BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — The widely accepted version of the make-up of bronze is copper, tin, aluminum, nickel, and various other chemical compounds. It takes something a little more intangible to make a bronze statue. It’s part talent and part significance.
Caleb O’Connor knows all about those attributes. The Tuscaloosa-based artist took those and more into consideration while working on his latest project, a statue of Willie Mays.
“I realized intimately that this is one where I had to give everything I had and it still might not be enough,” O’Connor reflected the night before the statue was unveiled at Regions Field in downtown Birmingham.
There are several mini-monuments to Mays inside the walls of Bethel Baptist Church in west Birmingham, in the form of old newspaper clippings tucked away inside a scrapbook in the pastor’s office. Reverend Greason leads the church of about 400, but 70 years ago his congregation sat in the pews of Rickwood Field. The 1948 Birmingham Black Barons were champions of the Negro American League behind the strong pitching of Greason and the infant star-power of the then-17-year-old Mays. The native of nearby Westfield would climb all the way to Cooperstown after leaving the Magic City through his career with the New York/San Francisco Giants.
While it’s never easy to predict a hall of fame career, Mays’ potential shook the rafters at Rickwood. “Since we were rookies we hung around together,” Greason reminisced. “But he had great talent. Willie was something else.”
Trying to put “something else” into statue form was no easy task. It began nine months ago when O’Connor was approached by the Alabama-Mississippi chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. The organization honors local donors by commissioning public artwork in their honor as part of the Legacy of Leadership Award. The 2015 recipient, Don Logan, asked that instead of memorializing him that the legendary Mays have a statue erected in his honor.
“I took into consideration the Black Barons and I saw people that were rising up,” explained O’Connor. “They were challenging the status quo, they were revealing their internal greatness.” Before he ever picks up a drop of clay the native Hawaiian immerses himself
in his subject. “I want to look at every photo of Willie Mays, I want to look at every sculpture of Mays that’s ever been produced,” the artist emphasized. “That process sometimes takes a week or more.”
“The Say Hey Kid,” is most well-known for his prowess at the plate. His 660 career home runs still rank fifth all-time, and because of that power, most statues of Mays are of him swinging a bat. O’Connor wanted his sculpture to be unique.
“My God, the catches that he would make and the photos that I saw of him making these impossible catches. Now that is baseball right there,” he exclaimed. He decided his representation of the legend would be of #24 robbing a hitter of a home run. Reverend Greason had a front row seat to many of those fantastic snags. “On Sundays at Rickwood the park would be overflowing,” he described. “Any time we played there they came to see him because something unusual was going to happen.”
After combing through every possible image of his muse, O’Connor then tries to get his subject into his studio to photograph them. “I photograph them in every angle imaginable because a sculpture is 360 degrees,” he illustrated by circling his hands around his body. Mays still lives in San Francisco, so he was unable to live-model for O’Connor. Instead, Stillman College head baseball coach Julius McDougal threw on a uniform and took to the skies. He jumped over and over, extending his left arm so O’Connor’s team could capture how fabric moved around him. It was also important to not just capture a leaping catch; it had to be a Willie Mays leaping catch. “If you know who someone is you can tell who they are a long way away because of the way they walk, the way they hold their body. So you have to capture that,” O’Connor expounded.
Once he has all necessary data, O’Connor and his team go to work. He, along with apprentice Benjamin Calhoun, Alexander Leigh, and Paul Luchessi, spent three months molding the water-based clay into a likeness that garnered O’Connor’s approval. After that comes a harrowing month-long period where the team made a silicon mold of the statue. “Once you take the mold off, the sculpture is pretty much destroyed,” detailed O’Connor. “Those are pretty tense moments.”
Just as Mays’ greatness needed a team to flourish, so too is it a group effort to bring a statue to bronze. O’Connor has worked closely
with Craig Wedderspoon, a professor of art at the University of Alabama specializing in sculpture. Wedderspoon not only brought his expertise to the project, but also the usage of the school’s foundry. “It’s hot work. It’s heavy work. It’s extremely laborious, tremendously meticulous, and it’s very dirty and very messy,” stated Wedderspoon. “But no, not hard work. Fun work.”
Wedderspoon and his crew of one employee and three students added an additional 800-1,000 hours making the bronze figure. “There’s very little in sculpture that doesn’t involve a team,” Wedderspoon shared. “There’s very little that doesn’t involve someone helping you, even just, ‘Can you grab that end of this thing and help me move it across the room?’ It’s not the traditional stereotype of the artist locked away in some studio by themselves forever.”
Their efforts start with taking a rubber mold and creating a plastic shell called a “Mother Mold.” Once those steps are completed, wax is cast into the mold.
The next step in the process may look like something you’d see at a fast food joint. “The ceramic shell system is a lot like breading chicken,” smiled Wedderspoon. The figure is dipped into a ceramic slurry and then into a fluidized bed of sand. “This is fine sand, this is coarse sand. We inject air into these vats of sand and that fluidizes the sand so you can dip your piece down into it just like a liquid,” Wedderspoon showed.
Once the figure has attained the proper thickness and dried, it is moved to the burn-out kiln, which looks like a giant brick oven box. “We flash fire the wax and it burns out in a little less than a minute,” said Wedderspoon. After sitting in the kiln for an hour at temperatures between 1600-1650 degrees it’s almost time to pour some bronze. The metal is heated under the floor of the foundry in a pot until it obtains the correct temperature. Once it reaches that point, a crane system pulls the pot up and dumps it into the mold.
“To be a part of this is just a tremendous honor,” Wedderspoon said. “Willie Mays is just an incredible person who has done so much that I was just honored to be a part of it.”
The final piece was unveiled at a ceremony outside Regions Field on Wednesday. There was Mays, reaching to the sky with a ball that appears to be floating in thin air, waiting to fall harmlessly into the web of his glove. That never-quit attitude is what lies in the foundation of the statue. “So many people today seem to be afraid of failing that they don’t even try,” mentioned O’Connor.
If there is one thing for sure, Mays and the Birmingham Black Barons tried. They tried in games and in a societal landscape that always started them at the bottom of the hill playing with a Sisyphean ball. The monument to Mays honors not only his greatness, but the struggle of he and his former teammates.
“I couldn’t see it then because the barrier was still up,” said Reverend Greason. “The chances of a black being immortalized here were very slim. I didn’t think it would ever happen, just like the President of the United States. Who would’ve believed that a black man would be President of the United States?”
The statue sits outside the main entrance to Regions Field, just to the right as you look at the stadium. The section of 1st Avenue South that runs by the ballpark was also renamed “Willie Mays Drive” during the ceremony. The slugger for the city of steel could not make the event, but he has seen the statue and sent along a note of gratitude, which read in part:
“I want to thank all you fine folks from Birmingham, Alabama. Here I am at 85 years of age and you still want to help me. You are something else. I am so proud at this time in my life; to be able to look back over the years, but also to be able to look forward, knowing that I will always have a presence in Birmingham. How remarkable that you did this fine thing, not just for me, but for all of us.”