When the greatest player of all-time walks away, how do you properly say thanks?
This was the question facing the Chicago Bulls back in 1992, when Michael Jordan retired (for the first time). Ultimately, the Bulls decided to make the memory of Jordan a permanent one and erect a statue outside their arena. After taking bids from a dozen artists, the Bulls selected the husband-and-wife artist team of Omri Amrany and Julie Rotblatt of the Fine Art Studio of Rotblatt-Amrany, based in nearby Highland Park.
For Amrany and Rotblatt, the Jordan statue opened a door to a whole new line of subjects from the sporting world. In the decades since the Jordan statue -- called “The Spirit” by Amrany and Rotblatt -- went up outside the United Center, they’ve since made dozens of sports statues, from Scottie Pippen to Vince Lombardi to Josh Gibson to Gordie Howe to Magic Johnson (two of him) to Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West.
This week their latest work will be unveiled outside the Staples Center in Los Angeles: A statue of Los Angeles Lakers great Shaquille O’Neal. And how do you commemorate someone who was literally larger than life? By upsizing him to nearly 10 feet tall and then hanging in the air the resulting 1,500 pounds of bronze, steel, wood and clay.
We caught up with Amrany recently to chat about how their studio brought the Shaq statue to life.
Q: How exactly did you get into the business of making all these sports statues?
Amrany: Well, it’s not easy to pinpoint how one statue led into the next. In the competition for Michael Jordan, we came with three different renderings that portrayed most of what the Chicago Bulls wanted, not knowing what they wanted. In reviewing our work, they realized that most of our pieces expressed elements of defying gravity and the freedom of flight, which were of tremendous importance for the artistic expression. From that point the Detroit Tigers called, and one led to another. I think those, step by step, brought us more and more into the commission world and the sports world.
"I think of just the element of surprise, when you stand under it and you see this 1,500-pound, massive element coming at you, that you realize what other players on the court experienced every night. He became a form of art on his own."
Q: And somehow that all eventually led to the Shaquille O’Neal statue.
A: Regarding specifically Shaquille, for 25 years I’m thinking of and designing pieces which are floating up in the air, above gravity, above no bases. And the Lakers allowed me as an artist for the first time to really create this terrifying experience of standing under Shaq’s shoes, and waiting for him to come at you. I think of just the element of surprise, when you stand under it and you see this 1,500-pound, massive element coming at you, that you realize what other players on the court experienced every night. He became a form of art on his own.
Q: Did you meet Shaquille when you made this? Do you have to measure him to get the proportions right?
A: I probably met him a long time ago at an event, like for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or maybe even Jerry West or Magic Johnson, but no measurements, no. We strictly work from photos and computer adjustments, and that’s how we do things.
Q: What is the statue made out of?
A: It’s made out of regular silicone marine bronze, with a stainless steel infrastructure that you don’t see, because the whole idea is that your vision experience will not expose how it’s being done. If you don’t understand how it’s been done the surprise effect becomes stronger. Normally when you see a sculpture, the sculpture stands on a base, and you don’t have any gravity questions. Here the piece is hanging from a piece of a glass window, and 1,500, 2000 pounds, hanging from glass? Your mind is already hijacked to say, “What is going on here?”
"The computer is becoming our main artist in the studio, in a way. I treat the computer like an independent artist, I just don’t allow them to sign their computer name on there."
Q: I know nothing about the process of a sculptor, but I would assume with the way technology has advanced and with computer printing there are easier ways to do things. Or do you still start with a block of rock and a chisel?
A: In the old days, pre-computer, I used to go home and sit all night long and draw, draw, draw, draw. But these days the computer is doing the drawing for us, and it’s much faster. The computer is becoming our main artist in the studio, in a way. I treat the computer like an independent artist, I just don’t allow them to sign their computer name on there. (laughs)
Q: They may be doing it anyway.
A: They probably do it in the undercoding. You never know when they’ll take over, you know. Otherwise, when you look at a piece from the start, we have to assist it very much on a figurative level, but not just figurative, also structure.
So, we are literally most of the time building into the piece a skeleton of steel forms, literally skeletons, that allow over that to be fitted with wood and screws and wire, and over that skin it with clay, then start to do a reduction by measuring to make sure everything is good. Plus, there’s a lot of our experience that comes into it on the craftmanship level, which is a true form of art.
Both Julie and I worked in Italy in the world of marble, literally like in the stone age, and we learned how to take white marble and use the concept of the shadows to give you the feeling that the stone is a live, breathing human being. If you can do this in marble, clay is a piece of cake.
Q: As someone who has made statues of so many different athletes, as you put this sculpture together, what were your thoughts on just the basic physical size and dimensions of Shaquille O’Neal?
A: If you put Shaquille next to you or me, and you made him the same height, perspectively, he would look like a normal person, because of his perspective, his proportions. He is not like many other players. You realize that he is tall, because at 7-2 he is tall, but if was just six foot, he would not look tall or fat or out of the ordinary. Which means his proportions are pretty much normal proportions for a regular-sized human being. And that is what makes him so powerful, in many ways. So, he is not out of the ordinary, except that he is big, that is all.
Q: Right. Well, Shaq is really big.
A: Yeah, we all know this guy is big. It’s like when the Green Bay Packers came over to look at the Vince Lombardi statue, and they looked around and looked up, and said, “He’s big!” What I’m saying here is you not only feel Shaquille is a tall man, you feel Shaquille is a big guy. And in the bronze, he’s nine and a half feet, so the statue is even bigger than Shaq really is, which is really big.
Q: And the statue shows Shaq in that classic post-dunk pose, his legs and arms bent a bit as he hangs from the rim.
A: Right. He’s kind of looking at you like, “Where can I land?”
Q: And you just hope it’s not you.
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