TERRE HAUTE —
Bill Wolfe thumbed through a series of photographs documenting his sculpture of basketball legend Larry Bird.
I’d asked Bill to study them and describe the scenes depicted.
The pictures chronicle the nine months it took the artist to create a 15-foot likeness of Indiana State University’s most recognizable alumnus. The images, taken by Tribune-Star chief photographer Joe Garza, captivate the eyes. All were shot with existing light only, and no flash, even into the wee hours of the long nights Wolfe worked, as darkness filled the windows of his Ohio Street studio in downtown Terre Haute.
One photo, in particular, made Bill pause. Joe snapped it last January, as Bill transformed the statue from a hard-foam model to clay, months before an Indianapolis foundry cast his Bird piece into its final, elegant state — 2,000 pounds of bronze. The photo showed Bill toting the sculpture’s gigantic basketball, also grasped by the figure’s detached hands, across the studio floor. It wasn’t the surreal look of a 58-year-old guy lugging an outsized sphere that grabbed Bill’s attention. Instead, it was his own appearance.
“It looks like I’ve lost weight in the process,” Bill said quietly.
He had. Those nine months, spent crafting the largest project of his career, overlapped his work on three other significant artworks.
There was “no time to eat,” he said, staring at the photo.
“Pretty much, the studio encompassed my whole life at the time,” Bill said. “Looking back,” he added, “I don’t know how I did it.”
Yet, he did, thank goodness.
The end result of his work-now-eat-later effort fills a glaring cultural void in this community. Ever since Bird turned Indiana State from unheralded to unbeaten and thrust the Sycamores into college basketball’s elite and its most ballyhooed showdown ever — the 1979 NCAA Final against Magic Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans and “The Game That Changed The Game” — the outside world has most often recognized Terre Haute by its link to Larry Legend. Most Hauteans have revealed their hometown to a stranger and heard in response, “You’re from Terre Haute? Larry Bird, right?” And, for years, curious travelers and visiting basketball teams have wandered in and around Bird’s ISU homecourt, Hulman Center, searching for the obvious …
Our statue of Larry Bird.
Such wayfarers will no longer leave town disappointed. Bill’s sculpture of Bird, in that iconic shooting form, will forever overlook the walkway to the south entrance of Hulman Center. ISU will unveil the statue in an 11:30 a.m. ceremony Saturday. Watching will be Bird, many of his notable friends and family members, dignitaries and residents of this city — a place that Bird helped rediscover its passion during three glorious winters all those years ago.
Bill will be watching, too. He hopes Bird will be proud of what he sees and that the sculpture becomes the most-photographed landmark in Terre Haute.
As modest and unassuming as he is, the artist appreciates Saturday’s significance.
“It’ll be a big day for me, a big day for Larry, and a big day for Terre Haute and Indiana State University,” he said.
It took dozens of late nights to produce this big day. While the city slept, Bill shaped and detailed Bird’s figure in two sections — from the torso up, and from the waist down, for logistical reasons. Working on a pair of 7-foot-plus halves was simpler than a 15-footer. Bill first carved the contours in foam, using a hefty knife and smaller, finer implements. Then, he coated the foam model in clay, heated in a microwave oven to make the material more pliable, as he sharpened the focused eyes, floppy hair, pointed elbows and flowing jersey. Before connecting the halves, Bill labored on the statue in two sections. The pieces stood — head and shoulders upright and legs upside down — clearly visible through the vast windows of his studio, which formerly housed an auto showroom. Peculiar as it looked, passers-by recognized what Bill was up to and gave him thumbs-up signs.
“I’d be working here in the dark, and I would be facing [away from Ohio Street], so I wouldn’t be paying attention to what was going on behind me outdoors,” Bill explained. “And I’d see a flash and think, ‘Where’d that come from?’ And there’s people standing outside with their cameras, taking pictures of me working on it.”
