Fran Volz's Studio - August 2016.
An Interview with Fran Volz
Barbara: Good morning Fran. Let's begin by asking how you got started creating bronze statues?
Volz: That's a long story. Forgive me if I get too wordy but as a youth I entertained my family and friends by drawing cartoons. And by observing other artists' work I learned how to make an object look like it was 3 dimensional on a 2 dimensional sheet of paper. So basically I'm self-taught.
I had one art class in high school where they focused on more serious things like still life subject matter and also completed one of a four semester Commercial Art program in college, but dropped out to pursue other ventures. That's not to say I'm a college drop-out or anything, because I went to another college a year or so later and graduated with a BA in an unrelated field.
Then in, I would say 1986, I went outside to build a snowman. It turned into a Smurf, the Saturday morning cartoon character. The reaction of passer-bys was amazing. So I thought if I want to pursue this passion of art, I have a choice: drawing/painting or sculpting. There's tons of 2-D art out there, but not much 3-D. So if I wanted my work to stand out sculpting would be the better decision. I still continued making snow creations though.
Barbara: Okay that was snow, but how did you get into bronze?
Volz: To be honest in the beginning bronze statues seemed so above my level. What I was focused on was sculpting in clay-- mastering realism, especially the human form. I was at the library a lot. The librarians probably thought I was really studious but actually I was looking at pictures. Pictures by the Masters: Michelangelo, Rodin, Houdon, Bernini, etc. Even Disney and Marvel Comics.
I wanted to do large public pieces so I experimented with different materials like plaster, cement, Styrofoam and fiberglass. Eventually my city had a call to artists for a bronze statue at a new park in the center of town.
Barbara: Then what?
Volz: Well, I submitted a design and got rejected. I wanted to sculpt the founder of Arlington Heights, but the committee had only seen my creations in snow and other materials and didn't know if I could work in anything else.
I had sought out a bronze sculptor who took me on as an apprentice for a couple of months; he was working on a 9 foot tall statue at the time. I was like a sponge, listened to every word he said, and watched everything he did. I took notes and pictures. We worked well together.
Barbara: Okay so then you have had some formal training.
Volz: Yes, one on one to learn the bronzing process.
Barbara: So if you were rejected by the City committee how did the statue transpire nonetheless?
Volz: Well, I sculpted William Dunton anyway--in clay. Then I had the mayor come over. She loved it. I told her I'd donate it to the city but it would cost $20,000 to have it bronzed. They found the money, and there the statue stands looking over downtown to this day.
Barbara: That takes tenacity.
Volz: I suppose. But it was something I really wanted to do. (smiles)
Barbara: You have other works in bronze around the city as well.
Volz: Yes, when a new project would come up I would throw my hat in the ring. I wasn't always chosen, but you're right they did commission me for a few pieces.
Barbara: I heard there was a nationwide contest for the Eternal Flame statue that I've seen in Veterans Memorial park.
Volz: That's true. I believe they had around 40 entries. It was a blind selection where a committee looks at all the designs without knowing who the artists are. When they came to my Eternal Flame, it was unanimous. They were all surprised when they revealed that it was their hometown sculptor. (smiles)
Barbara: Tell me about the snow sculpting competitions.
Volz: Well, after entertaining people in my front yard for a few winters, I entered the Illinois State Snow Sculpting Competition in Rockford. The first year my friend and I took third place and got trophies. I competed a couple more times, and wished there was an event like that closer to Chicago. Because other than the snow pieces in my front yard, no one in the Chicago area really heard of snow sculpting. So I contacted the National Snow Organization, but they were satisfied with the Rockford location. That's when I decided to form my own competition.
In our first year the police count was 75,000 people in one weekend! That inspired me to continue running it for the next 8 years. From the suburbs I took it downtown to Grant Park with Mayor Daley's office of Special Events. Then City Hall partnered with Navy Pier where I ran it for another three years. Finally I retired and turned it over to them. It's called “Snow Days Chicago”.
By the way, I still enter other competitions. This past January our team took First Place and People's Choice in Rockford.
Barbara: Okay so if you're a bronze sculptor, why do you work in other seemingly odd materials? For instance a 21 foot tall Statue of Liberty made of straw?
Volz: The easy answer is bronze is expensive. Not every person or town can afford the tens of thousands of dollars it takes to create a public statue. So commissions aren't always available. I have a few proposals waiting now as funds are raised.
Regardless I still have a need to express myself and bring a smile to peoples' faces. So you name the material and I'll find a way to sculpt it. (laughs)
Barbara: And then there are robots. What can you tell me about them?
Volz: I wear a lot of hats in this field. The first art piece that I did out of Styrofoam was a 7 foot tall robot. You could just feel the excitement of kids when they'd come up to it. I thought it'd be cool to make one that moved. So I sought out people in the fields of pneumatic air cylinders, aluminum extrusion framing and electronic control systems. They taught me what was needed and with their assistance put them all together.
Barbara: What can this first animatronics robot do?
Volz: It's basically for entertainment so doesn't perform any tasks. It can stand up from a crouching position, point and talk with an American or even a British accent.
Barbara: It looks very impressive. What do you do with it?
Volz: It's a great educational showpiece for schools and the like. Students can see an application for all the math and science classes theyre taking. Plus it's artistic, and has computer and engineering features.
I also rent it out for tradeshows. Instead of having a pretty girl hand out brochures, the robot is programmed to talk about a product and move at the same time. When it was in California an exhibitor said a doctor from a show next door stood there watching it move for about an hour. When asked what he thought of it, the doctor said he was fascinated by how well it mimicked the movements of the human body. I was flattered.
Barbara: So what's next?
Volz: I'm currently building full-scale 8 foot tall boxing robots similar to the "Rock 'em- Sock 'em" robot toy.
Barbara: Wow, can't wait to see that!
Volz: Yeah. You know with all the excellent graphics they have with PlayStation and Xbox the games are still on a 2 dimensional monitor screen. Here you'll be controlling an 8 foot tall robot and interacting with an opponent. The plan is to take the game to shopping malls, trade shows and the like. It'll be “Pay to Play”, people put down say $5 for a 5 minute round. I'd love to see a dad and his 10 year old son play against each other.
Barbara: Sounds exciting! Well, Fran, it was a pleasure meeting you. Thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to talk.
Volz: Thank you. It was my pleasure.