Eugene Daub: monumental sculptor

Sculptor Eugene Daub in his San Pedro studio. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

Sculptor Eugene Daub in his San Pedro studio. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

From conception to completion

Sculptor Eugene Daub shows us the process behind his monumental work

by Bondo Wyszpolski

In their pursuit of being able to commission a bronze statue of the late writer Charles Bukowski, Angela Romero and others from the San Pedro Heritage Museum came knocking at the studio door of Eugene Daub. Although the pandemic has impeded the momentum, Daub at first completed a few drawings and then, later, offered to make a portrait medal, pro bono, replicas of which could be sold to help raise money for the eventual statue, which would go towards the 100 grand that the work would cost. Bukowski himself would probably have said that it’s money better spent at the racetrack, but luckily he didn’t have a say in the matter.

And then there’s Linda Grimes, with one active foot in the San Pedro arts community and another up at the Palos Verdes Art Center, who became the liaison that led to Daub being handed a kind of in-depth, behind-the-scenes exhibition that opens on Sept. 25. “At the time,” Grimes says via email, “we were trying to bring a Bukowski exhibit to PVAC, and Gene was working on a medallion and eventually a sculpture to commemorate him.” And so, armed with Grimes’ recommendation, the Center’s Gail Phinney and Aaron Sheppard paid Daub a visit.

The portrait medal of Charles Bukowski created by Eugene Daub

“I showed them the studio,” he says, “and they said, well, gee, you’ve got all this stuff. And I said, yeah, I’d love to show it because it’s the kind of thing that most galleries are not particularly interested in; a lot of it is just bits and pieces of old jobs.” He explains: “When I do a commission for a statue I usually start out with sketches and then I’ll do a maquette, sometimes several maquettes or models, and show that to the client. If that goes well then we proceed and I enlarge it, and I save a lot of these things, as sort of mementos.”

Daub, over the course of more than 40 years, has created in excess of 30 major projects, so there are “mementos” in nearly every corner of his vast studio. Presumably, Phinney and Sheppard had the same reaction: This would make a great show; and I think what interested them also was the educational aspect, that sort of peek behind the curtain to see the actual process that leads from the drawing board to the public monument—and I’ll just add that Daub not only has work in three state capitals but his statue of Rosa Parks is in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall.

Rosa Parks, receiving finishing touches from Eugene Daub

Daub points out that if you didn’t have anyone to walk you through it, “you’d see a work on a pedestal somewhere but you’d never get a sense of how it came to be, or what stages it went through.”

Furthermore, “A lot of times the original drawing and sketches evolve and change… They get better, but at other times they never really achieve the same kind of energy that the little piece had.” So the prospective show and its possibilities were quick to reveal themselves.

“We were all on the same page right from the beginning,” Daub says. “Then I sat down and designed the whole show; they gave me the floorplan and I could see how much space I had, so wall-by-wall I plotted out where the little maquettes would go, where the drawings would go, how many photos I would need.” It’s quite an endeavor to install it just right, so much so that the date for the opening needed to be pushed back two weeks. But it’ll be worth the wait.

Eugene Daub’s statue of Rosa Parks in the U.S. Capitol

The East Coast years

Eugene Daub came of age in Pennsylvania, and says, “I can remember from my earliest memories drawing, just drawing stuff,” with perhaps only his grandmother taking note: “‘Oh, he likes to draw and maybe he’ll be an artist,’ but I never really got much guidance in that department.” He spent a few years in an orphanage in Philadelphia, but then his mother remarried and took him to Pittsburgh. At 15 he was living on his own and then at 17 or 18 he enrolled in the Ivy School of Professional Art, “a school for art directors and designers in the graphic worlds. That’s what led me to getting work in art studios and eventually ad agencies.”

Over a stretch of maybe 10 years Daub rose from “an art studio grunt” to an art director for ad agencies. “It was during those years, probably in my late 20s, that I wanted to become a sculptor. I went through a kind of mental crisis over this because I really wanted to change careers and didn’t know how to do it. I was married and I had four kids.

The sculptor in his element. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

“It seemed to be an impossible thing to do. I was interested in sculpture and I couldn’t figure out, how am I going to make a living in sculpture? because at that point sculpture had already become contemporary in that it was no longer needed as public statuary.” Which is to say that figural sculptures were not necessarily in vogue. But to learn and to excel in that type of sculpture, Daub says he would have had to go to college and earn an MFA. “And that was just out of range for me at that point in my life. I never really did figure out how to do it, but I wanted to make a change happen so I forced myself to quit my job and to put myself in limbo.”