Joe took hundreds, himself. He’d photographed some of Bill’s earlier public art projects — a portfolio that includes the seated statue of “Desiderata” poet Max Ehrmann in downtown Terre Haute, the historic murals inside the Vigo County Courthouse and military sculptures from Indiana to Massachusetts. Most of those photos displayed the finished product. Joe wanted to capture Bill’s creative process from beginning to end. Ironically, Bill had the same vision. The Bird sculpture presented the ideal opportunity, and Bill agreed to give Joe full access to his work. It was an adjustment for both, especially the artist’s nocturnal work schedule.
“I’ve always worked at night,” Bill said, “because that tends to be my creative process, when I’m most inspired. It’s quiet. There are very few interruptions. So I can work all night long, if I wanted to.”
Unfazed, Joe trekked to Bill’s shop at odd hours. “Sometimes, he’d call me two or three times a day,” Bill said. “And there were times when he’d come and shoot, leave, and then three hours later [he] pulls up again. And I’d say, ‘Joe, I haven’t done that much since you left the last time.’ But he didn’t want to miss anything.”
Joe stuck with it. He was there the night that members of the Wabash Valley Art Guild filled Bill’s studio, helping him spread layers of clay over the statue’s foam body, with parts scattered, like a scary movie scene. Joe captured the instant when Bill bonded the two halves, and when a group of friends hoisted the work-in-progress and hung it upright, for the first time, in the former car dealership’s adjacent repair shop. Joe was there when those same buddies, and Bill’s sons, Bryant and Austin, loaded the statue into a truck, bound for the foundry — Sincerus Art Castings in Indianapolis. And, Joe documented Bill’s first glimpse of the metallic version of his sculpture. In it, the sculptor looks up at his masterpiece, dwarfed by it.
He’s gazing at the fruition of an idea he’d first conjured nine years ago, shortly after Michigan State erected a 12-foot statue of Magic Johnson outside the Breslin Center in East Lansing. In 2006, an ISU student, Brad Fenton, spotted the same monument while attending a football game at Michigan State. Bill and the young student had the same reaction — Indiana State should have a Bird statue, taller than Magic’s. Fenton started the Larry Legend Foundation in 2009 to fulfill that mission and enlisted Wolfe as its prospective sculptor, hoping to raise $135,000 for a 13-foot statue. The project survived ups and downs, generated student-based fundraisers, got support from the ISU Foundation, attracted a private donor, and eventually put Bill to work on the 15-foot visage, with a $153,000 final pricetag, of the Boston Celtics hero and Hall of Famer.
Like most Wabash Valley natives of a certain age, Bill has scenes of Bird’s epic ISU games etched in his mind. Bill studied art at the university after graduating from Clinton High School in 1973, and witnessed Larry and the Sycamores playing. Still, Bill wanted precision, so he gathered dozens of Bird photos as a guideline. No detail could vary from reality. “It had to look like Larry,” Bill said.
It does, right down to the numerals on his jersey and his wispy mustache.
On some nights, Bill finessed those distinctive elements alone. Weary, his hands kept going as his mind dozed. “I’ve actually fallen asleep at 3 o’clock in the morning, working, and all of the sudden I wake up and I’m still sculpting, but I’m asleep,” he recalled, chuckling. “It’s about then I realize it’s time to go home and go to bed.”
He credits his wife, Marina, for supporting and standing by him through leaner times in his career. “She’s had to pick up the slack there a lot of times when I wasn’t bringing in very much money, and she just hung in there with me,” Bill said. “And so now, it’s finally coming around to where I can make a living at this. Finally. It seems like a long haul.”
Joe caught some of Bill’s longest hours of labor with his camera lens. Joe shot the definitive photo from the outside, looking in through the studio window. It shows Bill, sitting in a rolling chair, carefully smoothing the clay on Bird’s left eye. Bill is wearing a loose flannel shirt, jeans, sneakers and a ballcap — attire Bird would appreciate. They’re framed by shadows and silhouettes. Sunrise is still hours away.
An award-winning photojournalist, Joe knew the picture tells the story of the artist and his subject.
“It just captures a moment,” Joe said, “of him working late at night — the artist and the piece, one on one, so to speak.”
On this floor, Bill Wolfe matched up quite well with Larry Bird.
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.