Biography first, sculpture later

The Baltimore Sun

When Susan Luery competed for the right to sculpt the Babe Ruth statue at Camden Yards, she didn't know much about pro baseball and had never been to a game. Just before earning the commission, she met Hall of Fame player Reggie Jackson and was later told that he was nicknamed "Mr. October."

"What calendar does he pose for?" she asked.

Yet by the time the16-foot Babe's Dream was unveiled in 1998, Luery had researched his life and persona, and could even recite his baseball stats.

A former Northwest Baltimore resident who now lives in Hingham, Mass., Luery does more than transform a mold into a work of art. She sculpts biographies, learning as much as she can about her subject, then pouring pieces of the subject's character into the piece.

The Ruth statue led to a commission to sculpt a bronze statue of George Washington outside the Allegany County Circuit Court building. The assignment has made her an expert on the first president; she spews facts about him like a biographer.

The 8-foot statue, The Visionary, was dedicated last month. Howard Buchanan, chairman of the Fort Cumberland George Washington Memorial Sculpture committee, said Washington arrived in the Cumberland area in 1753 as a courier for Virginia Lt. Gov. Robert Dinwiddie. He returned the next year to lead the Virginia militia against the French army and visited Fort Cumberland in 1755 as an aide to Gen. Edward Braddock.

Luery attended the Maryland Institute College of Art but left early to pursue sculpting, ultimately refining her craft in Casa Carra, Italy, where she worked with maestro sculptor Alberto Sparapani, best known for Italy's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Luery began with projects for the Baltimore parks and recreation department and has since sculpted pieces worldwide. Her works are found at the Naples (Italy) Philharmonic Sculpture Garden, the National Gallery of Bermuda and Oregon Ridge, the summer home of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Her Promethean Radiation was presented to Prince Charles and Princess Diana at their wedding in 1981.

We asked Luery about her art and career.

Q: When did you first discover a knack and a passion for sculpture?

A: I've always painted, and I've always drawn. Sculpture came as a natural outgrowth of that. I was about 19 or 20 when I began sculpting. When I started out at the Maryland Institute, I had a general interest in everything, and when I started sculpting, it brought something to life for me in a much different way. Something about it drew me; it was the process for it and being able to affect the landscape.

Q: What do you hope to convey with your sculpture?

A: Every project I do takes me down another avenue that I've never been before. I'm doing more than just putting up sculpture; I'm assigning someone a character.

Q: What did your research unveil about George Washington?

A: The statue in Cumberland is Washington as a young man. Most people view him more or less as a president. They see him as stoic. But as a young man, he had a very interesting life. He aspired to be what he became. And he was a partygoer who loved to dance. He was red-haired and he attracted women. He had all of his clothes ordered from England.

Q: What is it like to see your work in public?

A: It delighted me, when I first did the Babe Ruth statue, seeing people in Baltimore ... getting their pictures taken with it. It was a delight just to see [the sculpture]. I used to drive by it at night and say, "Did I really do that?" When you see people attracted to it, it is an incredible delight.

Q: Many people have observed that the Babe Ruth statue has a right-hander's glove, although Ruth was a lefty. How have you responded to this?

A: The Ruth museum gave me the glove for the piece, and from not only my research but from people I talked to, as well as people at the Ruth Museum, the glove he would have used as a rookie player (and I depicted him as an 18-year-old rookie) would have been a soft, fielder's type glove that they switched from hand to hand.

When I did the statue, I had Babe leaning while holding the bat with his left hand, because he was a left-handed batter. I had him holding the glove because he was also a very well-known pitcher and I wanted to demonstrate his range on the field. I continue to get reactions to it to this day. It was on Letterman. Dan Rather mentioned it. But back in those days, they didn't have the highly developed sports equipment that they have now.

Q: How did Prince Charles and Lady Diana come across one of your sculptures?

A: I was very young, in my early 20s and still living in Baltimore, and I had this little sculpture that I took to a show in New York to show around.

I remember just before I left, my mother cautioned me, "Don't give it away; make sure you come back with it."

I showed it around, and eventually it was shown to a columnist named Jack Martin, who showed it to Rita Lachman, whose husband [Charles] was one of the owners of Revlon. She was one of few Americans invited to the royal wedding, and she brought it there as a gift. When I returned, my mother said, "Where's the statue?" I told everyone that the piece went to Prince Charles, but no one believed me until a Channel 13 cameraman came to my door. I later received a [thank you] letter from Buckingham Palace.

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