ON A GIANT SCALE 'King of light'emerges from block of cedar

The giant figure doesn't wear much. Just a loose skirt and a scowl.

Hey, you'd scowl, too, if you were standing half-naked in an unheated art studio on a cold November day.


The fierce face belongs to a 33-foot-high wood carving of the Fudo Myoh-oh, an ancient Buddhist deity who shows mortals the way to enlightenment. The chilly studio notwithstanding, the Fudo's stern expression is said to represent the difficulty of shedding desire and other entrapments of the ego.

Since June 1990, three sculptors from Japan have been shaping the Fudo from 15 tons of yellow cedar, assisted by students of the Maryland Institute, College of Art. The team has been at work inside a funky-looking temporary studio built just for the project, on the parking lot of the school's Mount Royal Station building.


Now it appears the Fudo is about to get its finishing touches. Japanese sculptor Yasuhiko Hashimoto has some carving to do on the large square base. The figure's plastic, eerily realistic eyes have to be inserted. Finally, the entire piece, which will weigh about 7 tons in its finished form,will need to be lacquered and painted in various colors.

When the job is completed, perhaps within a few weeks, the artists will be able to say they have created the largest Fudo sculpture ever.

Fudo Myoh-oh means "immovable king of light." Fudo sculptures usually depict the deity, one of the manifestations of the Buddha, holding a sword in one hand and a rope in the other. The sword is the weapon that helps each person cut through the internal demons of ego, while the rope is the tool that "pulls us toward the Buddha in ourselves, to realizing our greatest potential," says Jane Elkinton, a professor of Asian art at the Maryland Institute.

"It's really a superb piece, very dramatic and extremely successful in its execution," Elkinton says of the Maryland Institute Fudo. "Hashimoto is one of the few people in Japan who's able to do this highly unique sculpting technique. We're terribly lucky to have him here showing it to us."

The technique, which dates from the 11th century, begins with small models. Later, with a plywood template, the artists make boards that subsequently form the sculpture's three main sections -- the head, the left side and the right side.

Nine centuries ago, Fudo sculptors carved details by hand. Hashimoto and his two colleagues from Japan, Jinichi Itoh and Isao Yanaguimoto, have used hand tools, but they also have taken advantage of a more modern sculpting implement, the power saw.

The sculptors also used polyurethane for one of the models and steel cables and bolts to assemble the main sections -- other tools that weren't available to 11th-century artists.

In 1988, seeking an American site where they could do their Fudo, the sculptors approached Richard Lanier, the director of the Asian Cultural Council in New York. Lanier contacted his friend Fred Lazarus, the president of Maryland Institute, who in turn arranged for the sculptors to work at the college.


Japanese businessman Koji Oshiba has supplied most of the funding for the project, the estimated cost of which is $250,000 to $400,000.

Additional contributions have come from local companies, including Black & Decker (sculpting tools), RTKL Associates (the award-winning design for the A-shaped studio made of glass fiber, wood and steel) and Rouse & Associates (the studio's cement floor).The cedar was paid for by the late Baltimore businessman and philanthropist Howard Head.

The other day in the studio, sporting a down jacket, Hashimoto acknowledged the educational value of rendering this distinctly Eastern style of sculpture at a Western art school.

"For me, this isn't so much a religious sculpture as it is an example of traditional Japanese sculpture. The emphasis here is not on a sacred object but on a sculpting technique," Hashimoto, 37, said through an interpreter, Maryland Institute senior Eric Cooper, one of the students who has participated in the project.

Itoh, 40, and Yanaguimoto, 41, recently returned to Japan because their visas had expired, says Maryland Institute spokeswoman Abigail Lattes. The rest of the job is best handled by the main sculptor, Hashimoto, adds Lattes.

Eric Cooper recalled the occasion when he had to climb onto the Fudo's shoulders to help with some work on the head. For a moment, he said, the huge wooden figure seemed to come alive.


"I was sitting way up there when I looked down and I could feel the thing moving," Cooper said. "Up high like that, you're really aware of the weight of the sculpture."

Kerrie Bellisario, a senior who has coordinated studio visits by local school students, said she has felt the Fudo's presence on a more metaphysical level.

Some of the students connected with the Fudo project "were going through a lousy time being competitive about who was doing jobs that seemed bigger or more important," said Bellisario. "Meanwhile, these three sculptors were going on in their calm, workmanlike way, but we [students] were having our ego battles. It made me think that the Fudo brought on this fight so we could see how destructive it is to let your ego get all blown-up. It was big growing-up lesson for me."

Certainly the Fudo would have had a scowl or two for the Maryland Institute students who, in conversations with Bellisario, disparaged the sculpture with anti-Japanese comments. There were also students who complained that the project diverted funding and attention from other school programs, she added.

However, Lattes said the college made no financial contributions to the project.

Once the Fudo is finished, it will need a permanent home with a covering to protect the sculpture from rain and snow. It could end up at any number of places, from the National Arboretum in Washington to a Japanese garden in California. It could even go where it might be most appreciated, Japan.


Not that the Fudo doesn't have some fans here.

"I think we all feel a definite attachment to it by now," Bellisario said. "It's become more than a sculpture to a lot of us here. I hope it will go somewhere nearby so we can visit it whenever we want."