Heavy Metal Man
Local artist, a lifelong O’s fan, casts team’s legends in bronze.
Published: July 31, 2012
Sculptor Toby Mendez says to meet him at the New Arts Foundry in Hampden. Foundry. The very word seems of another century in an age where everything is of molded plastic and made in China. It’s a hot, dirty, and noisy place where 15 skilled workers cast and assemble statuary. There are sand blasters, grinders, and pots of molten bronze at more than 2,000 degrees. Mendez, bespectacled and in a bright polo shirt just this side of peach, emerges from the din to suggest we talk at a coffee shop—not so much because of the noise level in the modern-day Vulcan’s forge, but out of fear that a reporter might get a sneak peek at the poses.
You see, Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken Jr. lie dismembered within, the last of six statues of Hall of Fame Orioles that the team commissioned Mendez to create in celebration of the 20th anniversary of Camden Yards. Frank Robinson, Earl Weaver, and Jim Palmer already stand larger than life in the ballpark’s right field picnic area-cum-sculpture garden. The Foundry keeps the appearance of the new statues strictly hush-hush until their official unveilings. Murray’s metal likeness debuts Aug. 11 and Ripken comes out on Sept. 6. (A bronze Brooks Robinson was ready to go up in May, but because Brooksie himself was ill, its debut was pushed back to Sept. 29.)
It takes some shoehorning to get Mendez into this City Folk column, as he was born in Denver and has lived most of his life near Frederick. But he is a homer in one crucial sense. In his 25-year sculpting career, he has been called on to capture many an epic figure, including Thurgood Marshall and Mahatma Gandhi. But while he never got to hear Marshall argue before the Supreme Court or see Gandhi stare down the British Empire, he has been an O’s fan since the mid-1970s. Periodic family ballpark outings to Baltimore allowed him to see five of his six subjects in the flesh and on the field. (Only Frank Robinson’s playing days were missed.)
“As a kid, watching Murray come up in the clutch situation, I remember it was like the cavalry arriving,” Mendez says.
Ed-die! Ed-die! Ed-die! came the chant. Fans didn’t need to be told when to make noise at Memorial Stadium.
For an artist who makes metal heroes, there’s an extra kick of inspiration in having witnessed some heroism firsthand. Working with the Orioles’ exhaustive photo archives, Mendez’s mission was to fashion iconic poses for each player. They also had to be dead-on accurate, which the Hall of Famers themselves could help out with.
What Mendez actually sculpts are detailed, 2-foot tall clay statues—called maquettes—which get submitted for review. Palmer is dramatically depicted, mid-throw, complete with a leg cocked out at a 90-degree angle. When the pitcher saw the model, he suggested Mendez tweak a few things. Was the artist going to argue? “Photos can’t really capture the whole motion,” he says. “I mean, he knew his mechanics just by looking.”
When the maquettes meet with approval, they are sent to a firm in New Jersey, where a laser-guided milling machine scans the surface to create full-size replicas out of high-density foam. Mendez then fine-tunes the foam model by hand before handing it over to folks at New Art for the hot and noisy business of making molds, pouring in the molten bronze, and building and buffing the finished piece.
Mendez’s artistic abilities first emerged in boyhood. During his high school years, he came to Baltimore each summer to participate in an arts program for gifted and talented kids held at Goucher College. His father Tony Mendez is an artist too, albeit one with an unorthodox resume. The older Mendez plied his trade at the CIA’s Office of Technical Services—a spy shop along the lines of James Bond’s Q Branch—and he specialized in disguises. He is most famous for engineering the “Canadian Caper,” wherein six Americans escaped the turmoil of the 1979 Iranian Revolution by posing as Canadians who had come to Tehran to shoot a sci-fi film called Argo. (An actual film called Argo is due out this fall, which details these espionage exploits; Ben Affleck directs and stars as Tony Mendez.)
It was through his father that a teenaged Mendez met and apprenticed under another sometime-CIA hired hand, storied film and TV makeup artist/sculptor John Chambers. Chambers won an Academy Award for the makeup in the first Planet of the Apes film and, perhaps cooler still, is credited with creating Spock’s ears. (John Goodman plays Chambers in the upcoming Argo.)
In the end, Mendez eschewed both espionage and Hollywood when it came to fashioning a career. He headed off to study sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago.
“My love was always pursuing the fine arts,” he says. “I’m living a dream.”
Curious, though, how his father Tony made a name for himself making people look like someone or something else, while Toby’s talent is in capturing a person’s very essence.
“I never thought of it like that, but yeah,” Mendez says. “He was trying to blend them in and I’m trying to bring them out.”
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