The Five-Minute Interview: Wendy M. Ross, Mason Statue Sculptor

Posted: March 27, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Colleen Kearney Rich

Wendy Ross with statue
Sculptor Wendy Ross with the clay model for the Mason statue on the National Mall.

Sculptor Wendy M. Ross has more than 25 years’ experience working with developers, architects and individual clients to create both public and private works of art.

Her work ranges from small-scale to monumental. Incorporating a variety of metals, including steel, aluminum and bronze, her pieces are designed for indoor and outdoor settings.

Ross designed and created the statue of George Mason that has presided over the Fairfax Campus since 1996. She later created a different sculpture of Mason for a memorial in Washington, D.C., that was unveiled in 2002.

Ross received an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design and a BA from the University of Wisconsin. Her outdoor works have been exhibited at Grounds for Sculpture, Hamilton, N.J.; the Saint Paul Western Sculpture Park, Minn.; Pier Walk ’97 and ’98, in Chicago; and as public artworks in Washington, D.C., and Alexandria, Va.

Her indoor sculptures and installations have been shown at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and at the headquarters of the American Institute of Architects in Washington, D.C., and at the Center for the Arts in Vero Beach, Fla.

She maintains a sculpture studio in Bethesda, Md.

How did you come to make both George Mason statues?

Serendipity. The process for each was distinct and unrelated. For the university, the Mason project was originally conceived by a handful of students and then evolved into a sponsored competition to select a nationally known artist to create a proposal (I believe I was on a shortlist of artists being considered at the time). Eventually I was selected based on slides of previous work by a student vote. I designed a likeness of Mason depicting him in a scene within his study. The “setting and props” were designed to connect the figure with the world of academia. It was a portrayal of an energetic Mason — his right hand resting on his books (a source of inspiration) stacked on his desk as he actively presents the handwritten first draft of his Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776. The dedication of this sculptural likeness at Mason marked the first three-dimensional portrait of George Mason in the history of this nation.

For the Mason Memorial on the National Mall, I had been included among the artists under consideration early on in the process, even before the legislation authorizing the memorial had been passed by Congress. While the original concept by the planners was simply to have an artist design a bronze relief medallion, I proposed a full-figure representation to emphasize his presence within the memorial site. The Board of Regents for Gunston Hall was thrilled with the concept, and they authorized me to execute a maquette, which was subsequently approved by the Fine Arts Commission. In this work, I chose to depict Mason shortly before his death in 1792, when he witnessed the culmination of his long quest to establish individual rights as a fundamental aspect of government.

The statue has come to mean so much to this campus. The students decorate it. Families take pictures in front of it. How does it feel to have created a piece of art that is endeared to so many and to see its photo everywhere?

I love hearing that! After visiting and lecturing at numerous universities, it has become very evident to me what is meaningful public work and what is mere decoration. In the case of the Mason piece, it’s not only a campus symbol, but it has become lovingly embraced by the university community.

Wendy Ross in her studio
Wendy Ross’ studio exhibits the variety of her sculptural styles.
Photos courtesy Wendy Ross

Does it bother you when students dress him up?

No. The work is the university’s namesake. It is not some commemorative portrait housed in a protective museum environment — it is a public work and meant to be part of the life of that community. I actually was amused by the creativity, especially when Mason made its NCAA run last year. On several other occasions, I noticed he was “dressed up” with notes and flyers posted on him. However, no one seems to be trying to vandalize or harm George. I did hear the university has instituted some guidelines on what can be used to adhere items on the bronze surface. I think that is a wise initiative, but generally, I see no reason why “George” shouldn’t join in on the campus festivities. He is, after all, a major player.

There are very few images of Mason. How did you decide how to depict him? Did you use a model?

It was quite a challenge to create a believable interpretation of George Mason. No authentic visual materials exist on his likeness. The only known portrait from life was destroyed by fire, and all that remains today is an “artist’s interpretation” painted 19 years after his death that currently hangs at the Mason home in Gunston Hall. When I began my research in reconstructing a likeness, it led me to some interesting places.

Early on, I was invited to an annual dinner of the George Mason Memorial Society in Richmond. The event provided an opportunity to observe the facial features of some 21 direct lineal descendents. I noticed similarities in bone structure and expression. Further research led me to rely on fragments of information in the writings of his fourth son, John, recollecting his father’s daily life at Gunston Hall. In the archives at Gunston, I examined the construction and textures of Mason’s actual clothing and his wigs to recreate those details in the bronze work.

In the course of reading historical biographies on Mason, I discovered he had recurring bouts with gout, which affected his mobility and made him reluctant to travel long distances. In the standing figure, I positioned his right hand to rest gently but supportively atop a stack of books on his desk. He is leaning slightly forward and his right leg is slightly “bowed” as if not capable of supporting his full weight unaided.

I knew Mason was largely self-taught and a voracious reader who relied heavily on the philosophy of the Enlightenment as well as classical literature for his political views, so I chose texts that were in his library — Locke, Hume and Rousseau.. I drew from many sources, including the Smithsonian’s 18th-century furniture department, to find out what types of claw feet were typical of writing tables of that period (they were missing on his original writing table in his study at Gunston Hall). Don McAndrew, a volunteer who portrays George Mason at Gunston Hall, was kind enough to come to my studio in period dress on several occasions to stand and pose for me. It helped to understand how Mason’s actual clothing draped on a human figure. Normally, I don’t use models for creating portraits because it tends to be distracting. I usually rely on photographs, which, obviously, was not an option for this subject.

Do you have a favorite metal or medium?

It really depends on what I’m working on at the time. A concept will dictate the medium, although occasionally the material will guide how it is best constructed. I have worked in a broad range of mutable and permanent materials. For several years, I was hooked on working in clay and casting in bronze. I exclusively cast my clay portraits in bronze because of its warm surface qualities. For some early abstract outdoor pieces, I worked in epoxy and Kevlar. Since 1994, I have been creating work primarily in steel and other metals — formed, welded, bent and woven.

Do you have a personal motto or manifesto that guides your creative work?

Not really. My artistic expression, in whatever medium, is simply an effort to translate and share a unique and personal vision. That vision can range from the microscopic to the galactic. I am inspired by events and stories of the past, present and future, and I enjoy constructing work within both the built and natural environment. I savor the challenge and art of transforming ideas to inhabit spaces. My hope is that my work will communicate and engage the viewer in a way that causes him or her to linger. I think that impulse is why I enjoy creating work in the public domain.

For more information on Ross and her work, see her web site.

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