How Bronze Shapes the Life We Live A profile of sculptor Harry Weber in his studio.

Sculptor Harry Weber in his Bronze Fox Studio with his most recent commission. (Photo courtesy Harry Weber)

Harry Weber guesses he is one of thirty sculptors of life-sized bronze statues, in the United States, who make their living by their art.

Harry specializes in sports and historical figures, and there is a good chance you have seen his work at a stadium or public site. His 150 installations include Bobby Orr, Bill Bradley, Payne Stewart, Lou Brock, Chuck Berry, Daniel Boone, Dred and Harriet Scott, Lewis and Clark, and St. Francis of Assisi. His work abroad includes a statue of Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright in Nanjing, China, and a bust of soccer great Pelé, commissioned by the President of Gabon for a new soccer stadium.

Harry and his wife, Anne, own several acres west of St. Louis, beyond the Missouri River, where the landscape turns hilly and wooded. On their farm sits a cluster of buildings: a book- and art-filled house, Harry’s Bronze Fox Studio, a horse barn, and a big shed for tools and animal traps.

Harry walks me through two gates and past a water feature behind the house to see the view down a slope, across a fenced pasture, to a horse paddock in the distance. A paint, a gray, and chestnut look up at us curiously.

Harry smiles. “There are worse places to quarantine.”

 

•  •  •

 

“My art career is a culmination of a bad habit,” Harry says in his light-filled studio. He has been sketching since he was four years old. His uncle, Fred Weber, ran an important art store founded in 1853 and gave young Harry two minutes on birthdays to carry out anything he wanted. He never took to painting, however, and claims he has “the color sense of a toaster.”

“I’m pretty good at line work,” he says. “And sculptors don’t have to worry about color at all.”

Framed sketches hang on the walls of the studio, and maquettes in clay and bronze sit on shelves below the windows. A shadowbox holds a tattered Navy Jack from one of the original Mk 1-style PBRs (river patrol boats) that Harry served on as a young Lieutenant, in Vietnam, where he was awarded a Bronze Star.

The middle of the studio is dominated by three life-sized clay figures for a private commission. The standing figure’s head is sliced off and sits on a stand for easier access. Harry says he likes to get everything roughed-out, from top to bottom, then to get to work on detail.

The studio floor is stained with clay-spatter, and several crockpots keep clay warm for immediate use. The Classic Clay that Harry uses is a special mix of clay, petroleum jelly, and wax, which does not dry out a sculptor’s hands. When it cools, Harry says, you can still carve it, and it does not feather. It will still melt above 90 degrees, but it is an improvement over previous oil-based clays, which once slid off an armature on a hot day, leaving “six months of work in a puddle on the floor.”

The middle of the studio is dominated by three life-sized clay figures for a private commission. The standing figure’s head is sliced off and sits on a stand for easier access. Harry says he likes to get everything roughed-out, from top to bottom, then to get to work on detail.

A work in progress, with the head replaced. (Photo courtesy Harry Weber)

A few feet away, a clay man with glasses sits on a slab-wood bench; his clay wife sits nearby. The couple are more technically challenging, Harry says, because they will be installed separately, at a gravesite, after the death of each person, but must fit together eventually in embrace on the bench, which also will be cast in bronze. The client’s assumption that he will die first means his figure “has to live alone by himself for any number of years,” Harry says.

“It’s a weird assignment, because none of this is going to see the light of day until he dies,” Harry says. Both figures will be cast soon and put in a warehouse. Harry says the challenge is a bit like his grouping for “Late May, 1805,” a diorama of the Lewis and Clark party, in the Drury Plaza Hotel in St. Louis. There, eight life-size bronze figures had to fit together with rock art, a mural, and a 40-foot water feature. Fiberglass molds were made of the rocks, and the figures sculpted to them.

Harry says he averages six “fairly large projects” per year, but he has eight or nine going now. The full process, which usually takes eight months to a year, includes conversations about concepts; sketching; sculpting a maquette; scaling the design up; carving a foam figure at full-size; loading clay on the foam armature; making molds; casting; assembly; chasing and other cleanup of the bronze; creating the desired patina; and transport and installation.

“And there we are,” he says. The briefest turnaround, five months, was for the statue of Bobby Orr that Harry did for TD Garden in Boston.

