In September of 1859 Abraham Lincoln delivered an anti-slavery speech at Dayton’s courthouse. This September, artist Mike Major will unveil his eleven foot bronze sculpture of Lincoln. It was commissioned by the Lincoln Society of Dayton, and will be permanently placed on display outside the old courthouse.
I visited Mike Major at his studio in Urbana, in a renovated storefront.
I found Mike in the rear of the store, working on a sculpture of Robert Hartzell that will be placed in a park in Troy. Hartzell, with encouragement from his friend Orville Wright, started the Hatrtzell Walnut Propeller Company.
As Mike worked, he listened to a book on tape. It was a biography of Einstein. “I enjoy learning about some of Eintein’s erratic work habits. They are similar to mine.”
I had seen one of Mike’s finished works, his Springfield statue of boxer Davey Moore. I asked him about the work process.
“This underlying material is styrofoam sprayed with shellac. I cut clay into slabs and the shellac allows the clay to stick to the surface.”
“During the application of the clay, details such as buttons and folds in the clothing can be added.”
“When I take this clay sculpture to the foundry, they will brush on several coats of latex. Then a reinforced plaster is applied over that. Next the plaster and latex mold is opened and the clay is cleaned. Molten wax is brushed on the inside of the latex mold until it is 1/2 inch thick. Then the mold is closed and the wax seams are filled in to create a collate hollow replica of the statue. The wax is removed and cut into pieces. Each piece is then dipped into ceramic and the wax is melted out (that’s why this is called the lost wax process) and molten bronze is poured into the cavity.
“The individual pieces are then welded back together. The weld seams are ground with a small tool so it all blends together. An acid wash solution then gives the bronze a protective patina.
“Making a bronze statue is a long, drawn out process. But the result is worth it.”
Looking around Mike’s studio I noticed several types of art.
“I started out making pen and ink drawings, and even published some books of those drawings. Then in college I learned painting and then printmaking. My master’s work at the Pratt Institute was in printmaking.”
“My focus on sculpture came after working for years as a painter, but I remember that from early childhood I loved to mold clay. It was the one thing that heightened concentration to the point where time seemed to stand still. It became a daily source of entertainment and delight.”
I saw two small Lincoln statues and asked if the final 11 foot version would look exactly like these.
“I have made some subtle changes since those drafts. Note that Lincoln has no beard. That came after his Dayton speech.
“To my knowledge, no photograph of Lincoln giving that speech exists. In addition to looking at hundreds of photos of Lincoln, I used a life-casting of Lincoln made in Chicago just a few weeks before his assassination.
“It is a humbling honor to create the Lincoln monument. I have read more about this president than any other person. Completing this sculpture brings me deep personal pleasure.”
I asked about the large white sculpture at the other end of Mike’s studio.
“That is the Goddess of Flight. I made it for Carillon Park in 2003 for an event commemorating the invention of flight. She is holding the Wright Flyer. Carillon owns this piece, and I am storing it until they need it again.”
“That bust of Woody Hayes was commissioned by his wife. Another copy of that bust is in the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta.”
Before leaving, I interrupted Mike’s work flow just long enough to get two quick portraits.