He’s still turning heads

04/15/2010 12:00 AM |

Sculptor Robert Berks and his wife, Tod, outside the former Orient schoolhouse that was moved from Main Road to its present location and converted for the artist’s use. See slide show.

You’re in an enormous room, face to face with Albert Einstein, John F. Kennedy, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Pope Paul VI, Frank Sinatra, Martin Luther King Jr., Pope Paul VI, Golda Meir, Kofi Annan and Mr. Rogers — and it’s not a dream. It’s the Orient studio of sculptor Robert Berks and it’s filled with more than 100 bronze busts of the world’s iconic figures, each one brought to life by the artist’s signature broken surfaces and nuanced gestures. Mr. Berks, who will celebrate his 88th birthday on April 26, and his wife and teammate of 58 years, Dorothy “Tod” Berks, reflected last week on the remarkable journey they’ve shared.

Mr. Berks was a 31-year-old rising star in 1953 when Albert Einstein commissioned him to sculpt his portrait. The Berkses arrived one April weekend at Einstein’s Princeton, N.J., home, where they spent an entire day talking about sailing, art and music, and wondering about sustaining life off the planet (Einstein didn’t believe it possible).

“Bob didn’t sleep all night,” says Ms. Berks, “but the idea for the work was in his head by dawn the next day.”

That morning, Mr. Berks rapidly fashioned a framework, then built up Einstein’s features in richly textured layers of clay. At about 7 that evening, Einstein looked at the sculpture and said, “I think it’s done.” Except for the foundry process of casting in bronze and patinating, it was.

But Mr. Berks’ connection to Einstein was not. The grounds of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., are home to the sculptor’s monumental four-ton, 24-foot-high Einstein Memorial, which was dedicated in 1979. The scientist sits on circular steps, gazing at a 30-foot-wide star chart on the granite floor and holding a pad inscribed with his three major equations. He’s casually dressed in a wrinkled sweater, baggy trousers and sandals. But the seated, introspective Einstein bristles with energy, animated by surfaces that are deep, irregular and rough here, raised and smooth there. The massive weight of the statue, deep in thought, finds its counterpoint in the sculpture’s airy outdoor setting.

Youngsters playing in the park sit on Einstein’s lap; adults come to rest or contemplate beside him. The monument was a favorite place for Fred Rogers, the gentle friend and teacher from Pittsburgh, Pa., whose original TV series and PBS reruns entertained kids from 1968 to 2001. That is why his wife, Joanne Rogers, wanted only Mr. Berks (who also created the statue of Pittsburgh Mayor Richard Caliguiri) to sculpt the “Tribute to Children.” Dedicated in November 2009, the 11-foot, 7,000-pound memorial sculpture of Rogers sits along the river on Pittsburgh’s North Shore. Clad in his famous cardigan, tying his shoes and grinning broadly, the figure invites kids to climb upon his knee.

“I regret never meeting [Fred Rogers],” said the artist, “I watched hours of film, and Rogers was a communicator whose teaching was close to the way I work.”

Like Fred Rogers, Mr. Berks seeks to connect with his audience and initiate thoughtful conversation: Each of his 15 monuments inspires a dialogue through memorable references to his subject’s achievements. The Mary McLeod Bethune Emancipation Memorial in Washington’s Lincoln Park — the first monument to an African-American woman built on public land — features the civil rights leader passing her will to a young boy and girl, bequeathing to them the right to be what they want to be.

“Homage to Carolus Linnaeus” is a botany lesson in bronze that contains over 100 sculpted examples of flora and fauna relevant to the scientist’s 18th-century system of classification. And a statue of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis sports a robe that appears to fly in the wind, a metaphor for his fighting the winds of adversity.

Visitors to The Kennedy Center of the Performing Arts often meet in the grand foyer, beneath a now familiar landmark: the eight-foot-tall bronze head of John F. Kennedy. Commissioned posthumously, it was worked from photographs and miles of newsreel. Subsequent presidential sculptures of Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson were sculpted from life.

In the Berks studio, while walking among the heads and statues of legends — all artist’s proofs — Ms. Berks tells a funny story about the Johnsons: “Bob completed their portraits in the Lincoln Bedroom,” she says. LBJ was sitting in shirtsleeves, sipping tea, when Lady Bird walked in, her hair wrapped in a towel, fresh from a shampoo. She looked at Lyndon’s likeness and said in her long Texas drawl, “It’s nice, but it’s how he looks when he sees his grandchildren … can’t you make him tough?” The artist complied with a second Lyndon sculpture, tough this time.

Every artist has at least one critic. While Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver were sitting for their portraits, the California governor quipped, “Bob, there’s one thing wrong with your work … you did too many Democrats.” He then commissioned a bronze of Ronald Reagan for the Reagan Library. At a party to celebrate the dedication, Gov. Schwarzenegger greeted guests, saying, “Many have come a great distance … mostly my in-laws, who came from the extreme left to the extreme right.”

If all this art were not enough, Robert Berks is also an engineer and a scientist. He developed a metal preservative to protect patinas and has designed fountains with new concepts for moving water. Husband and wife together developed a cold-cast molding technique, now commonly used to make small, affordable unlimited editions of original sculpture, and they have jointly investigated wind and solar energy systems.

“Everything designed has a visual component,” says Mr. Berks, “and art is the best way to do everything.”  See slide show.