Harry says a life-sized statue costs a client $120,000 to $150,000, “depending on complexity and the amount of fabrication (small details like eyeglasses, small objects, etc.) and support structure/engineering we have to do.” The cost of the bronze alone, to Harry, is $20,000 to $30,000.

Harry shows me one of the maquettes, about 18 inches tall, which has red dots embedded in it for a laser scanner to read. A software program scales up the work, and a CNC machine (short for “computer numerical control”) elsewhere mechanically cuts foam into a rough enlargement. This is delivered to Harry, who carves it further by hand. A giant vacuum pulls dust from the studio, but Harry has to wear a hazmat suit and mask for this week of “mild disaster.” Still, he estimates the CNC machine saves him three months and half the amount of clay he used when making armatures from rebar, foam, and duct tape.

Though the figures in the studio already look lifelike, Harry says he is “pretty damn far” from being finished. He deftly scoops clay from a crockpot, rolls it into a ball, and tosses it against the chest of the decapitated figure, where it sticks.

Even with a computer and CNC machine, he says, “Inevitably, things go wrong.” What is technically concise might not look right at full size, especially from a distance. When Harry loads clay on the foam and sculpts it, he is not necessarily trying to match the maquette identically, or simply to create greater definition; he is also correcting the visual impression of the figure.

“I take great liberties, sometimes, with the length of arms, legs; the size of hands, that kind of thing,” he says. “It’s not apparent, but it actually makes things look more natural.”

What is more, he says, “Every statue that’s ‘life-size’ is actually 110 percent life-size. A life-size sculpture looks disappointingly small. Bronze sucks up the light, number one. And number two, there’s a one- to one-and-a-half percent shrink in the wax when you pull it out of the mold, and then there’s another one- to one-and-a-half percent shrink when the bronze cools. Anything you make is going to be three percent smaller once it gets cast.”

The man on the bench is six-feet tall in real life. In order to fool the eye, his statue must be six inches taller.

Though the figures in the studio already look lifelike, Harry says he is “pretty damn far” from being finished. He deftly scoops clay from a crockpot, rolls it into a ball, and tosses it against the chest of the decapitated figure, where it sticks.

When the sculptures are done, two large doors on one wall will be opened to truck them to the workshop Harry uses in Soulard, a historic St. Louis neighborhood. The figures of Lewis and Clark (for a different riverfront installation called “The Captain’s Return”) were 12-feet tall and had to be cut up to get them out of the studio.

In Soulard, molds are made in pieces anyway—a face here, the rest of the head there—by Harry’s working partner of 25 years, Vlad Zhitomirsky, who owns VMD Sculpting. Vlad, Harry says, is “absolutely the best mold maker, restoration guy, and art welder in the world. He’s that good. And he’s an engineer. I couldn’t make any of these things stand up without him.”

“I create problems; he solves them,” he says.

Wax impressions are pulled from those molds by Vlad’s son, Misha Medveyev, and the waxes go to a foundry in Lawrence, Kansas, where they are dipped in “a big tub of ceramic slurry.” It takes about a week to get a shell, Harry says, which is autoclaved: “they bake it, basically. The wax leaves, the ceramic hardens, and you have a negative impression inside that ball of ceramic of whatever it is you cast.”

Harry says everything in the process “is about the same as it was 2,000 years ago, with a few exceptions.” The CNC machine is one, obviously, and the bronze is no longer a tin-copper alloy, but silicon-copper, “the same stuff that’s in a braising rod when somebody welds. It’s cleaner, much better, much easier to work. Stronger. More durable.”

After the 2,200-degree bronze is poured, the ceramic is sledgehammered off, and the foundry sends the raw castings back to the workshop. Harry likens the pieces to a big 3D jigsaw puzzle. One commission had 198 pieces, each weighing at least 50 pounds. At the workshop they cut off any of the foundry apparatus—gates, sprues, and vents that allow the molten bronze to reach every cavity—and Vlad welds them together, chases out the welds, and replaces the texture in every mark that Harry’s tools made in the clay.

Finally, the statue has an acid bath that reacts with the surface of the bronze to create a patina. Different chemicals make various colors, such as liver of sulfur (black), ferric oxide (French Brown), or ferric nitrate and cupric (reddish-brown). Scotch-Brite is used on some surfaces to highlight creases and other details.

“Rodin would’ve gone crazy if he’d had stainless steel,” Harry says.

