Breathing Life into Bronze

Nov. 11, 2010


KNOXVILLE -- At 2:30 on Friday afternoon, fans will get their first chance to see a statue of the man responsible for putting Tennessee football on the national map.

Under the cover is a 9-foot, roughly 1,200-pound bronze sculpture of Gen. Robert Neyland, kneeling with a whistle around his neck. It sits on a pedestal with his seven game maxims etched in stone.

But if sculptor Blair Buswell has his way, those who see the statue will see more than bronze. They'll not only see Neyland's face, with a pleasant but intense expression, they'll see the man for whom one of college football's most famous stadiums is named.

"He's looking off at the field, at his players," said Buswell, who arrived in Knoxville on Wednesday to install his sculpture before Friday's unveiling and Saturday's homecoming game against Ole Miss. "That's what I'm trying to get. I want it to feel like he's alive. That there's a person and a career that's behind that."

Neyland's career, of course, is the most successful of any football coach in Tennessee history. He posted a 173-31-12 record, including six undefeated seasons, five SEC championships and four national championships including the 1951 consensus national title.

Buswell's career is distinguished as well.

A former running back at Brigham Young University, he's made a career fusing his passion for sports and art. He's created busts for every Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee since 1983. He's cast larger-than-life sports figures larger-than-life in bronze, like Jack Nicklaus with his putter raised at Augusta National and Mickey Mantle in his classic home-run finish in Oklahoma City. He's sculpted Charlton Heston and a wagon train the length of a city block in Omaha.

Now his largest sculpture of an individual - the twice life-size bronze statue of General Neyland - will be unveiled during Friday's ceremony, which will be held between gates 15A and 17 at Neyland Stadium and is open to the public.



Buswell's still a little anxious to know what people will think. But what he hopes they'll see is what he always aims for - breathing life into his bronze statues.

"When I'm trying to do any kind of sculpture like this, I try to go beyond getting the nose and the eyes and the ears and everything in the right place. I've done this long enough to know that's going to come. Hopefully," Buswell says with a smile. "What I'm trying to get is the essence of the person. Looking at the person, looking at the pictures and trying to figure out how the General would want to be remembered."

For Buswell, it's impossible to forget the root of his passion. Since he was a kid, he's loved using his hands to create something in three dimensions.

His mother just wanted to keep him quiet.

Sitting in a church pew, she'd pull from her purse an old Sucrets tin filled with different colors of oil-based clay. Buswell would busy himself fashioning cowboys, Indians and racecars with flat toothpicks. He'd even mix the clay together to get the proper colors for a particular figure.

"I'd make these little guys," he said. "I basically started by making toys. Then I realized when I was in junior high that people actually made a living at what I did for fun. I threw doctor, lawyer and fireman out the window and decided I wanted to be an artist when I grew up."

After high school, first at a junior college and a brief stint at Utah State before finishing at BYU, Buswell worked in all kinds of media. Nothing compared to sculpture.

Buswell loved being able to use his hands to create. It was just as well. As a running back at BYU -- "which doesn't get the ball much," he joked - there weren't a lot of carries on a team that included two future Super Bowl winning quarterbacks in Jim McMahon and Steve Young.

"I was standing there watching balls soar through the air," Buswell said, laughing.

But he was also building a career as a sculptor, one that would get a huge boost from another Super Bowl winner.

As Buswell graduated from Brigham Young in 1982, he was doing what most soon-to-be college grads do - trying to figure out what to do with his life. More accurately, he was trying to determine how he could make his mark as a sculptor.

"Growing up in the West, my dad raised show horses. My dream was to be Jeremiah Johnson, mountain man and all that as a kid," Buswell said. "Everyone was trying to be (sculptors Frederic) Remington and (Charles) Russell at the time, Western art. I love that genre. I love Western art. But I looked at it and I thought I'd rather be the Remington or Russell of something I know than the Blair Buswell of Western, just another name thrown in the hat."

It didn't take long to carve a niche.

At BYU's athletic awards banquet that year, Buswell was honored for his accomplishments off the field. Figures of McMahon and basketball star Danny Ainge along with some of his other pieces were displayed in the banquet hall.

The speaker that evening was Bill Walsh, who had just guided the San Francisco 49ers to a victory in Super Bowl XVI. Seeking a unique gift for 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo, Walsh asked Buswell if he'd sculpt a statue of the two men.

"After he picked me up off the ground, I said sure," Buswell said.

That fall, Walsh flew Buswell to Youngstown, Ohio, so he could personally deliver a copy of the statue to DeBartolo. While he was there, DeBartolo asked if there was anything he could do to help Buswell's career.

Buswell told DeBartolo he'd love to do some work for the NFL or perhaps the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Buswell couldn't dream up what happened next.

