Interview with Eli Hopkins
April 30, 2012
Mr. Madison: Hi. This is Mark Madison at the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia and today we’re doing a podcast on April 30th, 2012 with artist Eli Hopkins and in two days on May 2nd, the NCTC is going to dedicate a statue in the Fallen Comrades Courtyard where we memorialize Fish and Wildlife Service employees who died in the line of duty. It’s a beautiful statue. It’s going to be unveiled May 2nd at 11:00 a.m. and we’re very fortunate to have the sculptor Eli Hopkins out here with us. Welcome Eli.
Mr. Hopkins: Thank you.
Mr. Madison: Pleasure having you and I guess the first question we should ask you before we get to the statue is what’s your background?
Mr. Hopkins: My background is that my father, Mark Hopkins, is a well known bronze sculptor. I began my career working with him. Although I’ve been creative my whole life, he hired me to do marketing and so my history in the art world began with -- actually I worked at his foundry as a teenager and then I became -- started doing the marketing end of things and then I was at an art show and realized, hey, I can do this. Tried it, fell in love with it, did it, and obviously I have a mentor, an avenue to pursue all of that through and during that process I really began to find my passion for it.
I started doing mostly wildlife because it’s forgiving, doing humans is extremely hard because you have an expectation of what humans look like, but there’s some flexibility and some forgiveness in sculpting wildlife as an artist because not everyone has a full expectation of what something might look like so you can develop styles, try different things, learn because I will always be learning as an artist and so I also am an avid outdoorsman, love the outdoors, live in Colorado and so that’s my history.
Mr. Madison: Okay. Eli, we’ve been planning on this statue since 1997 so it’s been a long haul, but we did a request for proposals about five years ago and tell us a little about what inspired your design that eventually turned out to be the winning design?
Mr. Hopkins: To be perfectly honest, I think this is kind of how it started, and don’t tell anybody this especially any lawyers. Four years ago my family and I went to Disney World and we went to the Animal Kingdom and there they have the Tree of Life and I remember seeing it then, but not fully appreciating it.
We just recently went again which was four years later and I saw the Tree of Life again and I realized subconsciously it must have inspired me and I love the idea. I fell in love and I spent time just walking around and studying it this trip. Last trip I probably just stored it somewhere in my brain, my creative side of me went, oh, that’s a cool idea and then this trip I walked around and I studied every side. I wanted to just soak it in and I think that that form of entertainment - - creative minds like that. They look at something, it’s similar in design with all the different sides being kind of a different landscape, a different area of wilderness and all these animals hidden and emerging, coming out. So I think – I was honest with myself this past trip in February and went this must have inspired me when I was here and I just didn’t realize it. Obviously, there was no deliberate attempt to steal an idea but even so it’s different enough, but I think it must have been in my head and that’s where I came up with it because I love the idea of everything being earthy, everything being together, it’s kind of one. It’s meshed. It’s a whole ecosystem. You know, as the Lion King says, another Disney reference, “the circle of life.” I think that’s where I got it.
Mr. Madison: Okay.
Mr. Hopkins: It just popped in my head. As soon as I read the idea of what was being sought, that’s what came to my mind. I remember doing the pencil sketch and it just naturally flowed and there wasn’t any hesitation. I knew what my mind’s eye saw because here’s this guardian over all of this and he represents those who have passed and there’s all these different animals all around him and it’s just one uniform. I’m doing a bad job of explaining it, but that I think is what I attempted to do.
Mr. Madison: I think you’re doing a great job explaining what was going through your mind and for those of you who haven’t had a chance to see the statue, it’s a base with many different species, both plant and animal and coming out of this base is a Fish and Wildlife Service employee kind of looking off into the horizon. We’ll try to put up a picture with this.
Let me ask you about the wildlife base because it’s very interesting. The wildlife in that base seemed almost purposely to not be carefully delineated. Was that a purpose of this whole thing?
Mr. Hopkins: Yeah, I wanted it to become more refined as the piece went up and the higher you look the more refined it should be. That was the intention behind it. Obviously, it’s kind of an evolution idea. It’s symbolic in going up to the person -- he has – here’s this more refined being of this whole ecosystem. I don’t mean to get too philosophical, but he’s the one that’s overseeing it all. That’s his duty; his responsibility.
Mr. Madison: Did you pick certain species for symbolic value around the base?
Mr. Hopkins: I did. The swan kind of is the spirit. Obviously this represents those who have passed so the swan is a prominent figure in it and he’s kind of – he’s leaving and there are Canadian geese especially, those that have that light, that lust. I can’t explain it, but so he’s leaving, but then also there’s the bear, the strength of that, the owl with the wisdom that they arbitrate so yeah there’s different symbolism in each one and I wanted that to represent also part of the whole system.
