You can meet Louisville sculptor Raymond Graf any day of the week in front of the Brown Hotel. He’ll be out there on the Fourth Street sidewalk with J. Graham Brown.
“The Brown Foundation had tons of photos of J. Graham Brown for me to work with, so re-creating his likeness was not hard,” says Graf. “But I noticed that in so many of the photos he had that little dog with him. You could tell he loved that dog. So we decided to include Woozem in the piece, and I think it worked out perfectly.
”Well, it’s not actually Brown, but a remarkably accurate life-sized bronze statue of the famous Louisville hotelman in his characteristic 1940s felt hat and business suit. And it’s not Graf standing next to him, but Brown’s little dog Woozem. It’s the inclusion of Brown’s faithful friend that is the signature touch you get with a Raymond Graf sculpture: You find out more than how people look; you find out who they are.
Raymond Graf is one of the hottest artists around in what appears to be a new Bronze Age for the city. The sculptor has a string of statues dotting the Louisville landscape, and more on the way. Tall, with wavy brown hair and glasses, he’s got the balance of a ballplayer, allowing him to stand up on one toe and twist himself into a pose that one of his subjects might assume.
J. Graham Brown (like another hotelman Graf has depicted, Al Schneider) is placed at street level — with his shoes on the sidewalk — just the way he once greeted folks in front of his hotel. On the other hand, Graf installed a statue of Pee Wee Reese, the hometown Hall-of-Fame shortstop, on a pedestal in front of Louisville Slugger Field — not because Reese is held in god-like reverence, but to launch him into the air, turning the double play at second base. He looks uncannily alive, with his legs up, dodging the cleats of a sliding base runner as he smokes a strike to first.
“It’s an awesome statue,” says Louisville Bats general manager Dale Owens. “I just can’t tell you how many fans stop on their way into the ballpark to marvel at it. Every night you see people get their picture taken with the statue. And the Little Leaguers cock their arms and follow through, emulating Pee Wee’s throwing motion.”
Owens says that Jim Morrissey, one of the ballclub’s owners when the Bats moved into their new park, commissioned Graf to undertake the statue of Reese, whose pivot was adapted from a rare 1953 Reese baseball card. “Jim and Pee Wee were great buddies,” says Owens.
“The thing about sculpture,” explains Graf, “is you get just one frozen moment in time. So you want to have a little action, to see what he’s doing. To get that one moment captured forever.”
That frozen moment is the coolest part of Graf’s profession. As a sculptor in bronze, he gets to capture that one moment in time for a very long time. “Some say a statue will last 500 years, and some say 1,000. My personal guarantee is 3,000,” says Graf with a smile. Of course, you’ll have a hard time collecting on that guarantee.
“Who knows if Louisville will still be here a thousand years from now. But with luck, the bronze will still be around for everyone to look at and see what it was all about,” says Graf. “Think about the stories that were told when they dug up those bronzes that were buried in Greece from more than 2,000 years ago. It gave us a look right into the past.”
But the long-shelf-life responsibility to art and history doesn’t weigh too heavily on Graf. He’s too busy creating additional statuary — or tending to the koi pond in his back yard, or growing stands of bamboo, or mounting examples of the dobsonfly that he nursed through pupation from its larval life as a hellgrammite, or studying ancient maps of the world from back in, say, Amerigo Vespucci’s day.
Graf comes out of a “tradition,” if you will. He’s a “sprout” from the sculptural tree planted in Louisville by the late Barney Bright. That outgrowth also includes nationally recognized sculptor Ed Hamilton.
Graf’s first commissioned work was the Cardinal Bird outside the University of Louisville Student Activities Center, but now the Louisville landscape is dotted with Graf pieces honoring Louisville greats — Pat Day at Churchill Downs, Al Schneider at the Galt House, urban planner Tom Simons on Fourth Street, waving across to his friend J. Graham Brown.