A wax coating keeps the colors of the patina fast, but 90 percent of those who commission pieces do not keep them up, Harry says. “They all wind up the color of the ambient atmosphere wherever they’re installed, which is usually a sort of a green.”

The sculptures’ weight has to be accounted for, not just in the final steps of shipping and installation, but from the beginning design. Harry wants his figures to look as if they are in the process of moving, or “that they have just moved and are about to move again.”

The statue of Bobby Orr, for example, is “about 1100 pounds, cantilevered on his right toe,” Harry says. To accomplish this pose, the base of the installation was made of stainless steel, and a continuous stainless rod ran through the figure, to his back and up his arm, and emerged as the hockey stick he holds.

“Rodin would’ve gone crazy if he’d had stainless steel,” Harry says.

 

•  •  •

 

Harry says his sketch of two GIs on the Plain of Reeds in Vietnam is the best work he has ever done. He hopes his sculptures will one day match the fluid artistry of this sketch.

Harry does all his drawing in a small loft in the studio. There is a computer there, but it “isn’t very satisfying,” so he sketches by hand. He describes his style as loose and fluid. He does sketches as concepts for clients but says he has had a “lifetime compulsion to draw” and sketches all the time, for fun. He says the best work he has ever done, of any kind, is a sketch of two soldiers on the Plain of Reeds, in Vietnam, which “used ink and spit on a small piece of paper and took less than two minutes.”

A few hundred of his thousands of sketches have been collected in a locally-printed book, H. Weber Sketchbook 1965-2015: An Autobiography in Drawings. In the Preface, Harry writes that they “provide a record of what I saw and thought during those ordinary times that make life extraordinary.” There was also a biography, H. Weber, Sculptor, written a few years ago. But despite an eventful life in the Navy, corporate advertising, steeplechase, fox hunting, and commercial art, he does not consider either book “riveting reading.”

“I think anybody that does anything well probably is more a warrior for the working day,” he says. A sign on his door reads, Artwork is work.

“You know, it’s a job,” he says. “And when I go to schools and get all the aspiring artists saying, How do you make a career in art?, the first answer is, Just work your ass off.”

“If you’re going to be a writer or an artist or a tennis player…number one, you have to put in the time. I’m a big believer in that 10,000-hours principle.” Working at it accounts for 80 percent of success, he believes, along with “the differential” of talent (10 percent) and “pure luck” (10 percent).

“I think anybody that does anything well probably is more a warrior for the working day,” he says. A sign on his door reads, Artwork is work.

“Unless you have all three of those, you’re not gonna get it,” he says. He mentions talented artists, musicians, and writers he knows who have day jobs.

“I just happen to be lucky to the point I can make a living doing it,” he says and insists it is “amazing” that sculpting has paid for their farm. He and his wife agreed long ago they would “never owe anybody any money for anything,” and he says his sculpture business could easily have failed.

Harry’s wife, Anne. (Photo courtesy of Harry Weber.)

He met Anne at Bridlespur Hunt Club, where he was Master of Foxhounds, then Huntsman. Harry resigned so Anne could become Huntsman. The romance, he says, came from the fact that after knowing each other for years, they were at a steeplechase race together, “and she ran me off the course, my horse flipped in a ditch and broke my back, and she felt so sorry for me she married me.” He is proud she is “a world-class rider, competed all the way through Grand Prix, and still competes, at 65, in A-level shows.”

Harry credits Anne with telling him when things are done, so he does not overwork his figures. “She says, ‘Okay, you’re finished. Stop.’ She is very good about that. Her eye is very good.”

“And you’re always tempted to make one last adjustment.”

 

•  •  •

 

The trick of being an artist, Harry writes in his Preface, is “to actually SEE.” He speaks to me of his love for recognizing and capturing significant human moments and emotions.

“If it has power, I really like it. The fact that [a sculpture] is also a statue of Bob Gibson is almost secondary to me. I feel really lucky I get to use these athletes as models.”

“I mean, you learn to look at people differently, because you’re looking for the sparks of their humanity.”

He hopes his sculptures will one day match the fluid artistry of his sketch from Vietnam, though he thinks of them as “3D illustration.”

