Talking with Toby Mendez, Sculptor of Legendary Orioles

When Toby Mendez was growing up in Boonsboro, MD in the late 1970s and early 1980s, going to see the Orioles play at Memorial Stadium was reserved for special occasions and birthdays. He'd watch Brooks Robinson, Eddie Murray, and other Orioles on that field, and now many years later, Mr. Mendez has been given the chance to immortalize those Orioles legends through his art, lifesize sculptures that will be unveiled at Camden Yards throughout this season.

The first of these bronze sculptures will be presented this Saturday, April 28th, prior to the Orioles game against the Oakland Athletics. The first reveal will be Frank Robinson, and he'll be followed by Brooks Robinson (May 12th), Earl Weaver (June 30th), Jim Palmer (July 14th), Eddie Murray (August 11th), and Cal Ripken (September 6th). In addition, a replica of each statue will be handed out to fans who attend each game. And if you're interested in attending all of the games that feature an unveiling, the Orioles are offering a ticket package for those games. I personally already have tickets for the first two nights, and will probably attend most of them.

Highly regarded for his sculptures both inside and out of the sports world (you can view his work at his website), the Orioles approached Mr. Mendez with the idea for the sculptures of the Orioles legends. The project began in May 2011 with the creation of clay models of each great Oriole, just 1/4 the height of the final project. The models were based on the review of hundreds of pictures of the players from all angles, every possible shot that would lead to the most realistic portrayal. The models were reviewed by both the players being depicted and by the Orioles with feedback provided to make the sculptures as accurately as possible.

What kind of feedback, you ask? Mr. Mendez gave a few examples. Jim Palmer reviewed his model and, after claiming he didn't want to be picky, pointed out some changes that could be made so that the sculpture correctly portrayed his pitching mechanics. And Frank Robinson believe the legs in the sculpture were just too muscular, as he had always had skinny legs in his playing days.

Once the models were reviewed and all necessary changes made, it was time to make the real thing. And this is where technology really comes into play. The models were scanned with a laser, taking 40,000 measurements, then using those measurements, the model is created in foam using a milling machine. The product from the milling machine isn't perfect, though, because it cannot create hard lines. Using files and knives, Mr. Mendez carved all of the detail into each foam piece, then used that as the base for his final clay project. The transformation from a 2-foot tall model to the full-size version takes about a month, and after the large version is created, it's time to put the sculpture in bronze.

The clay sculptures are made into bronze at a foundry, where bronze artists work their magic. They make a mold of the sculptures, first in wax to make sure everything transfers to the artists liking, then into bronze. The clay-to-bronze process is a four-month effort for the sculptures, which were being worked on simultaneously. And that's the last step before completion of the Orioles legends sculptures, which will have a home in the bullpen area of Camden Yards behind center field.

Mr. Mendez doesn't only create works of art relating to sports, however. He has also created works depicting Thurgood Marshall, Mohandas Ghandi, and more. And while he may take a bit of a different attitude towards more serious historical figures such as those, he views each piece as a historical project that requires extensive research to capture the individual person perfectly. As for what he'd like to tackle in the future, Mr. Mendez says that he hopes to continue with sports and civil rights projects, and that he would be interested in sculpting more historical woman, as they are under represented in that medium, just as they've been through history.

Thanks to Mr. Mendez for spending some time talking to me, I learned a lot about something very unfamiliar to me. I look forward to seeing each of his works of art as they are revealed at Camden Yards throughout the summer.

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