Green Bay Packer gridiron great (and Louisville Flaget High School alum) Paul Hornung graces the center field plaza at Slugger Field. Hornung is captured making the classic runner’s cut — hips twisting, knees churning, a little lower to the ground than today’s runners run. He’s got the ball tucked under one arm as he carries his other arm high to fend off tacklers. Though Graf leaves the setting to the imagination, many of us see a cold and gray November day in Green Bay, Hornung’s cleats cutting up mud from the half-frozen tundra at Lambeau Field.
Graf has also created a dramatic firefighting rescue scene for the Burlington (Ky.) Fire Department, and placed the late Gov. Bert Combs at the start of the Bert T. Combs Mountain Parkway, near Stanton, Ky., where he was killed in a flash flood in 1991. Under Combs’ arm are rolled up plans for the parkway. Soon Graf will begin work on a sculpture of the late Indiana Gov. Frank O’Bannon, which will stand on the square of the Old Capitol in O’Bannon’s hometown of Corydon, Ind.
Which brings up a point. Most of Graf’s prominent works are of famous people, based on photos. He calls those pieces statues, not sculpture. “It’s . . . public art,” Graf explains. “It’s not my own personal art, exactly. That would have a little freer form.”
Leah Porter, who heads the committee that chose Graf for the O’Bannon statue, understands the distinction. “Certainly, that’s the number-one thing: We all want the sculpture to look like Frank,” says Porter. “And I realize that being so literal is artistically limiting. But we also know that what Raymond will create will be beautiful, and that’s why we so much wanted him to do our sculpture. People who visit Corydon won’t just see the statue as an honor to Frank O’Bannon. They will see it as a work of art placed in the heart of our community.”
Graf will always find a way to be creative, assures friend and former Murray State University classmate Al Gorman, who is especially interested in Graf’s recently completed statue (and accompanying small statues) of naturalist John James Audubon in Henderson, Ky. “What is especially interesting about what Ray did with the Audubon statues is they are three-dimensional portrayals created from two-dimensional portraits,” Gorman says. “Unlike a photo of Audubon, or a painting of him, people can walk around Audubon — see him from every side, 360 degrees. This is the sculptor’s view, as opposed to the portrait painter. The sculptor also creates what is on the other side of the picture — the side not seen.”
Accompanying the Audubon likeness are some 14 other smaller statues sprinkled around the small city of Henderson. Audubon’s birds! Here, of course, the sculptor sets himself up for trouble. An artist can probably get away with most any image of Audubon, but the birds are not to be fooled with. It’s the bird sketches and paintings that made Audubon famous. His Birds of America, first published in Scotland during the years 1826-1838, is one of the most important books in publishing history.
Gorman describes the scene in Henderson: “Visitors will walk around the town to locate the bird sculptures, and it has become something of a contest to find what Raymond has sneaked into the overall composition of each bird — like a small frog, or a moth, or a snake. For most people it’s just fun. But these are not things that are in the original Audubon paintings, and some people are offended. They say, ‘Oh, that’s not in there!’ And they’re not. They’re what Ray sees on the opposite side of the picture.”
You have to look up to see one of Graf’s most interesting works. It’s nine stories above Main Street, atop the Actors Theatre parking garage. “Owsley Brown is a major supporter of Actors Theatre, and he wanted a piece of sculpture to sit on the high finial above the building,” says Graf. “He noticed that in Europe so many buildings have pointed roofs and almost every roof is decorated with something. He thought his roof was just begging to have something on it, too, and asked me to create it.”
The piece is a small ball with a wavy wisp thing kind of wafting away in the wind. It’s covered in gold leaf, with a ring around the wavy thing. “Like a ring toss,” suggests Graf. “Is that it? I don’t know what it is.”
It’s valuable art, according to John Begley, the gallery director at the Hite Institute of Art at the University of Louisville. “I would suggest that people seeing Ray Graf’s work be certain to see this piece, just up the street from Pee Wee Reese,” says Begley. “This is on a smaller scale, and more abstract. More personal. And it’s really very unique to Louisville — one of those nice details of the cityscape. Especially the way the sun comes down and sits on the gold leaf.”
