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Robertson’s return

Above

Fisher Stolz, associate professor of art, referred to small and full-size photographs of body model RICH WELSH ’12 to capture intricate details, like texture and folds, while sculpting the clay figure from which the statue’s molds were made. In all, 500 pounds of clay were added to the steel armature and worked into the optimal pattern with tools and by hand. 

Online

Visit bradley.edu/go/ht-robertsonstatue for a playlist of videos featuring the creation and dedication of the bronze sculpture.

On Homecoming day 1948, the Bradley community said goodbye to Alfred James “A.J.” Robertson, its revered athletic director and coach. Sixty-four years later, “Robbie” returned to the Hilltop in the form of a larger-than-life bronze sculpture that was unveiled at the perfect time — during the University’s 2012 Homecoming celebration. Crafted on the Bradley campus, the statue is the result of more than 1,000 hours of work by Fisher Stolz, associate professor of art, and JACI WILLIS ’04 MFA ’09, affiliate instructor of art.

“It was an honor to work on this project,” Stolz said of the opportunity to memorialize the distinguished coach.

For six decades, Robertson’s legacy was enshrined on the iconic Field House that took his name, until it was razed to make room for the Renaissance Coliseum. “There was a desire to keep A.J.’s name very prominent on campus,” Stolz recalled. After the decision was made to commission a bronze sculpture, Stolz was consulted on what foundry to use. “With the upgrades to our sculpture area and casting process, we had all of the capabilities to do it right here.”

As one of only two statues on campus — the other is of Lydia Moss Bradley — it keeps watch over the Renaissance Coliseum from the cul-de-sac at the end of A.J. Robertson Court, serving as a permanent tribute to the man who brought Bradley athletics to the national stage. “He did so as athletic director, football coach, baseball coach, and basketball coach. We’ll never see that again in collegiate athletics,” President Joanne Glasser remarked during the dedication ceremony on October 12. “His teams won 63 percent of their games, a terrific record for one sport, yet Robbie succeeded in three.”

Stolz enlisted his former student RICH WELSH ’12 to serve as the body model because he has a similar build to that of the coach. He also worked closely with Robertson’s son WILLIAM “CORKY” ROBERTSON ’53 MA ’64, who offered continual feedback and provided needed details like sleeve length, and shoe and hat sizes. “We even took a mold of Corky’s hands, so we would be able to use something from the family directly in the modeling of the piece,” Stolz explained.

The artists spent hours researching clothing to ensure historical accuracy. They had to locate the right size and style of shoe for placement on the armature, while they re-created the pants by looking at old photos from that era. The contemporary letter jacket Welsh modeled actually had snaps, but the finished sculpture features buttons. Each aspect was carefully chosen and replicated to be as realistic as possible.

KYLE CHIPMAN ’06, another former student of Stolz’s, provided additional assistance. A professional welder and owner of the Hot Scotsmen Fine Art Foundry in Peoria, he helped with the final welds and supplied space to finish the piece. “At the end of August, we were coming up on our deadline. With classes starting, it was best to take the castings out to Kyle’s place to continue production while freeing up the studio for our students,” Stolz said.

While they were working on the piece, Stolz and Willis assigned their students bust and figurine projects requiring the same techniques on a smaller scale. “It was terrific for our students to see the process we went through,” Willis shared. “They saw how we do things in the ‘real world’ of sculpture.”

When completed, the statue was a little over life-size, what Stolz describes as “about life-size-and-a-quarter.” It includes 800 pounds of bronze, averaging one-quarter to three-eighths inch thick throughout the piece. 

After the dedication, Stolz received an email from a Bradley engineering professor who complimented them on the feat. The sculptors report they also were pleased to find “the balance of the finished piece is so even, he will stand on one leg without the support of the bench.”

Looking back, Willis said she would “never forget the patina application — even if it was 4:30 in the morning!” This chemical treatment covers the bright bronze with darker values, enhancing the various textures and shadows sculpted into it. She described it as watching the sculpture “come to life.” Stolz admitted he was “thoroughly excited to see the face” as the lines and expression became more pronounced and realistic.

Stolz added that he most valued the opportunity to connect with the Robertson family. Corky and his son Col. BILL ROBERTSON ’83, commander of the 182nd Airlift Wing of the Illinois Air National Guard, were among the family members who regularly visited the studio. They often would become emotional as they watched, which enhanced the experience for the artists and was evident during the dedication. “I was in on it from the beginning, and the finish is fantastic,” Corky said to the audience. He added that when his father died, he had “just turned 17, so my recollection of Robbie, my father, is this right here.”

“He was a straightforward guy, and they brought that out in this statue,” Corky shared after the ceremony. “When I stuck my hands in the clay, then it hit me, and my son said, ‘Now I know where you’ll be all the time.’ It means everything to me.”

– Clara Miles, MA '05 
Photography by Duane Zehr