A golden anniversary gift cast in bronze

 

By AMANDA KLEPS ’13 

A new panther soon will join the Pitt pantheon, making its home on the Bradford campus, having been paid for in part by significant contributions from the student body and sculpted by a Bradford native.

The bronze panther will be erected in the Robert B. Bromeley Quadrangle, directly in front of the main entrance to the Frame-Westerberg Commons, facing the students, visitors and other members of the Pitt-Bradford campus as they stream in and out of the campus hub.

With unveiling of the new panther statue set for Sept. 3, the 50th anniversary of Pitt-Bradford’s founding, sculptor Dave Hodges has his work cut out for him. Creating a realistic, enduring, larger-than-life panther statue from sketch to finish involves painstaking steps to preserve the nuances that Hodges incorporates into his work.  

Hodges spent his boyhood days in Bradford before venturing out west to attend Montana State University, graduating in 1979. Hodges, who also sculpted the Marilyn Horne bust displayed in the KOA Speer Electronics Lobby in Blaisdell Hall, said he began sculpting professionally in 1982, and his work reflects both his love of animals and his Montana surroundings.

“I’ve just always lived in the country, even starting in Bradford,” Hodges said. “So the art I end up doing is entirely different than someone from New York or Los Angeles. They see different things than I do every day. For instance, my wife, Carmen, and I go out and feed 30 cows every morning.”

            Jessica Visseau Resig, Class of 2010, remembers when she, as president of the StudentGovernment Association during the 2008-2009 academic year, along with the rest of the SGA Executive Board, set out to bring a panther statue to the Pitt-Bradford campus.

“It seemed like a natural next step,” Resig said. “Our campus was growing and we had all these new buildings springing up.  At the time I think we had just surpassed 1,500 full-time equivalent students, and so we had all of this growth on campus and we wanted to contribute too.”

Resig, who majored in English education at Pitt-Bradford, is currently employed at The Pennsylvania State University as an instructional designer, where she works with professors to build their online courses. In October 2011, she married James Resig, who briefly attended Pitt-Bradford.

“We knew that we wanted a point on campus that expressed our panther pride,” Resig said. “We had been working, not just SGA, but also SAC (Student Activities Council) and a lot of student organizations, toward trying to establish a tradition that everybody does every year. We wanted a physical location to represent the students’ panther pride.”

On other Pitt campuses, the panther statues are often petted for good luck on assignments, as well as serving as backdrops for countless photos each year.

The initial student contribution toward a panther statue for Pitt-Bradford was generated through a combination of leftover allocation funds and the money set aside for the SGA Executive Board’s annual gift to the campus. For the past five years, each SGA budget has set aside a portion of the budget, generated through student activity fees, to go directly into the Panther statue fund.

The student contribution has raised $35,000 toward the project, with additional funds coming from the university and the president’s office. Several members of SGA have been involved with the committee overseeing the panther statue project.

“That’s the way it should be,” Resig said. “The students should be helping to build the campus the way that they want to see it. I’m glad that there was student input on something that is going to be a source of pride on campus.”

The amount of work to bring a panther statue to the Pitt-Bradford campus is staggering, both financially and artistically. One does not simply pick up a 125-inch-long bronze panther at a flea market, slap down a few paving stones and an azalea bush and then call it a day.

This is where Hodges, who has sculpted more than a few animals in his day, comes in. Hodges said he got the call about creating a Pitt-Bradford panther in July 2012. A few months later, he started working on sketching several designs for the committee to choose from, beginning actual construction of the statue in November 2012.

Set on giving the campus the most realistic oversized panther possible, Hodges didn’t just rely on memory, or even a quick scan of Google images. Instead he found a model: Rosie.

“I got in her cage, kneeled down and pet her,” Hodges said of Rosie, a 17-year-old mountain lion owned by a nearby taxidermist. “She purrs like a little motor when you rub her ears.  I took a bunch of pictures of her and observed her from different angles.”

            Hodges said that it helped to study her movements and to see how shadows fell around the mountain lion. He used these references as he sculpted and texturized the clay in the early phases of construction, creating the foundation for the highlights and shadows that make pieces seem more realistic.

“The taxidermist went over a lot of the differences in cat anatomy with me, and I have a book that shows the muscles and skeleton,” Hodges said. “I always have the anatomy book out because I have to keep in mind how the skeleton is and what the muscles would be doing.”

Indeed, the process for creating sculpture seems to be very similar to the images of systems and compounding tissue layers diagramed in anatomy books. Hodges started by fashioning a skeleton, not of bone but from 2 ½-inch-thick steel pipes and ½-inch-thick rebar. He then filled in the structure, building up and then carving into urethane insulation foam to create a surface for the heavy clay that comes next.

Hodges estimates that he used 550 pounds of clay, shaping it around the basic shape created by the foam. 

“I try to get a nice texture,” Hodges said, explaining the precision involved in sculpting the surface. “I want it to throw a lot of light and reflection so it looks like it has some depth to the hair. On the upper surfaces, I try to make it smooth, and where I want shadow, I really rough up the clay with the tools. Especially on a big statue that will be see from a distance, it has to have some texture or else it will look too smooth, like a balloon or a piece of glass.”

Once Hodges had the clay panther looking exactly how he wanted the final bronze version to look, from each claw to the curve of the tail, he created molds.

The statue is being dissected, carefully, into sections, 32 different pieces, Hodges said. These smaller, workable pieces are then painted in rubber and covered in a heavy plaster shell.  When the plaster and rubber coating has set, the clay innards will be removed and what remains is the mold, which will then be sent off to the foundry. The clay and rebar are recycled when possible.

The molds will be filled with wax to make an impression, which will then be used to create a final ceramic mold. The ceramic mold is emptied of wax and filled with the 2,100- degree Fahrenheit melted bronze.

Hodges explained that this casting method, called cire perdue, or Egyptian lost-wax method, dates back to antiquity and allows for all of the intricate carving work of the artist to be preserved as the molten metal fills the mold.  

The resulting bronze pieces then have to be welded together back into the shape of the panther.

“That’s actually one of my favorite parts, the welding and the coloring,” Hodges said. “After it’s cast and welded together, you have to grind the welds down to blend in with the surface so it can’t be seen.”

Then the statue will be sandblasted, and the welds will be completely blended in. At that point, Hodges said, the statue will look like it is pure gold, but exposure to the atmosphere would quickly discolor the bronze, so it would need to be immediately sealed, but instead, to bring out the textures and lines incorporated into the statue, Hodges will apply a series of chemicals to cause reactions on the bronze surface.

Potassium sulfate and a scouring pad will darken the depressions and make the highlights shiny, while ferric nitrate will be used to turn the bronze a rich, golden brown. Finally, Hodges plans to seal the statue with an ultraviolet light-blocking lacquer to preserve the artistic colorations he will apply.

Only then will it be possible for the Pitt-Bradford panther to make its way from the wilds of Montana to the campus that is so eagerly anticipating its arrival.

It’s the best possible birthday present one can imagine. A community effort, brought to fruition by several years of student – now alumni – contributions, sculpted by a man who knows the land and the animal, to be cherished by decades of proud panther students and alumni for decades to come. 

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