Monday, April 18, 2011


As an artist in many fields My Uncle always had his mind thinking about his next project.  He had gone through many phases of his artwork.  He had many sketches.  He had painted on almost every medium you can think of, including one watercolor on silk.  He was a sculpture of tremendous  talent and had sculpted his art from many different types of material.  He was always looking for new ideas.

One night he was watching a documentary on the National Geographic channel about the hippopotamus. The Hippo fascinated him as he watched the show closely.  He realized that These animals are fiercely strong and fast.  He also noticed that they are more colorful than people realize.  They have a slightly pink coloration around their jaws.  Most people think that a hippo is just gray but he noticed a variety of colors.  That night he decided that he wanted to sculpt a hippo.

This would be no ordinary sculpture.  It would be almost life size and sit in his front yard for all to see.  It was a daunting task before him as he began to plan out how he could accomplish this project.  He immediately decided to cut down on the size of the hippo by making just the upper half of the head.  The sculpture would be a hippo in water with the top of his head and nostrils being visible from above the water.

Dan began to make clay models of what he wanted the sculpture to look like.  The models were about six inches long and he would be able to make the final sculpture by scaling off of the model.  The first three or four models he attempted did not go well.  They looked more like an alligator sneaking up out of the water to make an attack than a hippo relaxing in the water.  After getting opinions about what was wrong with his models he finally came up with one that looked like a hippo.

The next chore was even tougher to accomplish.  Dan had to decide what to material to use to make the hippo.  It had to be weather resistant and had to be fairly solid.  It had to be able to be large without breaking and so it could not be too heavy.  We talked about many different materials before Dan decided on a material he had never tried before and would never use again before he died.  The material that the hippo would be made from would be concrete.  Heavy quick set concrete.  Obviously making the hippo out of solid concrete would be time consuming and weigh far too much to keep from cracking.  There was also the possibility that it would simply sink into the front yard.  Dan had to find a way to lighten the concrete.

The idea he came up with was brilliant.  He took three sheet of six inch thick Styrofoam and glued them together.  This would be the inner core of the sculpture.  He then painstakingly began to carve the shape of a hippo head out of the foam.  It did not have to be exact just close enough to the shape he wanted to end up with using the concrete.  Still this took him two weeks of carving.  The foam hippo did not have nostrils or ears.  Those items would be formed on the concrete itself.  When he finally finished carving the foam he had to think of a way to get the concrete to stay over the foam and re-enforce the concrete to avoid breakage or cracking.

His solution for this was chicken wire.  He worked out how much chicken wire he would need and made a general cover over the foam that looked a little more hippo like.  The ears appeared on the chicken wire and the hippo bulked out a bit in size.

Dan decided that since the hippo was going to be in the front yard anyway, he would invite friends and neighbors to come by and watch him work on it.  The day was set for a Saturday for the hippo to be created.  Dan enlisted me to help with this ordeal and on the Friday before the sculpting we went and rented a concrete mixer and bought about twenty bags of concrete.  We then discussed how we would go about the chore ahead of us.

Saturday came on bright and sunny and we were out in the front yard mixing cement by mid morning.  Neighbors and friends brought lawn chairs and drinks over to the house to watch the construction take place.  The first step was of vital importance.  We formed to layers of chicken wire over the foam to give us a guideline on how to make the hippo.  The foam and chicken were placed on a board and set in the middle of the front yard.

The cement finally became ready to use.  It was my job to get the concrete over to the form and Dan would place the concrete and form it into the shape of a hippo.  Meanwhile I would be mixing up another batch of concrete to be used.  It was intense work and very hard work.  The concrete was heavy and it was difficult to form as it began to set up quickly.  Dan pushed concrete through all the chicken wire and down to the foam before making the final figure. The day began to drag along.

We worked non-stop, mixing concrete, moving concrete and then placing and forming the concrete.  By mid afternoon most of the crowd had left but we continued on.  Once we were started there was no stopping.  It had to be done in one take.  As the sun started to slide down to the horizon family members began to leave wishing us luck on being able to finish it.

Soon it was dark.  We got flashlights and started using them for light as we began to come to the end of the project.  I was going over the sculpture smoothing out rough areas when I noticed by feel that one of the ears wasn't right.  Dan went back to fix it by flashlight.  Finally in total darkness, Dan declared the sculpture finished.  He had placed two little redbirds on the hippo's back as they they were resting.  It was done.

When morning came Dan walked out to check his work.  It was wonderful.  It looked just like a hippo.  He began to put some subtle coloring on the hippo that he had noticed on the documentary.  Now he had to truly finish it off.  He took some big rocks and set it in a circle around the hippo.  He filled in this area with little river rock.  Then in a move of pure genius, he put clear glass marbles in with the little river rock that made up the water.  As the sun would shine down on the sculpture the light would glitter off of these marbles making it look like shimmering water.  Jeffery was born and named that morning.

A few years later as my uncle was diagnosed with cancer and his life began to fade away, he decided he wanted to donate it to his medical clinic.  Barb's boss sent a crew over to the house and they very gently picked up the three hundred pound structure and put it on a flat bed truck.  They took Jeffery down to the clinic and with tenderness and precision set him down in the designated place.  Jeffery had made the move without a crack or any pieces falling off.  He arrived at his new home in mint condition.

A month later at a fundraiser at the clinic they dedicated two of my uncle's sculptures at the clinic.  One was an earlier sculpture Dan had done and it was placed inside the clinic.  The other dedication was that of Jeffery the hippo.

Jeffery looks comfortable there.  People driving by can see the head of a hippo coming up out of the water at the side of the clinic.  Jeffery will be there for many years I hope.  It was the largest and most difficult sculpture Dan ever did.

Now that Dan is gone, Jeffery lives on as a reminder of a man who supported and loved the clinic that tried to keep him healthy for many years.

Long live Jeffery the hippo.

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