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Copper & Brass
Friday | 11 December, 2009 | 3:58 am

Icon in bronze

By John Loos

December 2009- Of all American success stories, perhaps few are as unlikely as that of Helen Keller, a blind and deaf child who, despite her disabilities, grew up to be an activist, lecturer and author, championing issues such as women's suffrage and workers' rights.

In October, a bronze statue of Keller was unveiled at the U.S Capitol, with lawmakers and Bob Riley, governor of Keller's home state of Alabama, in attendance. The 600-pound statue depicts a 7-year-old Keller standing by a water pump, which is considered the breakthrough moment in Keller's education. Using the pump, her teacher, Anne Sullivan, taught her the word "water" by spelling it out into her hand.

"In time, this moment so vividly depicted by this statue helped the world to understand that all of us, regardless of any disability, have a mind that can be educated, a hand that can be trained, a life that will have meaning," said Riley at the ceremony.

Bronze beginnings
The bronze statue was crafted by sculptor Edward Hlavka, a Utah-based artist who works primarily with bronze and has bronze sculptures exhibited and installed all across the country.

According to Hlavka's Web site, he begins each sculpture by creating an original piece from clay, then constructing a mold of plaster-supported latex, vinyl or silicone around it. The clay piece is usually destroyed, at which point molten wax is poured into the mold until it evenly covers the inner surface, and the desired thickness is reached.

These hollow wax shells are then chased with a heated tool to eliminate seams and sprued to create paths for the molten bronze to flow into.

Through dipping the wax copy into a liquid silica slurry and then into dry silica, a ceramic shell is created. The mold is then heated and the wax melted out. The ceramic shell is cooled, tested and sand-blasted away, revealing the rough bronze statue.

The statue is then filed, polished and colored. Finally, a sealer is applied to slow oxidization and protect the sculpture from damaging ultraviolet rays. According to The Collector's Guide Online, a information resource for artists in the Southwestern United States, this process is sometimes referred to as the "lost wax" process, as the wax is "lost" when it's eventually melted.

Hlavka has crafted bronze sculptures of many notable Americans, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Martin Van Buren and Alexander Hamilton, as well as Native Americans, a sumo wrestler and a geisha.

One recent commission is a bronze monument representing the Oneida Indian Nation for the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian on Washington D.C.'s national mall. MM

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