Mr. Madison: Eli, you mentioned earlier you’d shied away a little bit from human forms because they’re unforgiving in many ways.
Mr. Hopkins: Right.
Mr. Madison: Was this the first human form you’d done or was this particularly difficult?
Mr. Hopkins: I’d been studying. Even to this day, I have some forms that I’ve been working on for years and years and years and it helps me to learn to do some, shelve it, come back to it with a new fresh eye, weeks, months later look at it because how I notice form and shape has developed. So yes it’s my first full – I’d done some sketchy children sculptures meaning that they look – they’re very basic and so I have studied the human form. I’ve learned it, but yes this is my first full-on attempt at doing hands, face, the entire body of an adult human.
Mr. Madison: Speaking as one who’s seen it very close up when it arrived in a crate, it’s spectacular. You did an awesome job on it.
Mr. Hopkins: Thank you.
Mr. Madison: It took four years from your proposal to the installation. Walk us through that process. I think most people don’t know what it takes to make a statue, maybe from sketch and proposal onward.
Mr. Hopkins: Well, so once the sketch was given to you then -- once your committee decided to have the finalist come, we prepare a mockett which is just a fancy word for the smaller version of what the
large version will look like and then so we created the mocketts. I did the presentation to you. Then once I was selected – once the formalities were done with on that end, the things in the creative process can start.
We built infrastructure out of wood. We used copper wire for some of the armature. We used foam for some of the armature. The base itself we built out of wood and then we overlaid all of that with clay. Once you overlay it with clay you start flushing out different parts and different animals and you’re obviously following the mockett as you go along. There are technology processes where you can scan a mockett and have a large version created out of foam where a laser programs sculpts it. We did not do that process with this. We wanted this to be very organic and so we just used the mockett as the basis and it evolved from there.
So once you have the sculpture complete, the original sculpture in clay and once that was approved by your committee and actually somebody came to approve it and look at it in person, once that was completed then you mold it using liquid rubber and that captures the detail, then either plaster or plastic to keep the shape. Once you have that mold a wax duplicate is created of the sculpture and it’s not cast solid. It’s cast hollow because it would weigh -- and it’s already 700 pounds and it would be some ungodly amount if it was and it would cost a lot if it was solid bronze.
So then once you have those wax duplicates created and it’s in sections, you can’t just take the whole thing and dip it in some big bucket of bronze. You take sections, the wax duplicate and it’s in pieces I believe it was 30 to 35 pieces. They take those pieces to a foundry and they dip it in ceramic shell and as they dip it in ceramic shell over and over, it develops this hard, thick ceramic coating. It dries. They melt out the wax and pour the bronze into it. Then they break off the shell and once the bronze is cool and then they take all these bronze pieces and then they put it together like a three dimensional puzzle and when I say they, I’m talking about the foundry. It’s just in that process. So it�����s welded together. Then it’s metal chased so all the seams are blended back the way it’s supposed to be and then coloration is added. We call it patina. I just made a long process sound very simple.
Mr. Madison: You did. That’s why though it will be good to share with the listeners. It’s a very complicated, long process. I mean there’s a reason it takes four years in addition to just getting the contracts and that. It’s very labor intensive. Let me ask, this may be a silly question, but it occurred to me -- I mean you’ve lived with this statue for four years – well, doing other projects obviously, is it hard to let it go?
Mr. Hopkins: No, no. I don’t ever view this as mine. Every time we start a project it’s not ever mine. It’s someone else’s. No. It’s not like a child that you grow fond of. In fact, you get tired of it being around because it’s taking up space and you’re grateful at times when it’s gone. Plus we look at it -- a lot of the time we’re looking at the clay version and we want to see the end product and that’s when it becomes fulfilling is seeing it finished, seeing the clients happy. That’s where I am happy.
Mr. Madison: You first got to see it installed last Friday. We had a crane put down the base and then put the statue on top of it. What were your thoughts when you actually saw it in place?
Mr. Hopkins: I didn’t have too many thoughts except for just relief. It was a feeling of relief. So I was very grateful. It all worked out. Especially when I saw a few other smiles of people that should have been smiling were so once I saw those smiles I was happy and I could have taken a long nap at that point.
Mr. Madison: Well, it does look great and now that you’ve had a chance to overcome the stress of whether it’s going to fit on the base or look right, when we unveil it again on Wednesday, hopefully you can just enjoy it and enjoy more people admiring the statue.
So we’ve been talking with Eli Hopkins. He’s the sculptor of the brand new Fallen Comrade statue at NCTC. It’s going to be unveiled Wednesday, May 2nd , 2012 and Eli, thank you very much for your time.
Mr. Hopkins: Thank you.
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