“Even though my bronzes take nine months to do, I like them to have the same spontaneity as a sketch that took nine minutes. They’ve got to have life and power and movement, even in the execution.” He says the biggest influence in his life was Howard Brodie, a sketch artist famous for his work for Yank magazine in WWII, but who also covered Korea, Vietnam, and trials for Charles Manson, the Chicago Seven, and events such as My Lai and Watergate.

The famous WWII-era cartoonist Bill Mauldin, who drew this sketch for Harry when he was 12-years old, was one of his early heroes. (Photo courtesy of Harry Weber.)

Brodie’s work was “so free, so powerful,” Harry says. He is happy they corresponded before Brodie’s death in 2010. “God, he was good. We were talking about emotion: he could capture the whole thing in five or six lines; it was just great.” I mention the work of Bill Mauldin, and Harry jumps out of his chair. “Let me show you something,” he says. He points to a framed sketch of the face of one of Mauldin’s famous GIs, hanging on the wall.

“When I was 12 years old, I loved Bill Mauldin,” he says. “And I went down to the steamship Admiral, and my mother had given me a brown paper sack with my lunch in it.” Mauldin, who worked at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, was having coffee and sailing up and down the Mississippi. “I was one of the few people on earth who would’ve recognized Bill Mauldin, and I went across and I said—and I was 12 years old—‘Mr. Mauldin, you’re my hero.’ And he grabbed the paper sack and he drew that for me.”

Harry says he imagines his way into any piece he works on, often mimicking expressions and using his own experience for an emotion-by-proxy. He was told Bob Gibson was not going to like his statue, because the face looked “meaner than hell,” but Gibson acknowledged that Harry had it right. “You don’t look real friendly when you’re delivering a hundred-mile-an-hour fastball,” Gibson said.

Harry says Gibson, who died on October 2, played baseball as if he was going to war. He told Harry he hated batters and said, “I never hit anybody I didn’t mean to hit.”

Harry says if he gets the emotion right, he feels he has done a good job. “It’s not just a likeness—oh gee, that looks like Fred: I give a damn about that—but the accuracy of the emotion, the accuracy of the movement.”

He was told Bob Gibson was not going to like his statue, because the face looked “meaner than hell,” but Gibson acknowledged that Harry had it right. “You don’t look real friendly when you’re delivering a hundred-mile-an-hour fastball,” Gibson said.

“Empathy is a much-misrepresented word, I think. Empathy is not just feeling all warm and runny about somebody else’s problems. It’s an ability to understand, and it’s a power. I think the best generals had empathy with their enemies … and used it,” he says.

A bronze sculpture of Cardinals Hall of Famer Bob Gibson, part of Harry’s “Cardinals Plaza of Champions Series: 1998-2003,” placed outside of Busch Stadium. (Photo courtesy of Harry Weber)

“I had a history professor that said if you’re studying history that’s even 50 years removed from the present day, you have to assume that you’re going to a different planet. The mores, the conduct, everything is different than what you’re used to. [P]utting yourself in a situation of a world-class hockey player, who probably knows he is the best that ever lived, at the highest moment of his career—I mean, how do you feel then? Holy cow. In a lot of ways, I get to live all these people’s lives. And it’s kind of fun.”

Harry maintains that skills and ambition grow together.

He says in a time of talk about a post-human earth, it is some comfort that “the very last thing to disappear is bronze statues. Bronze is pretty stable stuff. I try not to think about the fact that that’s a responsibility.”

“You never get there,” he says. “I have never known anyone whose work I admired that wasn’t wracked with self-doubt. Vlad and I talk about this a lot.

“I think 80 percent of what I produce is a good representation of my talent and my skill. Ten percent, I look at it, and I go, How on earth did I do that? I shouldn’t be able to do that; it’s that good. And 10 percent of it, I wish I could bury. Or at least do it again.”

Harry sits with his first sculpture cast in bronze, “Closing in Full Cry.”

Harry is seventy-eight now. He holds out his hands, shaped by decades of work, and bent with osteoarthritis. “Notice, my hands are completely screwed up, but they still work,” he says. “And they don’t hurt. I think probably the working in the clay keeps them supple.”

He says in a time of talk about a post-human earth, it is some comfort that “the very last thing to disappear is bronze statues. Bronze is pretty stable stuff. I try not to think about the fact that that’s a responsibility.”

“They’re as close to eternal as you get,” he says.

Subscribe to our "Mixed Issue" email newsletter!