by Nancy E. McCarthy
When the Frederick Douglass Bicentennial Committee selected Rochester sculptor Olivia Kim to produce a series of life-sized Frederick Douglass statues in February 2018, she was excited by the challenge. Kim’s inspiration was Stanley W. Edwards’ bronze Douglass statue. Installed in Rochester in 1899, it was the first American civic monument to honor an African American man.
Douglass was a former slave turned activist, abolitionist, author and orator. The commission to sculpt the world-renowned Rochesterian came with high expectations, but a tight production schedule and budget. Kim had recently accepted an adjunct position at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), with the intention to work with teams and create larger public artworks. “Little did I imagine that I would only have two months to learn what I could, and then launch into this project,” she says.
And this was a high profile assignment. The City of Rochester and Monroe County proclaimed 2018 “The Year of Frederick Douglass.” The statues were a big part of a community-wide celebration commemorating the 200th anniversary of his birth.
“I felt like my mind and heart were going to burst,” says Kim. “I normally work slowly and meticulously.” Kim designed the first prototype by sculpting clay around metal piping, foam, wire and fabric, and then built a 26-piece mold. Local Douglass descendant Ken Morris Jr. was Kim’s hands and face model. Using her sculpting techniques, rooted in body mechanics and anatomy, helped convey subtle feelings of compassion based on posture, hand placement and facial expression. While she normally makes statues in bronze or glass, she used lighter, less-expensive fiberglass, as the Douglass statues were not intended as permanent installations.
Kim managed over 150 volunteers in her studio to produce 13 statues later displayed in historically significant locations throughout Rochester. Each statue required 230 hours, with a rotating group of two to seven volunteers. Kim sometimes worked 18-42 hours at a stretch to make the deadline. Project volunteer and artist Marion Romig had never made sculpture before. “Most people had no training, but Olivia gave us the self-assurance to get the job done,” says Romig. “The atmosphere in the studio was one of commitment, hard work and fun. It was nothing short of miraculous.” No matter what was needed, whether a specific tool or help to lift a heavy statue, someone would arrive at just the right time.
This project thrust Olivia Kim into the spotlight, but she was already a rising star.
Kim was four when she and her parents settled in Rochester from the Philippines in 1983. She was teased at first. “Eventually I learned that all children make fun of each other, and I was no exception,” she says. Feeling different made her search for commonalities. “Now I truly enjoy discerning the subtle differences in people and seeing their universal characteristics.”
Formal arts training at Rochester’s School of the Arts (SOTA) during her middle and high school years included voice, music, drama, writing, dance and a myriad of visual art forms. She studied printmaking, drawing, painting, collage, digital illustration, photography, jewelry making, glassblowing and, of course, sculpture. At 15, she took nude model figure drawing classes at an RIT summer program under the tutelage of sculptor Elizabeth Lyons, also her SOTA teacher.
Kim was exposed to different cultures from school friends and by reading ancient myths and legends. Eager to travel to experience art and world cultures firsthand, she would discover that artwork, landscapes and architecture have a presence that photographs don’t fully capture.
Kim attended Alfred University and graduated cum laude with divisional honors in ceramic sculpture from the School of Art and Design, New York State College of Ceramics in 2001. In 2004, she completed four years of post-graduate studies, receiving a certificate in realist figure drawing and sculpture, and the prize for best sculpture at the Florence Academy of Art in Italy. While in Florence, Kim also visited Greece, England, France, the former Czech Republic and Russia.
After her studies, Kim became involved in a serious relationship with an Italian stone sculptor. She stayed with him in Italy, made bronzes, taught art and accepted private and public commissions. But “eventually something was burning in my heart – the desire to create a new voice for my sculptures,” she says. Kim began experimenting with capturing body motion in her figurative work. Her first effort, Out of the Abyss, was a leaping sculpture of her dancer friend Melinda Phillips. Using anatomy books, video and photographs, she made several versions over three years.
In 2010, Kim returned home to Rochester to focus on the study of human body movement. She made drawings, paintings and sculptures of any kind of human motion, including observations of Futurpointe and Garth Fagan dancers, a local body builder and acrobats. Kim also took a variety of dance classes to experience movement personally. She spent about nine years developing a new art technique to perceive and capture a specific moment in time that she calls split-second body movement. It’s an emotional, visceral connection to her subject, but also requires a thorough understanding of anatomy, biomechanics and biokinetics.
“Definitely the work to understand motion from the inside out made the Douglass project possible,” says Kim. “It gave me the confidence to sculpt faster than I ever have in my life.”
Andy Schecter of Rochester owns several Kim sculptures. “My two favorites are highly realistic bronzes portraying dancers in motion. What attracted me to these pieces is the way Olivia captures the dancers’ fluidity, their power and their grace,” he says. “One can experience their joy of movement and also a stillness of mind in contemplating these pieces: human beings caught in sublime moments.”
Kim remains busy and prolific. She balances teaching figure sculpture to medical illustrators at RIT with working on public monuments, smaller commissioned sculpture and personal projects. Her work is represented by Oxford Gallery in Rochester; one of her glass sculptures will be part of the “In a Different Light” group exhibition there October 16 – November 27, 2021.
And Frederick Douglass is back in her life. Kim has been commissioned to recreate her bicentennial statue in a larger, bronze version to be displayed at the newly renamed Frederick Douglass – Greater Rochester International Airport. Her hope is that locals and visitors from all over the world will embrace Douglass’ enduring messages of freedom and equality. Slated for a 2021 completion, fundraising is underway – and Kim is already in motion.
The Process of Bronze Casting
Kim’s bronze statues start with an original clay prototype.
Liquid rubber is brushed over the clay. After the rubber hardens, a coating of hard fiberglass shell is added. This mold is used to recreate the clay statue in wax.
The wax pieces have to be cleaned up (“chasing the wax”) and resculpted. Wax bars called sprues are fused to the pieces, serving as channels for the molten metal to flow into the sculpture.
The sprued-wax duplicate is coated several times with a ceramic slurry and stucco until the piece is encased in a strong outer shell. The shell is then heated to melt out the wax in preparation for casting.
Molten metal is poured into the hot ceramic shell, filling in all the finest details. Once the bronze cools, the shell is chipped off and the sprue system is removed.
Any imperfections in the bronze are ground down, welded and filed to restore the original texture. The finished piece may be polished, patinated and prepared for plating.
View Olivia Kim’s work at oliviakimstudio.com. Contact Kim at firstname.lastname@example.org. To make a donation to the Douglass bronze statue project, visit douglasstour.com/give.