The sculptor behind the Ken Behring bust

When sculptor Marc Mellon was commissioned to create the bust of philanthropist Kenneth E. Behring, the artist gladly took up the job and shipped his modeling stand from Connecticut over to California to work directly with Behring. The finished product was unveiled during a ceremony last week and now stands on the museum’s second floor. Behring donated $80 million to the museum in 2000 and consequently paved the way for major building renovations and some of the museum’s most popular exhibits.

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Ta-da! Kenneth E. Behring and Brent D. Glass unveil the bust.

During the ceremony, Director Brent D. Glass relayed a comment he had heard from a passersby about the bust: "It looks like it’s been here all along." Mellon, for his part, said he was pleased the bust had blended in so well.

Mellon's most famous work includes busts of individuals such as Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel and President George H.W. Bush (which can be found in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery), the National Basketball Association MVP award, and the 2009 Presidential Inaugural Medal. "It’s nice to have the breadth of career, and like Rodin, I like dealing with great issues," the sculptor said. "Many of the busts I’ve created interface with world history and American history."

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Kenneth E. Behring and Marc Mellon stand next to the bust.

I spoke with Mellon about his collaboration with Behring during the bust-making process and his personal philosophy on sculpture. Check out the following excerpts from our conversation:


What did you want to convey about Mr. Behring through the bust?

I went online, and I found all the photographs of Mr. Behring, where he has this wonderful smile—genuine, natural smile. In the history of portrait sculpture, you don’t find a lot of big smiling sculptures where the teeth show—in part, because it wasn’t considered, in another era, the way you would do a portrait of someone you were honoring. For example, Theodore Roosevelt’s bust from yesteryear will show him with his mouth closed, whereas we think of him on the bully pulpit with his mouth open. I captured him with his mouth wide open [in this work] . . . If you look closely, the teeth have gestures just like everything else, and you can get enough detailing where you don’t have to overwork it, where it’s going to read right. With this project, it turned out that Mr. Behring had also told the Smithsonian . . . "I know I’m not Clark Gable. You do me as I am. I like my smile." And he really does have a great smile.

Can you describe the process of creating the bust of Mr. Behring?

[Behring’s] 83 years old, and we didn’t know how much time he would be willing to give me in the sittings, whether he’d be available for the number of days I would need. But once we got started, he was the perfect sitter. We spent time together once or twice a day for about six days, and the sittings were approximately 45 minutes to an hour each sitting. The very first day, I took photographs to supplement the pictures that I had . . . We went through some of his favorite photos, and if I saw something on his wall, I said "Can I make a copy of this?" and he said "Sure." We had a photo lab not far away at the local CVS, so I was able to print up images as I needed them. He’d give me a sitting, and I’d work the rest of the day, and maybe he’d come by at the end of the day to have a quick look.

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Marc Mellon works on the clay piece.

What is the cultural significance of creating busts of important men and women?

This goes back to the Greeks and the Romans. It’s really part of the history of Western art that we would do busts, statues, and reliefs of those we want to honor. In the early days, you’d honor the military leaders, the political leaders. With the evolution of modern culture, we broadened out who we choose to honor, and certainly there’s a great history of honoring people who are major philanthropists . . . I had the honor, just two years ago, of doing an eight-foot statue of George Eastman, who put an affordable camera in every man’s hand in the same way that Steve Jobs and Bill Gates put an affordable computer in every man’s hand. But that’s not why we honored George Eastman. We honored him at the University of Rochester because he was a great philanthropist and university-builder through making major gifts . . . That part of what I do is always exciting because it’s one thing to create a great fortune. To have the sense of history, the vision of what it would be for further generations to give major gifts to our great institutions, is one of the most laudable things that anybody could choose to do . . . This man [Behring] is deserving of a bronze bust.

What makes a good portrait sculpture?

Likeness is necessary but not sufficient for strong portrait . . . You need likeness, and you need to somehow project the qualities [of the subject] that allow for achievement. Sometimes it’s focus, sometimes it’s strength of personality, someone’s warmth or the smile. Sometimes it’s the look in the eyes: you can see the drive in the eyes, you can see some of the history, the willingness to take on the world in the furrows of the brow. There are subtleties.

In the Elie Wiesel bust, I wanted to give a sense of the history that he had lived through, that he had seen the worst that the world could offer and yet he goes forward with hope. His only son saw the bust recently and said to me, "You caught a hint of my father’s smile," and I was so pleased because the bust couldn’t be a big smiling bust. I knew that eventually, it would be shown in a context with his central message that we can never be indifferent to the plight of others, never indifferent to injustice. And so I have furrows in his brow, his eyes are wide open, where he’s watchful as he urges us and our children to be watchful. But there’s also this hint of a smile because there is a hopefulness in his message, that through our efforts we can intervene if we have to, when there are great injustices.

Do you consider your work art? Public service? A combination of both?

It’s art, first and foremost. But I interface, in my work, with achievers in every field, so it’s art of my personal continuing education. I speak to the people whose busts I’m working on. If they’re no longer living, I’ll read in depth about their lives, to better project the values that allow them to succeed in their chosen fields. Anyone who succeeds is inspiration for someone not just in that field, if you understand what motivated them and how they went about doing it. Some of my work is meant to pass values along; I’ve lectured about values and achievement as portrayed in sculpture, and this bust [Behring’s] was very much of that ilk.

Esther I. Yi is a Fellow in the New Media Department at the National Museum of American History.