MU professor chosen to create presidential sculpture

Wednesday, December 3, 2008 | 5:47 p.m. CST

COLUMBIA — J. Brett Grill, an assistant professor of art at MU, was chosen by the Gerald R. Ford Foundation to create a 7-foot, full-body bronze sculpture of the 38th president.  The monument to the late president will be placed in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. 

"They are actually moving a copy of the Magna Carta so it can be moved in," Grill said.

Grill said some of his colleagues were surprised when they heard he had been chosen because his specialties at MU are painting and drawing.  However, he primarily studied sculpting during his undergraduate years at the University of Michigan.

This summer, Grill sculpted a bust of Ford for the Boys and Girls Club of Palm Desert, Calif., where Ford retired; so when it was time for the foundation to find an artist for their sculpture,  Grill made the short list. Fewer than 15 artists were asked to submit portfolios for consideration; he made the final four and, at 29, was the youngest entrant.

As part of the application process, Grill sculpted small- and medium-scale models in various poses. The smallest ones were about 4 or 5 inches tall and made of an oil-based clay.

He said he plans to begin working on the full-scale clay model in two or three weeks.  After making it in Columbia, he will take seven or eight molds of different parts of the sculpture.  The molds will then be sent to Art Castings of Illinois, where the bronze statue will be cast. 

He hopes the project will be completed sometime in the fall of 2009. But before he gets started, Grill will have to find a different space to work than his Hitt Street studio: He will need at least 10-foot ceilings to accommodate the 7-foot sculpture, because it will sit on a base about a foot high, and Grill will need to be able to look at the entire work from all angles. 

Grill will pose Ford for immortality with his right hand grasping the front of his jacket and his left hand carrying files.

"The original sculpture I submitted to the selection committee had Ford holding the files in his right hand," Grill said. "At the time, I didn't know he was left-handed."

As the process continued, Grill read a biography on Ford, watched video footage of the president and poured over thousands of archive photographs. "I really get into my research," he said.

Grill's human model will wear a suit that Ford wore in office, sent to him by Ford's family.

Grill found that the most useful sources for background information on Ford were the eulogies given at his funeral by President George W. Bush, former President Jimmy Carter and Vice President Dick Cheney. 

"Ford seemed less formal and reserved, more like a normal guy," Grill said. "I wanted to capture that in the sculpture."

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