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Illumination magazine.
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Grill at work in his downtown Columbia studio.

Of all the things he learned about Ford — of his star power on two national championship football teams at the University of Michigan, his distinguished service in World War II, his years of leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives — it was the former president’s firm resolve in the face of crisis that impressed him most, Grill says. His proposed statue reflected this.

“It was meant to embody the idea of someone standing up to serve their country when called,” he says, gesturing toward a two-foot-high maquette depicting Ford, circa 1976, standing, torso thrust forward, his face projecting an image of quiet confidence and resolve. “Did I do that by looking at one particular photograph of him jumping up out of a chair at some particular point in time? Absolutely not. Again, it would have seemed awkward if I had done that.”

Grill eventually created more than 25 maquettes before settling on the model he submitted. A few weeks later the call came: He had won the commission. The monument will become part of the U.S. Capitol's National Statuary Hall Collection. Some 3 million to 5 million people visit the Capitol each year, where more than two centuries of sculpture, paintings and murals are displayed.

Grill is best known for his painting, mostly large intricate works that are, by design, suggestive of the labor-intensive techniques of past masters. "The paintings I make are done using indirect technique,” he says, “which involves the building up of several layers on the canvas. It’s an old way of painting, and it takes a long time. I like being able to, sort of, live with the stuff I make. I find that in that period of time I gain a new understanding of it, something I would likely not have had if I’d needed to just whip it out, to turn projects around quickly.” Such a temperament lends itself to the time-intensive task of sculpting figures. And in fact, he says, as a student it was sculpting that fired his creative impulses.

“I ended up in sculpture because it was being taught in the way that I wanted to learn,” he says, citing the influence of noted University of Michigan sculptor and professor Louis Marinaro. “Initially, as an undergrad, I was really conservative in my tastes and my approach to art. And I was disillusioned by the fact that a lot of the classes that I’d go to weren’t taught with any strong sense of what right and wrong were.” Grill laughs and rolls his eyes, before continuing. “There is a tremendous amount of plurality in the arts: what you can do really isn’t subjected to any limits any more. So it was comforting to me to have some sense of what was correct and incorrect,” he says. “My views have certainly changed a lot since then, but at the time I was drawn to [Marinaro], who was teaching sculpture very traditionally.”

In 1817, Goethe famously told a meeting of the Society of German Sculptors that the “… topmost aim of all plastic art is to render the dignity of man within the compass of the human form.” Almost two centuries of sculptural innovation has done much to contradict Goethe’s narrowly humanistic view, but his sentiment still carries weight — particularly in hallowed public spaces like the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, the ornately decorated space that serves as a temple to American democracy.

Designed by William Thornton in 1793, the Capitol Rotunda is modeled after the interior of the Pantheon, the ancient architectural masterpiece dedicated to the worship of Imperial Rome’s guiding deities. America’s version of this sacred enclosure, appropriately, includes sculpted images of our democracy’s decidedly human heroes, mostly past presidents.

The monumental hallways connecting the Rotunda to the houses of Congress, along with other designated spaces in the Capitol, are also adorned with historic statuary, two from each state. By law each must represent a U.S. citizen “illustrious for historic renown or for distinguished civic or military service.” Missouri’s contribution to this collection includes Thomas Hart Benton, the lawyer and U.S. Senator who was instrumental in Missouri’s quest for statehood, along with Benton’s friend Francis Blair. Blair, an influential attorney, politician and emancipation advocate, is generally credited with leading the complex political and military maneuverings that held Missouri for the Union in 1861. Both sculptures were carved in marble by Alexander Doyle, one of the most prolific monument-makers of his day.

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Published by the Office of Research.

©2009 Curators of the University of Missouri. Click here to contact the editor.

 

Illumination home. Spring 2009 Table of Contents.