To honor the sacrifice of fallen firefighters F.A. Wilhelm Construction commissions a new sculpture to be housed at the Firefighters Museum
When F.A. Wilhelm Construction completes its work on the Indianapolis Firefighters Museum at 748 Massachusetts Avenue this October, the company will leave behind a token of its appreciation – a really big token. Earlier this year as Wilhelm’s crews were busy at work on the construction site, Phil Kenney, Wilhelm’s president, began working with Indianapolis artist Ryan Feeney to commission a new life-size bronze sculpture for the museum to honor firefighters who sacrificed their lives. “The sculpture is part of our commitment to the community in which we live and work,” Kenney said. But they [fallen firefighters] are the reason for it,” he said.
Plans for where to place the new sculpture are still being finalized. But, no matter it’s final resting place, it is sure to make an impression. The six-foot tall sculpture will depict a fully-outfitted firefighter stepping out of a burning building. The lifelike detail on the piece is so intricate that when finished, it will have taken the artist more than 400 hours to create.
For Feeney, this has been a labor of love because in addition to being a successful sculptor, he’s also a firefighter with the Indianapolis Fire Department (IFD). Feeney said he fell in love with sculpture in college but had always wanted to be a firefighter. So, when he graduated, he decided he could have the best of both worlds and went to work for the IFD. He’s been fighting fires for 17 years. During that time, he has also sculpted several notable pieces now on display at different locations around Indianapolis, including the Fallen Sheriffs Memorial at the Marion County Jail, and the Peace Dove at the Indianapolis Library downtown – a sculpture he created from 1,200 guns confiscated by the Marion County Sheriff’s Department.
Now, he’s sculpting a fitting memorial for fellow Firefighters whose lives are lost as a result of their work. To create the piece, he is using the lost wax method in bronze – a complex but time-honored technique. With this method, he first sculpts the piece in clay. Then he paints the entire piece with successive layers of melted rubber to create a mold.
Once the rubber mold solidifies, he carefully cuts it open to remove the clay sculpture. Feeney explained that this part of the process is like making a negative of a picture except that the work is being done in three dimensions. “The original clay sculpture will be destroyed. But, that’s fine because you now have a mold of the piece – an exact replica in negative.”
The next step is to recreate the sculpture in wax, which is accomplished by coating the inside of the mold with melted wax to create a shell inside the rubber mold. When the wax hardens, Feeney carefully cuts away the rubber mold to reveal an almost-perfect replica of his clay sculpture. Then, he picks up his sculptor’s tools again to do more of the intricate work needed to ensure a lifelike appearance.
Once he gets the details on the wax shell just right, he covers it with plaster to make a new mold – one that will stand up to a 2200-degree slurry of molten bronze. When he pours the bronze into the plaster mold, the wax shell within it melts away allowing the bronze to fill the entire mold, which when cooled will be an exact replica of the original clay sculpture.
There is still much work to do. Because of its large size, the sculpture was cast in ten pieces, which must be put back together. Feeney will weld each piece into place and set to work – again with molten bronze – smoothing out the seams adding the finishing touches.
Feeney said this piece has been a challenge. “Firefighters are very particular about their equipment,” he said, noting that the proportions for the piece had to be exact. To create the base for the clay sculpture, Feeney used a mannequin to ensure the body would look right. “It wasn’t the pose I wanted,” he said, “you know, when you’re using a mannequin, both the legs are stiff.” Feeney said in order to get a realistic pose, he had to first cut the mannequin apart and fabricate new pieces – an arm bending at the elbow and a new left leg to get a slightly bent knee.
Once Feeney got the pose he wanted, he dressed the mannequin in a firefighter’s uniform and full gear. He said figuring out how to create the mold around all the gear was challenging because it all had to be very precise and accurate. “There are also mechanical and engineering issues to deal with,” Feeney said. For example, he had to stiffen the clothing on the mannequin to put the clay on it. But, when he started working on it, the fabric stiffener under the clay began to give way and crack under the pressure of his sculpting tools. Feeney explained, “When you’re sculpting in clay, you’re putting a lot of horse on it”. Feeney ended up having to remake the entire coat. This time, though, after he applied the fabric stiffener, he drilled holes into the coat and sprayed expandable foam inside to harden the folds of fabric so it would stand up to his sculpting.
Feeney said he is nearing completion of the sculpture and that it will be done about a month or so before the Firefighters Museum moves into its new home in October.
The face of the sculpture will be a familiar one to local firefighters. It bears a strong resemblance to John Lorenzano, an Indianapolis firefighter who, along with fellow firefighter Ellwood “Woody” Gelenius, lost their lives in the Indianapolis Athletic Club fire in 1992.
Kenney, a longtime friend of the Lorenzano family, said that while the memorial was modeled after John’s likeness, it doesn’t just represent him. “It represents all the past, present, and future firefighters who give their lives in the line of duty,” he said. Feeney feels the same way. He said, “There’s no name on the back of the coat. It says ‘IFD’. The sculpture honors firefighters everywhere – especially, those that have given their life as the ultimate sacrifice.”