"He called up the Hall of Fame set up an appointment, and I went over from there to meet the directors," he said. "And they hired me."

Buswell began sculpting busts inductees in 1983, one year after former Tennessee great Doug Atkins was enshrined at Canton. But it was another NFL star from the Hall's Class of 1982 that helped inform Buswell's approach to sculpture.

San Diego Chargers great Merlin Olsen, who Buswell met through Walsh, told Buswell that he wished he'd been able to see his statue before it was unveiled. Over the years, Buswell has met with nearly all the men who he has sculpted, a literal who's who of football players.

"It was because of Merlin that started that career off, because it wouldn't be as much fun for me if I was just doing it from pictures," said Buswell, who just last month unveiled his statue of his late friend Olsen outside the stadium at Utah State. "That's changed the whole approach for me."

That approach remains the same today, even with a project like the Neyland statue.

Typically, Buswell begins every project with a modeling session. He'll take pictures of his subject from all angles and work on poses before he fashions anything out of clay.

But when developing the Neyland statue, all he had to work from were photographs. Buswell took anything he could get his hands on to develop a feel both for Neyland the man and to inform his portrait.

Once Tennessee settled on a pose, Buswell began sculpting maquettes, or small wax models of various poses. From there, he got final approval of the design from a University committee that included some of Neyland's former players and began sculpting a half life-sized statue.

Buswell sent that piece to a company in California, where it was digitally scanned and then cut out of foam blocks at its full size. He reassembled the foam - now four times larger than his original model -- at his studio in Utah. The statue was measured to make sure the proportions were correct, and then Buswell covered it with a thin layer of clay to replicate the original maquette.

From there, the process became a little more complex.

After the full-size statue was completed with foam and clay, Buswell cast a rubber and plaster mold in several pieces which was sent to a foundry. There, wax was poured into the mold until it hardened into a layer between 3/8 and 1/2 inch. A system of funnels, called sprues, was inserted and both sides of the wax mold were covered with layers of slurry and sand several times.

The molds were then baked in a kiln, causing the wax to melt and the slurry to become a ceramic shell. That left about a 1/2-inch space that was filled with molten bronze. From there, the pieces were welded together at a foundry, and Buswell checked every inch of the statue to make sure it reflected his original sculpture.

"If I can see where their work is different than mine, I'll mark it until their work disappears and you'll see what I've originally had there, matching textures, so you don't see any seams, hopefully," he said. "Any little bubbles or flaws in the metal, I'll mark those, and they'll work on that until it's where it needs to be."

Finally, the statue was sandblasted and colored using layers of patina.

"It's called the `lost wax' process," Buswell said, "and they've been doing that for thousands of years."

The Neyland project took more than a year to complete. Buswell began work the Neyland statue last October, and even took a trip to Knoxville for the Vols' homecoming game against Memphis in November to view the site.

He's long been in a position to pick and choose his projects. But he didn't really have a choice when Tennessee came calling. His wife, a Tennessee native, told him he'd be taking the job.

Buswell is always a little nervous the day before one of his pieces makes its public debut, but perhaps never more than a few years ago in Tuscaloosa.

Waiting to unveil his statue of former Alabama coach Bear Bryant, Buswell hoped his sculpture would pass muster in another football-crazy state.

"The way they revere him in Tuscaloosa, it scared me. I didn't know when they pulled that cloth off if they going to shoot me or praise me," Buswell says, chuckling.

Buswell hasn't had to dodge any bullets yet.

Standing on Peyton Manning Pass on Wednesday night, though, he couldn't escape his emotions. Buswell looked down the street at his statue's new home, nestled beneath Neyland Stadium's new exterior and lit marquee, where the statue will face the team as it arrives on the Vol Walk.

"To sit there in the middle of that street by myself and look down and see where my sculpture's going to be, the surroundings, it meant a lot to me," Buswell said.

Like many of his other pieces, the Neyland statue is a fusion of his dual passions of sports and sculpture. It's also a combination of his parents' passions. The Neyland project particularly interested his father, and Buswell sent him pictures of the statue and regular updates throughout the construction until his father died this year.

For all the nerves involved, this weekend will be emotional for a different reason. Buswell's mother also passed away this year. And as he hopes fans will see something of General Neyland in his sculpture, he can't avoid seeing something of his parents when he looks at his latest work.

"It's been a tough year for me, emotionally," Buswell said. "My biggest fans in the world, both my parents passed away in the middle of all this. My mom, who got me started in the love of art, and my dad's love of sports, they made me who I am. Just to stand up there in the street and imagining what's going to happen on Friday and Saturday... it's going to be a big time.

"I hope everyone likes it."



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