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Bronze Ambition

Sculptor Robert Graham Lobbied Hard to Design the Doors of the New Catholic Cathedral. The Road to Completion Is Paved With Surprises.

March 05, 2000|LORENZA MUNOZ | Lorenza Munoz is a staff writer in The Times' Calendar section

Standing at 4 a.m. on the soggy lawn of Kansas City's American Jazz Museum, L.A.'s most renowned bronze sculptor resisted the weight of a full-blown panic attack. His latest in a string of public art pieces, an 18-foot-tall tribute to the late jazz great Charlie Parker, was facing the wrong way. Hundreds were scheduled to witness its unveiling in a mere 32 hours, but Bird's gaze was turned away from Vine Street, the historic jazz district in the segregated city that had nurtured his musical soul.

With the precision and outward calm of a shopworn general, Robert Graham planned his counterattack. His reputation, his heart and soul, were on the line so, by God, Parker would be facing the right way. Ten thousand Kansas City dollars and several man hours later, Bird had done a 180.

"For art to be accessible, it has to be meaningful. It has to be in sync with people's geography and cultural values," Graham says several weeks later in his Venice studio. "It's about a confluence of things and what it means to that particular place."

He is a perfectionist, annoyed by inefficiency and mediocrity. But his obsession and ambition are not readily visible. "Bob is sub-surface emotional, but he is a very emotional person," says his wife, Anjelica Huston. "He gives an outward feeling of calm but I think he works hard on control. Control is an issue with him."

Graham, after all, is working in an age in which some critics view public art--particularly figurative sculpture--as trite and compromised. He is one of the few public art artists whose work is respected, but many top-notch critics don't love him. Like Frederick Hart--the late sculptor whose masterful "Ex Nihilo," the west facade of the Washington National Cathedral, was all but ignored in high-art circles--Graham often grumbles privately that his work is invisible to his hometown newspaper, something that offends and infuriates him. And yet the commissions for important national sculptures continue to roll in.

Graham made a name for himself in the 1970s with miniature wax sculptures of nude women, and then graduated to larger bronze works--of nude women complete with precise genitalia. In the 1980s, he added public works to his repertoire, most notably the headless torsos in honor of the '84 Olympics at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the bronze doors at the L.A. Music Center and the Franklin Delano Roosevelt memorial in Washington, D.C.

For the past year, he has focused on the massive main doors for the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, the mother church of the nation's largest archdiocese, scheduled to open in 2001. He is at once eager and terrified at the thought of the critical reception his creation will receive, though in classic Graham style, he betrays little emotion. "We are all in the service of something or somebody," he says. Artists are "in a service industry. Our calling is to make things that affect people. The aberration is this 20th century idea of modernism--that idea of art for art's sake."


Several months after Charlie Parker's turnaround in Kansas City and a few days before Christmas, Graham is pleased with the progress on his all-consuming project. He stands in his studio beneath a 10-foot wooden model of the cathedral doors and announces: "See how far along we've come."

The doors lean against one wall; an 8-foot Virgin rests in a corner. More than a dozen 200-pound clay panels, pressing against another wall, are sculpted with different manifestations of the Catholic faith--Mexico's Virgin of Guadalupe, the Virgin of the Apocalypse, the mano poderosa (powerful hand), the grape vine signifying the union of the Catholic church--all of which eventually will be part of the doors in bronze.

Graham expects to finish these--the south side doors as the main entrance to the cathedral--within 18 months. As for the north side doors, which are smaller and less intricate, no start or completion date has been set though his preliminary designs have been approved.

The creative heart of Graham's studio is upstairs, in a room crowded with a computer, desks piled high with books, cigar boxes and ashtrays. The windowsills are decorated with empty tequila bottles. Jazz is humming constantly in the background.

Graham is a high-tech artist, using computers to complete his grand visions for his large projects. The process varies slightly from project to project, but step one of any of his artworks is the sculpting of a clay model. That model is then laser-scanned into a computer digital file, the brain behind a large five-axis mill that cuts the clay into actual size. Graham sculpts that clay piece with his hands until he is satisfied. Then a mold is created, from which a wax impression is made. Through something called the lost wax process, the wax is melted and bronze replaces it.

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