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The 'invisible' artist

Sculptor inspired by civil rights

Sculptor inspired by civil rights

June 28, 2006|by ERIN JULIUS

WASHINGTON COUNTY

Those familiar with Maryland landmarks probably have seen sculptures commemorating local and national history without realizing the artist behind those creations is a neighbor.

"Sculpture is a very different art form. Sculptors tend to be a little bit invisible," said Toby Mendez, 42, a Frederick, Md., sculptor responsible for dozens of monuments and sculptures in and around Washington, D.C.

Mendez said that when he is creating a new design, work on a life-size sculpture can take a year. He has been working on one project - a family sculpture for the D.C. Family Court in Judiciary Court in Washington - for several years, Mendez said.

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He used his sister's family as the model for that sculpture.

"The Family Court in D.C. wanted it to be a family that reflects the community," Mendez said.

The final statue, which will be dedicated in September, depicts Mendez's African-American brother-in-law, his sister of Hispanic descent and their children.

Mendez, whose studio is in southern Washington County, creates his statues in clay before they are cast in bronze.

On June 6, Gov. Robert Ehrlich dedicated a bust of the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Mendez's latest work, at the Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

"I really like doing things that are related to civil rights," Mendez said.

He was approached about the Thurgood Marshall bust because he designed the Thurgood Marshall memorial statue "Equal Justice Under Law," which is in front of the State House in Annapolis, Mendez said.

"Thurgood Marshall was a huge experience for me," Mendez said, referring to his work on the Annapolis memorial.

"He means a great deal to the African-American community," Mendez said. "Every fourth-grade class in Maryland goes to Annapolis ... the rewarding thing is to meet children, and they can tell me about Thurgood Marshall. That means the sculpture is doing what it's supposed to do, which is educate."

Work on the bust for the airport went quickly because he reused the previous design, he said.

Mendez uses models for his sculptures.

"If the person is living, I work with the person, otherwise I try to find someone of the same height and weight," he said.

For major memorial statues, Mendez designs not only the figures, but also the space in which they are featured. For his Family Court piece, Mendez incorporated the life-size figures into the court's lobby, and drew a design that includes universal quotes about family etched in the lobby's glass panels.

"It's a sculpture about hope and encouragement, for those who go there and for the employees who need inspiration," Mendez said. "The happiest thing that happens in Family Court is adoption."

While much of Mendez's work can be found in and around Maryland, he has pieces on display around the country. Mendez worked with Nolan Ryan to create an 8-foot statue of the famous pitcher for the Ballpark in Arlington, Texas, and sculpted a more than life-size figure of Mohandas Gandhi for a county office building on Long Island, N.Y.

For a sculptor, "success is to be able to do it full time and make a living with it," Mendez said. At this point in his career, he sculpts full time.

"The hope is that you get to do something that people will recognize and it becomes sort of an icon," Mendez said.

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