Whatever the Actors topper is, and whichever little creatures those are with the Audubon birds, Graf certainly has plenty of inspiration for his 3-D imagination. A visit to his studio and home is like a field trip to the Museum of Interesting Objects. They come in all shapes and textures. Besides the plump exotic fish and the skinny cane that shoots maybe 20 feet in the air, and the mounted insects and maps, there are springs, bells, little toys, all kinds of tools — and bronze hands and plaster heads and spare arms made out of wood and wire that might be reusable in another statue.
One of the curious baubles is a little toy rhinoceros that Graf found at the Falls of the Ohio, along with a few other rhinos. That’s because “the rhinoceros is almost like a sacred animal to artists,” explains Graf. “Five hundred years ago (two centuries before Europeans became familiar with the animal), Albrecht Dürer engraved the first image of a rhinoceros — and he’d never seen one. He did it from descriptions.”
“In college,” says Gorman, “we all hung out at Ray’s because he had the coolest apartment. People would bring him things to display. And he always raised things himself, like those insects and the exotic fish. He’s kind of a natural-born natural-history scientist. All this might just be in his genes. I believe Raymond’s father is an expert on wildflowers of New Mexico. (He is.) And I think he has a brother who is a nuclear physicist. (Actually, a particle physicist.)”
Graf’s art start came at North Hardin High School in Radcliff, near Fort Knox, where his dad was stationed. “We had a great art teacher in high school named John Lovins,” recalls Graf. “Every year he sent a contingent of artists down to Murray State, so there is this nice connection between North Hardin High and Murray. He was so instrumental in getting a lot of us started — and there are so many of us here in town now: Jeff East, Fred Miller, Susan Pfeiffer, Al Gorman, Stephen Irwin, James Gottusove. So many, like a pipeline.”
As was mentioned earlier, Graf got his professional start in sculpture with Barney Bright — not as an artistic protégé of the master sculptor, but as a worker in Bright’s foundry. A laborer in hot metal. Hard work: noisy, dirty and dangerous. Graf did the work, and did the art, too. Eventually he got his first major commission: the Cardinal Bird. And with each piece Graf’s reputation has grown.
He says he feels “real lucky” to be one of Bright’s successors and considers it an honor to be associated with such a master of the art. “He went through the same things I have — something I wasn’t so aware of when I was working for him,” Graf says.
Like the challenge of making things without plans or blueprints — the sculptor just figures out how to do it. And it doesn’t always come off without a hitch. “You put so much time and energy into a clay head, and you pull the mold off and his ear folds up and his nose drops off,” says Graf. “Still — all that work you put into that thing, you can’t get rid of it. So you put it on a shelf and it gathers dust. The shelf fills up and so you build another shelf.”
At Bright Foundry, which is still operated by Bright’s son Jep, Graf points high up on a concrete wall to a photo of Barney Bright that’s wedged in among dozens of other photos and plaster heads. “That’s Barney,” says Graf, “back when sweaters tied around the shoulders were still in style.”
Graf doesn’t do the actual “pour” of the bronze anymore. He leaves that final, ultra-critical detail to Jep Bright and his crew. But he loves to drop by the foundry.
On a recent visit there was a little electricity in the air because a pour was scheduled — a statue of Andrew Carnegie by a Cincinnati artist. Carnegie, the founder of U.S. Steel, would have enjoyed the scene, with craftsmen heating bronze ingots at 2,100 degrees. In a side room that looks like an alchemist’s hell from the dark ages, wax is kept heated on a pot on a stove. Another room has a big vat, with a machine constantly stirring a thick green liquid. “That’s the ceramic material that we line the inside of the cast with,” explains Graf.” It sets up hard, then withstands the thermal shock of 2,100-degree molten bronze. It’s the same ceramic NASA uses for the re-entry tiles on the space shuttle.”
Graf clearly loves the foundry. It’s the final stop along a long, long process, maybe six months to a year, that begins with table-top-sized clay models, then full-sized models, and then innumerable back-and-forth plaster, wax and rubber positive and negative casts — all leading to the day of the pour. That’s when the creation finally stops breathing. For 3,000 years — guaranteed.