Capturing a legend in bronze

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11/17/2011

Capturing a legend in bronze

Sculptor Bruce Wolfe aims to depict youthful enthusiasm in his statue of Rice’s first president

 

BY ALYSON WARD
Rice News staff

Edgar Odell Lovett was in his 30s when he came to Texas, a rising star plucked from Princeton to lead the still-forming Rice Institute. But before he could lead this new college in rough-and-tumble Houston, the young academic had to determine what the school should be. So Lovett spent nine months traveling, visiting universities all over the world to gather ideas, and he returned in 1909 with ambitious plans to shape Rice into an institute “of the highest grade.”

It’s this image of Lovett – a young man back from a world tour, full of big ideas for a new institution – Bruce Wolfe wants to capture in a new statue for Rice University.

A California artist and sculptor, Wolfe is creating the commissioned statue to stand outside Keck Hall in the heart of the Rice campus. The 8-foot bronze piece is scheduled to be unveiled during Rice’s Centennial Celebration next year.

Wolfe was in Houston last week to meet with architect and Rice alumnus Jeff Ryan ’67, who will design the statue’s base. And while Wolfe was on campus, he took time to talk about the creative process of turning a legend into a statue.

Capturing Lovett

Molly Hubbard, director of the Rice Art Program, sculptor Bruce Wolfe and architect Jeff Ryan ’67 discuss plans for the new statue that will stand outside Keck Hall in the heart of the Rice campus.  

“I try to get a little motion in my pieces,” Wolfe said, “and emotion, so it’s not just a bunch of bronze.” That’s why he wants the Lovett statue to reflect a young man who has just returned from traveling, a man full of big plans and a sense of possibility.

“He went to the East, he went to England, he went to Germany, Japan, Russia, and he brought home the excitement he must have felt,” Wolfe said.

The Lovett he wants to depict is in motion, stepping forward with a confident smile. A stack of books swings in his hand, bound together with a leather strap. Young and armed with knowledge, this Lovett is ready to build and shape an outstanding institute of learning.

Wolfe has spent 40 years creating commissioned busts and statues; he’s made likenesses of Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, former Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

It’s easier, Wolfe said, to work with a living subject. “You can talk to them, you can look at them, you can see who they are,” he said. For Thatcher’s statue, Wolfe was able to sit with the former prime minister, observe her mannerisms and, yes, even measure her. But Lovett died in 1957, so Wolfe had to use stories and photographs to re-create the man whose face is less familiar than his name.

Rice historian John Boles ’65 gave Wolfe a pile of material about Lovett’s life and work, and the sculptor was able to get a sense of Lovett’s size by studying some of his clothing, which is stored away in the library’s Woodson Research Center. He got a glimpse of Lovett’s facial structure through a series of portrait photographs – several of them, taken over a number of years by the same New York photographer.

In each photo, Wolfe said, Lovett is in the same pose, with his head at the same angle. “He might have changed the part of his hair,” Wolfe said, and he looked older as the years went by. “But it was still the same look.”

Right now Wolfe is working – and reworking – Lovett’s head, starting over several times to get the facial features and expression just right.

Wolfe has spent the past several months consulting with Molly Hubbard, director of the Rice Art Program. Hubbard’s enthusiasm for the Lovett project, he said, “kind of rubs off on you. It rubbed off on me.”

With that enthusiasm and a solid start on the statue, Wolfe said, “I feel like I’m at the right place at the right time to be able to do this job.” He’ll capture Lovett’s idealism, his vision and his audacity in a face of bronze, in a body that seems to be moving but will stand still, year after year, amid a swirl of young students who carry an optimism and assurance of their own.

The university announced plans to build a Lovett statue in 2010 after the Wortham Foundation issued a challenge grant that made the project possible. The rest of the funds have been raised through private donations.

Contributions are now being accepted, however, for a maintenance and conservation endowment for the project. To donate to the Lovett Statue Endowment Fund, go to the Centennial Campaign website, giving.rice.edu, or mail your gift to Rice University, Lovett Statue Fund – MS 83, P.O. Box 1892, Houston, Texas 77251-1892.