Trumbull’s painting into a three dimensional work of art while staying faithful to the original.
His own Irish ancestors didn’t arrive in America until the mid-19th century, so Maher doubts that he is a direct descendant of any of the men whose faces he sculpted. Born in Pierre and reared in Rapid City, Maher studied animal science and biophysics, not art, in college. He was in the horse business when he discovered his talent for sculpting. He worked for another western South Dakota sculptor, Dale Lamphere, for four years, an education Maher credits for his success to this day.
“I think it’s a great idea that we would celebrate what these men have done. It was a risky deal they were engaged in. They put everything they had on the line … and it’s a great heritage that they’ve given us. That’s something that should be remembered and not forgotten.” – Jim Maher
James Van Nuys
James Van Nuys’ mind is the artistic force behind the Founding Fathers project. It’s his hands, however, that you’ll see in the finished artwork. The hands of many of the 47 figures in John Trumbull’s historic painting are cast from Van Nuys’ hands in different poses.
Casting his own hands into history is just one of the ingenious solutions that Van Nuys and his team came up with while tackling the numerous artistic challenges of the multi-media Founding Fathers sculpture project.
Using alginate–the rubber-like material that is used to cast dental impressions–to make a mold, the hands were cast in a urethane resin and painted to become the life-like hands of Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, and the other founding fathers in Van Nuys’ three-dimensional rendering of “Declaration of Independence.”
The first founding father sculptural portrait that Van Nuys created was of George Clymer, a little-known signatory from Pennsylvania whose name has largely been lost to the footnotes of history. Working alone, Van Nuys spent more than a year on Clymer, wishing to perfect the process on this experimental sculpture before beginning the most important figures.
After working alone on a second figure, Van Nuys assembled a team to help with the rest of the sculptures. “I was very fortunate to get some of the region’s best artists to work with me,” Van Nuys says. “Jim Maher took over sculpting the heads, Leah Nixon perfected the painting of faces and hands, and Julie Farrell gave the characters their proper weight and bulk, as well as deciding on the color schemes. I developed the poses, then I chopped, modified, and rebuilt the mannequins and helped put all the pieces together into convincing figures.”
Each Founding Fathers figure involved the use of traditional artistic tools such as clay and paint, but also acrylic gels, glass beads, fiberglass, aluminum, duct tape, plumbing fittings, wood, fabric, craft foam and cans of spray insulation. “We spent more time in hardware stores than in art supply stores,” Van Nuys quips.
Turning the stiff-looking fiberglass mannequins into life-like sculptures was a first for Van Nuys, and he admits the learning curve was very steep in developing the sculptural process. But with a team including members that specialize in various aspects of sculptures, the process eventually became much more efficient and sophisticated.
“I believe we really managed to create figures that have value as unique works of art, in addition to their function as historical symbols,” says Van Nuys, “I think they’re quite beautiful.”
Van Nuys is a Rapid City artist widely recognized for his evocative landscapes of western South Dakota, including a massive mural of the Badlands, Bear Butte and the Black Hills that welcomes travelers at Rapid City Regional Airport. Best known for his paintings in oil, acrylic and watercolor, he’s also contributed three bronze sculptures to the Rapid City’s City of Presidents. In his spare time, he’s a musician well-known for his acoustic guitar skills and a magazine writer and designer, too. The multi-faceted artist is a graduate of Wilmington College in Ohio, with degrees in both art and music.
Julie Farrell joined the project in December 2012, using her eye for color, combined with her creative problem-solving skills, to become an invaluable part of the artistic team.
When she joined the team, Don Perdue’s Founding Fathers vision was still very much an artistic work-in-progress for Rapid City artist James Van Nuys.
Farrell proved essential in developing the technique the team has employed to sculpt the fabric that clothes the 47 male figures in Trumbull’s painting. The fabric is stiffened with acrylic glue before being draped and folded to reflect the postures and movement of the men. The clothing, all originally black, is then layered with various texturizing agents and hand-painted in colors appropriate to that historical era.
Farrell’s gift for translating the subtle color palette of Trumbull’s painting onto cloth has been a revelation to Van Nuys and a boon to the project. “She has a good sense of color. When we first started, I would tell her what colors to use … but I soon learned to just leave it to her,” he said.
Her artist’s eye just may be inherited; her mother has a creative flair and an uncle worked for Walt Disney Studios. Jim Maher, the Belle Fourche-based sculptor who has created the heads and faces for the Founding Fathers exhibit, is a distant cousin.
Originally planning a career in marketing and communications, and only a semester away from completing an undergraduate communications degree at Black Hills State University, Julie Farrell received a fortuitous phone call from her college art teacher steering her toward the Founding Fathers project. The mother of three has had many different jobs, including experience with bookkeeping, photography, and graphic design, but being able to bring John Trumbull’s historic painting to life has been a dream come true for the Lead, SD native.
Joining the America’s Founding Fathers Exhibit project in July 2013, Leah Nixon brings a wealth of knowledge about different artistic materials – and that includes cake frosting – to the Founding Fathers project.
Drawing from her year spent as a commercial baker and cake decorator, Nixon finds that the frosting techniques that she mastered assists her in painting the head, face and hands of the three-dimensional sculptures.
Nixon, along with fellow artist Julie Farrell, focused on creating various skin tones on molded plastic resin that has been painted gray to bring out the cool blue tones of human skin. Using three or four layers of acrylic paint that has been thinned with a matte medium gives the faces more translucence and disarmingly life-like skin tones.
She has even received some advice on how to paint a realistic eyeball from an unexpected source: her father, Rapid City ophthalmologist Dr. Bob Nixon. He explained that the colored iris of a human eye is actually flatter than it appears, so Nixon was able to flatten the eyeballs, paint them and fill them in with a clear epoxy that mimics the cornea lens of a real eye.
Nixon is a talented young painter and illustrator with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Washington University in St. Louis. She’s already had several art shows to her credit and done numerous private commissions, including a four-piece landscape series she’s currently working on. While she loves baking, even seeing it as an art form, she was ready for a job that involved more artistic expression and allowed her to use her art degree more directly.