Saturday, Mar 22 2014 09:30 AM

HERB BENHAM: Sculptor shaped in Bakersfield earns national acclaim

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Herb Benham

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    By Photo courtesy of Benjamin Victor

    Artist and former Bakersfield resident Benjamin Victor with one of his sculptures.

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By HERB BENHAM, Californian columnist hbenham@bakersfield.com

South Dakota sculptor? I don't think so. We -- as in Bakersfield -- are claiming him, especially considering that on Tuesday, Benjamin Victor will have placed his second sculpture in the Capitol rotunda's Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C.

The 7-foot, 900-pound bronze is of Iowa's Norman Borlaug, the late Nobel Peace Prize winner and founder of the World Food Prize. It will be dedicated on March 25, the 100th anniversary of Borlaug's birth.

Victor, 35, talked to Michael Morain of the Des Moines Register last year while he was in the midst of the project. "It's humbling because of who he was," Victor said of Borlaug, whose crop research made farmers everywhere more productive. "He saved over a billion lives. He changed history."

Iowa can claim Borlaug but we've got Victor, an alumnus of Eissler Elementary, Chipman Junior High and Foothill High. (His mom, Joyce, is a bilingual kindergarten teacher at Bessie Owens.) Victor is fast becoming one of the best sculptors in the country working in bronze -- although, strictly speaking, nothing happens fast when sculptures can take two years to complete.

"I studied (Borlaug's) life in depth. It's made me more passionate about what I do," Victor told the Register. "He didn't get paid any more to go to Third World countries but he worked with small farmers on high-yield wheat so children wouldn't starve to death.

"Borlaug wasn't just a scientist, caught up in the research. He was a humanitarian."

Victor has lived in Aberdeen, S.D. (population: 30,000) for the last 13 years with his wife, Julie, and three children -- Caleb, 12, Audrey, 10 and 7-year-old Joshua. He is the artist in residence at Northern State University.

Victor beat out 64 other applicants for the $110,00 commission (costs of the materials run about half). Previous sculpture credits include the statue of America's first female attorney, Belle Babb Mansfield, at her alma mater, Iowa Wesleyan College in Mount Pleasant, the Taft Oil Worker Monument, and a 6-foot-4-inch bronze of the Native American activist Sarah Winnemucca, his first work for Statuary Hall. Victor, 26 at the time of that installation, was the youngest artist ever to contribute to the hall.

"I never thought I'd go back, so I soaked it up the first time," he said last week, on the eve of his second big day in Washington. "I was really lucky."

Lucky? You get the picture. How about modest, thankful and a genuinely good guy?

Victor won the bid because he was "lucky" and also because he did a mountain of research on Borlaug. Books, videos, articles. He listened to speeches. Victor wanted to "get into his shoes."

Two things happened: Victor was the victor but he also grew to love the man and his mission.

The project took two years. Victor made more than 14 formal drawings and five smaller models, called maquettes, from clay and marble. He sculpted Borlaug's head nine times because Borlaug looked like he was frowning "and my dad never frowned" the subject's daughter, Jeanie Laub, told the Register.

Victor worked from a photo that was used when Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. "He is standing in a field of wheat, notebook in hand, hat perched high on his head."

Victor wanted motion. Borlaug is surrounded by "all these beautiful diagonals. That's the wind blowing through the wheat. You've got the feel of motion, but he's standing solid, concentrating on that notebook."

Private donors paid for the statute's creation, transportation and installation, which topped $250,000.

Victor, lucky as he is, is happy with the sculpture, which was cast in the Eagle Bronze Foundry in Lander, Wy.

There are only 100 sculptures in Statuary Hall -- two per state -- and a Bakersfield boy made two of them. Victor is the only living artist to have more than one.

Quality work

High-profile projects attract attention. Attention means other commissions. People, colleges and museums have been calling.

Victor is completing a clay on Cecil Harris, a World War II hero who graduated from Northern State University, the college from which Victor graduated.

His first commission, at 26, came through one of his heroes, sculptor Jim Brothers. They were both competing for a firefighter's statue at a fire station across from Kansas University in Lawrence, Kan., Brothers' hometown.

"We went out the night before for drinks," Victor said. "We got to be friends. When he interviewed for the job, he told them "This guy is good, give to it him.

"Who would do something like that?" Victor said of his colleague, a friend until his recent death.

Victor is not the only one who is lucky. We are too. Given our generous valley spirit, we will share him with South Dakota, Washington and the rest of the world.

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