The family packed up and moved to Florida, where Daub found work as a preparator in the Florida State Museum. And meanwhile, he says, “I was just trying to figure out how to make this transition into sculpture.

“As fate would have it,” Daub continues, “my brother one day called and said, Gene, they’re advertising for sculptors at The Franklin Mint.” He applied for, and got the job, and so a year after leaving Pennsylvania he was back north.

Eugene Daub modeling the statue of Thomas Jefferson

Why was he hired? “Not because I knew much about sculpture, or anything about bas-relief, but I could draw. I was a graphic artist. And the Mint realized that illustrators and graphic artists could actually acclimate to bas-relief more than sculptors, because the relief was so low that it’s mostly more drawing than it is sculpture. It worked out really well for me and I did that for a couple of years.” And then, while still working for the Mint, “I pursued my goal of becoming a sculptor and began to take classes here and there and to study anatomy and try breaking into the more three-dimensional work.”

Daub continued his studies, spent a year as an intern at The Johnson Atelier Technical Institute of Sculpture, “which was sort of like a finishing school for sculptors who had learned how to make sculpture but had little knowledge about how to get it cast or how to make molds or how to make waxes, or the foundry process and the enlarging process—all the technical aspects that you really need to know. And then in 1990 I moved to California, to Berkeley.”

Eugene Daub’s Thomas Jefferson statue, with dedication day roses

Go west, young sculptor

“Things started to happen for me,” Daub says, “and I started to get more and more commissions once I moved to California. And they weren’t from California, either, that was the funny thing; they were from different places.”

As noted above, and we’re not counting the hundreds of medallions or the works in ceramic clay that he does for himself, Daub has created in excess of 40 major pieces over three decades. That’s a lot of chiseling—not to mention planning and designing. So how long does each sculpture take, start to finish?

Well, the answer, of course, is that they’re all different: Daub’s statues of Thomas Jefferson and Rosa Parks are single, stand-alone figures, whereas the National Salute to Bob Hope and the Military, located in San Diego’s Tuna Harbor Park, has enough figures to field a soccer team. And then there are the bas-reliefs, the one in the capital building of Montana being 18 feet long. Daub then mentions the Rosa Parks commission. “You do your initial drawings or whatever, then you’re selected as a finalist a couple of months later, and then you go through a process where you have to do research and come up with a maquette.” Another two or three months may go by, “and you’re waiting for their decision, and finally they make a decision; and now you’re ready to start tightening everything up and go into the final process, so that could easily take a year, or two years, or even three sometimes depending on the complexity of the piece.”

Daub doesn’t necessarily drop everything when he’s working on a major commission, but it’ll usually be a portrait or perhaps a few medallions.

Sculpture by Eugene Daub

While he’s deservedly proud of all the monumental pieces he’s completed, when asked which one or ones he’s most pleased with, he replies that “the Lewis and Clark is one of my favorites.” He’s referring to the Corps of Discovery, in Kansas City, MO, which commemorates Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. The sculptural group also includes Sacagawea, their Shoshone Indian guide; York, who was Clark’s slave; and Seaman, the Newfoundland breed dog that belonged to Lewis.

“I was working on that for probably three full years of my life, maybe four even. It took a long time because there were many figures. There was the enlargement, a lot of trips to Kansas City to deal with the base and the stonework, and then eventually dealing with the foundry and the mold-makers… I’ll always have a soft spot for that piece: All the characters were so amazing, and just reading about the journey again, reliving it and thinking about how to interpret the characters. And period pieces are a lot of fun, too, because you have all that period clothing and buckskin and Indian clothing, and an enormous amount of research had to be done for it. I was lucky they had hired the Smithsonian to help me do the research. Just everything about the project was wonderful.” He pauses. “So that’ll be one of the projects for the show; I think I’ve selected 12 that I have pieces for and good photographs of.”

These days, for better or for worse, figurative sculptures going back a century or two are being carefully examined in order to determine if they are demeaning to minorities. While Daub feels that there are obvious works that should be removed, he’s also aware that even statues of Washington and Jefferson are being harshly scrutinized.

