A giant bronze head of Jean Baptiste Point du Sable will visit the City of Evanston this fall, residing near the Chase Bank Plaza at Orrington Avenue and Davis Street before traveling on in the spring of 2023.
Erik Blome, the sculptor of the du Sable bust on Michigan Avenue at the bridge over the Chicago River in Chicago, has duplicated the head of that work, enlarging it to 9 feet in height. Du Sable, a Haitian immigrant, was the first permanent non-indigenous settler of this area and is recognized as the “Founder of Chicago.”
Du Sable settled along the northern bank of the Chicago River near Lake Michigan around 1779 and developed a prosperous trading post and farm. In 2021, via a contentious proposal and a Chicago City Council compromise, Chicago’s iconic Lake Shore Drive was renamed Jean Baptist Point du Sable Lake Shore Drive.
At his own expense, and to honor du Sable, Blome is creating this giant bronze and arranging a multicity tour for the sculpture. Evanston will be the first host city, followed by Aurora. The artist is currently in conversation with a number of other possible hosting cities.
This reporter had the privilege of watching the bronze pouring of some of du Sable’s features – lips and mustache – on a sunny April Sunday afternoon. Blome’s studio is a warehouse bay in the Illinois town of Woodstock, where he has several rooms and access to an area outside for his burnout kiln and the furnace for heating the crucible of bronze.
Blome is an accomplished, primarily representational, sculptor with works that dot the nation. He has connections to Evanston however: he once shared space with Indira Johnson at her studio at Fowler Avenue and Main Street. When first in town, Blome and his wife, also an artist, lived for a time above “Second Hand Tunes” on Dempster where the Evanston Float Center is now. Later they lived at Elmwood Avenue and Main Street.
In nearby Milwaukee, there are two bronze sculptures by Blome, the best known a 9½ foot figure of Dr. Martin Luther King installed in 1998. The artist has done several representations of King – one in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and one on the Island of Bimini in the Bahamas where King paid a now-legendary visit. The other Milwaukee sculpture is of four children balancing on a brick wall, commissioned by the “Spirit of Milwaukee” Foundation, 2000-2001.
Blome’s bust of Justice Thurgood Marshall was commissioned for Chicago’s Thurgood Marshall Public Library, 7506 S. Racine, and installed there in 1995. Other public full-figure bronzes he has done are Jack Benny in Waukegan (2002); Rosa Parks in Lafayette, Louisiana (2011); and circuit and state Judge Laura Cha-Yu Liu in Ping Tom Park in Chicago’s Chinatown, (2017).
Many athletic figures and groupings are notable among Blome’s works, including the Chicago Blackhawks’ 75th anniversary monument at the United Center and, more recently, 14 larger-than-life-size figures of Toronto’s ice hockey greats, commissioned by the Toronto Maple Leafs Hockey Club. His current project is a sculpture of Hall of Famer, Dale Hawerchuk of the Winnipeg Jets.
Blome uses the laborious lost wax casting process to create his bronzes, so named because a wax model has to be melted away from a mold before the bronze is poured. (It’s the wax that’s lost, not the process. I was confused by that name at first.)
In fact, the process is thousands of years old. Much of what we know of ancient civilizations has come to us through their metal works created via the lost wax method; vessels, tools, jewelry and statuary. The process is also known as investment casting, precision casting or “cire perdue.”
Bronze is an alloy, a combination of copper, tin and other metals prized for its durability, resistance to corrosion and ability to register fine detail. It is purchased in ingots which need to be melted down to liquid form. Most sculptors send their work out to be cast by a commercial foundry. Blome’s situation is unusual in that he has five assistants to help him pour large works by the lost wax process at his own studio.
There were no photographs of du Sable for the sculptor to work from, as du Sable lived in the early 19th century, pre-photography. Blome read, however, that the man was thin and had a slight beard. He found one scratchy etching, supposedly done from life, but the etching, he said, did not convey much useable information.
“Prior, there was a stamp done that is in the public domain, but I didn’t like it, as [du Sable] looked doughy and like he had mousse in his hair. I wanted a tougher, chiseled, determined-looking du Sable,” Blome said.
Then he found someone to be his model for the sculpture – a worker at the McDonalds near his then-studio in Martinez, California, when he was teaching full time in downtown San Francisco. The man he used had a shaved head, so the sculpture’s hair, Blome says, was inspired by the curly hair of his own son. And Blome referred to the HBO TV series John Adams for era-accurate clothing.
“I also used ‘French cropping’ like the Houdon busts of our founding fathers,” he said. (Houdon was a famous French sculptor of the period who did portrait busts of Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and a full-scale figure of George Washington.) “[The du Sable sculpture] is very much a creation from my choices and imagination,” Blome concluded.
The bronze du Sable head will be created out of “30 or more” sections of bronze, said Blome. “But you won’t be able to see where the seams were, when I finish.” The piece will come to Evanston via truck and be lifted by crane and cable onto its temporary home near the Chase Bank Plaza at Orrington Avenue and Davis Street.