Artists in the Hellenistic (which means “after” Greek, or “in the manner of” Greece) period did something extraordinary. Instead of sculpting in stone and marble they chose to render their subjects in wax so that they could achieve greater and more realistic detail (like the crows feet on an aging man’s eyes) and then cast them in bronze. They also preferred to portray, unlike their predecessors, ordinary people (relatively speaking) as well as gods and goddesses. They would use other materials (like copper, bone and enamel) to make the sculptures come alive, like a photo-realistic painting, a la 150 b.c.
On Friday afternoon last week a friend and I did some time traveling. We went to Greece and spent some time meeting people that lived in the Hellenistic period beginning with the death of Alexander the Great in 323 b.c. and ending with the emergence of the Roman Empire at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. Most of the thousands of sculptures produced in the Hellenistic period – many of which portrayed ordinary people – are lost; dismantled or destroyed by the Romans or others… melted down and turned into coins or weapons.
On our journey on Friday afternoon we met an orator, a poet and a North African. We stood in front of what was most likely a funeral monument for a boy that died a tragic and untimely death. One man we met bore a striking resemblance to Ted Kennedy. It was fascinating. Walking around these sculptures at the National Gallery on Friday we felt as if we were Hellenic; citizens of ancient Greece.
It was amazing to me to meet these people for two reasons.
The first is that as an artist who has created sculpture in the very same way (lost wax casting) I have a keen appreciation of the complex process involved in casting bronze. First rendering three dimensional forms in clay; then making plaster molds from the clay renderings; filling the plaster molds with hot wax and then then surrounding the wax with slurry until you have what looks like giant white formless blobs; burning out the wax and then filling them with molten bronze; then welding all of the pieces back together and finishing the metal until… voila!
The second is that the people we met on Friday were people that lived at time very close to the time that my – and maybe your – savior became incarnate and walked the earth. A time very close to the days when the first disciples of Christ began to build the church and proclaim the Kingdom of God and when the tent-maker and great Apostle Paul preached “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
The pictures below trace the lost wax process. The piece was the result of a commission I got from the Bowling Green Public Library. The task was to create a sculpture to honor a parishioner of the church that I served – Ferris Van Meter – who died of cancer way too young. Ferris had three loves: the church, the library and Western Kentucky University. When I learned that Ferris had a chair in which she sat to do her very favorite thing – sit and read – I conceived Ferris’ Chair, a child-sized rocking chair. Each component of the chair is taken from a classic children’s book or author: The Little Engine that Could; Goodnight Moon, Roald Dahl; Dr. Seuss, The Wizard of Oz; The Giving Tree; James and the Giant Peach; and Harry Potter.
Ferris’ Chair tells a story, as does every piece in the special exhibit at the National Gallery. If you are into time travel and want to spend some time with people who lived in the era just before the time of Christ, go see Power and Pathos. If you linger with these sculptures they will speak to you. I don’t know what they will say to you but what they told me was to hold on to what is the greatest gift we have been given by God… the gift of this one life we have been given to live, and to live that life as well as we possibly can, because barring whatever eternal life will be like, our time on this earth is limited.