All of Daub’s work is exquisitely modeled

He points out that it’s often works, figural groups in many cases, “that are unfortunately posed. There’s one of Lincoln (in Boston) and there’s a slave at his knees.” The work, commemorating the emancipation of slaves, was removed. “In this day and age when we see a white man in a suit on a throne, and you see a black man holding his chains on his knees, it just creates resentment and bad feelings.” Daub mentions the Lewis and Clark statue in Charlottesville that was removed because Sacagawea is depicted in a crouching position. “In those days they (the sculptors, etc) didn’t think much about those things, but now it’s hurtful. I know I was afraid when they started talking about Washington and Jefferson and Lewis and Clark, because I’ve got a Jefferson, and I have a Lewis and Clark. But so far mine have been left alone.”

Heroic endeavors

What about Daub’s favorite sculptors? His answer surprised me somewhat: He likes a wide range of work.

“When I got interested in sculpture, and because I didn’t really go to school for it, I would just go to the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh and I would take out a whole section on sculpture—and I loved it all. I loved the classical, I loved contemporary, l loved Mid-Century, the Renaissance. It’s very hard for me to pick [a favorite] because there was something I loved about all of them in different ways. So I loved Henry Moore as much as I loved Picasso, or other people who were making sculpture in those days. Claes Oldenburg was going strong then. I adored Claes Oldenburg’s work. The sculpture was very different; that sculpture wasn’t really about figures.” But it was the figure in sculpture that Daub was fascinated by, and the challenge of getting the pose or the expression just right. He often goes through dozens if not hundreds of photographs of someone to find the perfect look, the one that finds immortality in bronze for a century or two.

Eugene Daub working on his Lewis and Clark statue

“That’s always been a mainstay for me because there were always commissions to do either a statue or a medal. That was the little security that I had in life; I could lean on that. But the problem was it took over my life then. Eventually I got so busy that I didn’t spend enough time doing the more interesting, fun, or personal things. So it’s been hard trying to steal time to do personal work.”

Daub says that maybe 20 years ago, when he was at the top of his game, the commissions that he had worked so long to be worthy of were coming at him fast and furious. “And how can you say no to that? I mean, I still love commissions, and I love problem-solving and rendering the people and everything, but I’d really rather… What I’ve always wanted to do, and I’ve been doing it the last couple of years more than ever, is to do people that I want to do, and basically not wait for a commission, and just initiate it myself. And so I’ve done a series of these ceramic heads.” He points to one of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, near to where we’re sitting, and mentions others—Joe Hill, Winston Churchill, Rachel Carson.”

And what it looks like completed

“These are commissions that I give myself,” he says. “Historically, I have so many heroes I would love to do. And I just love portraiture so I would love to start tomorrow and keep going, every day, and do one a day for the next five years. That would be a dream.”

And later, or in the meantime?

“I would love to do another show there,” referring to the PV Art Center, “maybe with the ceramic work. I could probably fill that gallery with ceramic work, and I could probably fill a gallery with medallic projects, showing the process.” The latter hasn’t been given much attention in this article, but Daub is a pioneer member of the American Medallic Sculpture Association and in 1991 received the Saltus Award from the American Numismatic Association. His fine art medals are pocket-sized monuments, as such, that pay homage to people of note. And so, yes, there’s much more for any future exhibition.

“But I just didn’t want to dilute this show because I thought I had a lot of good projects to show that were all sort of related, that kind of belonged together.”

Looking back over his career—he turns 79 in November—Daub says, “The good part is, I should count my blessings that I’ve been lucky enough to have been successful, at least successful enough to have lived a life in the arts and making a living doing what I love, and then getting lucky in love and marrying somebody (Anne Olsen Daub) who’s also an artist. We found each other here in San Pedro and bought this building 20 years ago, it was just an old industrial shell, and Anne has turned it into our little Shangri-La.”

Eugene Daub. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

But if there are laurels at hand, Daub isn’t resting on them: “A lot of other things seem to be coming together. With a friend of mine I’m going to be doing a book. We signed a contract with a publisher and it’s going to be called ‘The Contemporary Art Medal.’ So that’s going to be a really interesting project.”

There’s enthusiasm in his voice, in his eyes, as he says this, and it’s contagious. The man himself is a work of art. And just as he has his heroes, Daub should be one of ours.

Eugene Daub: Monumental is on view from Sept. 25 through Nov. 13 at the Palos Verdes Art Center, 5504 Crestridge Road, Rancho Palos Verdes. Hours, Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; closed Sunday. There will be a talk, live or via Zoom, date to be determined, and a foundry tour with the artist is also planned. The show runs concurrently with Are You Thinking What I’m Thinking? (34 paintings based on creative titles) in the upstairs gallery. A reception is scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 25, from 6 to 9 p.m. Call (310) 541-2479 or visit pvartcenter.org. PEN/ER

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