PHILADELPHIA -- The enormity of it catches you off guard. Even though you walk into the room knowing what you're there to see, visualizing a nine-foot effigy is different from actually standing next to one.
Currently a few hundred-pound mixture of clay and foam dominating a second-floor studio, the much-anticipated statue of late Philadelphia boxing icon Smokin' Joe Frazier is about six months from completion. After four months, the mold has certainly taken shape, but sculptor Stephen Layne expects to take time through September to accentuate features such as the gloves and shoes and otherwise fine-tune the project.
The statue, which depicts Frazier a moment after his powerful left hook knocked down Muhammad Ali in the March 1971 "Fight of the Century," is on target for a January or February unveiling, according to Layne. It will stand 12 feet in all when accounting for the planned three-foot base.
Layne estimates the sculpture is about 80 percent complete, but added "there's always a saying that the last five percent is the last 90 percent." Come October, his mold will be separated into at least a dozen pieces and lowered through a trap door into a foundry, where, for the following four months or so, craftsmen will cast the pieces in bronze and weld them back together.
"A sculpture has to work all the way around, so every view you look at should be dynamic in some way," Layne said. "When I saw that, just that pivotal career moment of him knocking down Ali, that just seemed like the pose."
Layne, 46, never met Frazier, who died Nov. 7, 2011, of liver cancer at age 67. Layne said he was only four or five when Smokin' Joe defeated Ali at Madison Square Garden. But the sculptor has more than familiarized himself with his subject.
In the studio space Layne has rented, the Frazier statue faces an otherwise blank white wall decorated by 26 8 1/2-by-11-inch portraits of the former heavyweight champ. While working, Layne constantly looks to these for reference.
Hanging on the adjacent wall is a larger portrait of a smiling Frazier draped in a fighting robe, his hands wrapped. Below it sits a desk with a monitor on which Layne plays videos of Frazier's fights. Two pairs of Everlast boxing gloves, one black and one white, and a pair of white boxing shoes, all belonging to Frazier's nephew Rodney, and a pair of silk boxing shorts also adorn the room.
"I like to have them as reference, because you look at what he actually wore. You actually have to have things like that as models for how to make these gloves and shoes," said Layne, who took over the project after the originally commissioned sculptor, Lawrence J. Nolan, unexpectedly died last August. "I watch (the 1971 fight against Ali) over and over, because that's his age (at the time the statue will depict), that's what he wore, that's the kind of shape he was in at the time."
Members of the Frazier family check in on the statue every few weeks, occasionally offering suggestions regarding a detail here and there. Layne, who grew up in Philadelphia, considers himself a boxing fan and even took up the sport briefly in his mid-20s, an aspect he thinks plays a part when sculpting Frazier's likeness.
"Rodney came in one time and said, 'One of the reasons I picked you is you're the only one who got the feet right,' " Layne said. " 'You understand that they had to be swiveled in for that punch.' So I think it helped a lot."
A product of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Layne has had an extensive gallery career and taught all over the city. However, the Frazier statue is his first commissioned project and also the largest he's worked on from a physical standpoint.
No pressure, Stephen.
"I do thrive on thinking that so many people will see this," Layne said. "Families will see it. Kids will see it. I'm sure there will be lots of pictures of kids standing in front of it (posing) and all that. That kind of pressure fuels me rather than shuts me down."
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