The hulking figure lay on its side in the long grass, moderately mummified by a tarp and some bubble wrap. Brian Hanlon recognized it as soon as he saw the face.
“There’s Shaq!” he cried.
Indeed, there was Shaquille O’Neal, even larger than life, frozen mid-dunk. Hanlon rapped on the copper-toned torso. It was hollow as a PVC pipe.
This was just a polymer cast of the real statue of O’Neal — that 900-pound monument of bronze and granite stands proudly outside the Pete Maravich Assembly Center in Baton Rouge, La., where O’Neal played his college games for L.S.U. It didn’t bother Hanlon that the cast was covered in snow, resting ignominiously outside an old chicken coop like a fallen oak. He’d actually had forgotten it was out here. He’d been busy.
Last year, in fact, was Hanlon’s busiest to date. He is a sculptor by trade, the creator of the types of statues that stipple the stadiums, plazas and rotundas celebrating our sports icons. In 2017, he unveiled 30 new monuments, from Charles Barkley at Auburn to Evander Holyfield in Atlanta to Jackie Robinson as a football player at the Rose Bowl. At Indiana University, 12 new statues of Hoosier basketball icons went up in the lobby of Assembly Hall; each was designed by Hanlon. And after the conclusion of this year’s Winter Olympics, Hanlon could soon be adding skiers and figure skaters to his impressive roster of honorees.
Hanlon’s phone keeps ringing because sculpture seems to be enjoying a renaissance, particularly among universities and teams flush with television riches and eager to celebrate their glory days.
But statues are appearing down, too; cities like Charlottesville, Va., New Orleans and Memphis, among others, have removed Confederate monuments, and a petition to remove a prominent Christopher Columbus statue in New York also gained traction.
In the uproar, Hanlon says he has heard a kind of wake-up call. Times change. But bronze can last forever.
“I realized how important and powerful what I was doing was,” he said. “There may be some days I do take it for granted.”
Raised in Holmdel, N.J., Hanlon, 56, speaks often about the “spiritual” connection between his art and its inspiration. Part of that is the result of his own relationship with clay; it rescued him, he said, from a serious alcohol addiction that derailed much of his early adulthood — until he arrived at Boston University, in 1988. Finally sober at age 27, he invested in a future with his hands.
Classically trained and raised Catholic, he initially sculpted mostly liturgical scenes or portraits of saints and local priests. But one of his first pieces — a statue of the javelin thrower Bob Roggy for Holmdel High School — struck a chord.
He used water-based clay rather than oil-based, which is firmer and less pliable. He found that he could manipulate the clay to convey an aspect of the sculpture that does not quite belong in church: movement.
His statues since then are rarely the static forms that make other pieces seem, well, statuesque.
“It’s his love of sports that you see in the statues — the motion and the energy,” said Chris Riccardo, a ceramic artist and classmate at B.U. “But its Brian. You sit down with him and he will sell you on how important art is to him and to this world. He’s so positive with everything.”
Hanlon’s “studio” is the 3,000-square foot coop, which he started renting from a local farmer in 1992, located in an overgrown field off a hidden dirt road. It had no air conditioning, no bathroom and no windows, so Hanlon poked two skylights through the roof. He shares the space with a mattress firm, which uses it for storage.
“This is my stuff here,” he said, pointing to the cast husks of gigantic statues of a lion, a dog and the former football star Ernie Davis, all scattered behind the coop. They have spilled outside, near an abandoned station wagon, because there is no space left inside.
Hanlon unlocked the coop and, in dusty lighting and shivering cold, revealed the resin casts of nearly a hundred other statues, many of them familiar. Next to the boxer Larry Holmes, extending a ferocious left fist, was the former Temple basketball coach John Chaney, pointing a bony finger. Behind them was the figure of Steve Gleason, a former N.F.L. player who has A.L.S., blocking a punt?
Some statues are enormous, like a 15-foot-tall Dominique Wilkins rising for a dunk. Others, like a kneeling Yogi Berra, are more approachable. There are flattened basketballs and battered baseball mitts, once used as props for the modeling, on the floor, alongside the heavy mallets, saws, wrenches and clamps Hanlon uses.
Constructing a Shaq-size sculpture out of bronze is tough work. Hanlon starts with a full-scale armature — a skeleton, of sorts, made with rebar, steel, foam, wood, chicken wire and other materials. “You name it,” Hanlon said. “Whatever can hold that clay?”
More than 1,500 pounds of clay were heaped onto that underlying armature, rendered and finessed so that the tiniest details of O’Neal (muscle definition, jersey wrinkles, hair strands) could shine through the finished patina.
Those details emerge though Hanlon’s research. A statue of Bob Cousy, for instance, adopted the ramrod straight posture of the great point guard as he dribbled. Another, of the basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian, memorialized him in a familiar pose: seated on the bench, sucking on a towel.
“He captures their movements, their actual poses,” said Scott Zuffelato, the vice president for philanthropy at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, which has declared Hanlon its official sculptor. “That says a lot about Brian’s perceptiveness to how an actual athlete is presented to the public and represents their game.”
In 2015, Hanlon unveiled a 25-ton monument to Dr. James Naismith, based on a picture of Naismith displaying a basketball to some children. Hanlon recreated the image with a twist — he sculpted the likeness of a young Earl Lloyd, the N.B.A.’s first black player, onto one child’s face, to evoke a sense of the game’s evolution.
Yet Hanlon also has learned to keep his ears open to various sources of inspiration.
“Stephen A. Smith is a great one,” Hanlon said, referring to the bombastic ESPN commentator. “He was screaming about some player the other day, and I thought, ‘You know, somebody should make a statue of that guy.’”
He pitches many of the ideas directly to prospective clients. Though they may resist the idea of spending $125,000 to $180,000 for a statue of their own, a few come to realize that there are few better ways to capture the spirit of an icon.
Hanlon has created six statues for Syracuse, all of them showed in a plaza outside the team’s football practice facility: the former football stars Davis, Jim Brown and Floyd Little; the football coach Ben Schwartzwalder; and the lacrosse coaches Roy Simmons Sr. and Simmons Jr.
“You feel the person,” the Syracuse athletic director John Wildhack said. “You get a sense for the person and the strength, the spirit, the resolve, the commitment that they all had in their own way.”
After sculpting the clay around the armature, Hanlon paints it with several layers of rubber, followed by coats of plaster and fiberglass. This forms the mold into which molten metal is eventually poured.
Forcing open that mold after it settles can be like ripping apart two ice cubes frozen as one. For a statue of St. Peter, Hanlon once hooked a rig to his pickup, attached a line to one side of the mold, which was also attached to a wall, and floored the gas pedal. Other reveals involved ratchets and straps attached to the beams of the coop.
“I can’t believe that thing didn’t fall in on me,” Hanlon said. “I did some crazy stuff in there for sure.”
The creation of the mold is critical. “If the integrity of your mold is no good,” Hanlon said, “you just blew months and months of work.”
“A bajillion mistakes could happen,” he added. “And somehow we pull it off.”
Today, he watches for those mistakes from half a world away; most of the statues he designs now are forged and cast in a foundry he owns in Xiamen, a port city in southeastern China.
Hanlon can coordinate every step of the monthslong process, from the modeling to molding to bronzing to shipping, via video conference. Recently, however, he had to give up many of the hands-on aspects of his work because of health concerns — namely the effects of years of working with resin dust, sequestered in the coop.
But he says he no longer needs to feel the clay in his fingers to know when a statue could last in perpetuity.
“It’s the stories,” Hanlon said. “I’m more interested in the back story than the sculpture itself. If the back story is good, the sculpture is going to be great.”