James Van Nuys

IMG_0123James Van Nuys’ mind is the artistic force behind the Founding Fathers project. It’s his hands, however, that you’ll see in the finished artwork. The hands of many of the 47 figures in John Trumbull’s historic painting are cast from Van Nuys’ hands in different poses.

Casting his own hands into history is just one of the ingenious solutions that Van Nuys and his team came up with while tackling the numerous artistic challenges of the multi-media Founding Fathers sculpture project.

Using alginate–the rubber-like material that is used to cast dental impressions–to make a mold, the hands were cast in a urethane resin and painted to become the life-like hands of Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, and other men in Van Nuys’ three-dimensional rendering of “Declaration of Independence.”

Van Nuys, 58, is a Rapid City artist widely recognized for his evocative landscapes of western South Dakota, including a massive mural of the Badlands, Bear Butte and the Black Hills that welcomes travelers at Rapid City Regional Airport. Best known for his paintings in oil, acrylic and watercolor, he’s also contributed three bronze sculptures to the City of Presidents, a popular public art project in downtown Rapid City. In his spare time, he’s a musician well-known for his acoustic guitar skills and a magazine writer and designer, too. The multi-faceted artist is a graduate of Wilmington College in Ohio, with degrees in both art and music.

But turning stiff-looking fiberglass mannequins into life-like sculpture was a “first” for Van Nuys–or for anyone else–it seems. The sculptural process has never been done in exactly this way before, as far as he can tell.  The learning curve was very steep, he admits.

The first sculptural portrait he created was of George Clymer, a little-known signatory from Pennsylvania whose name has largely been lost to the footnotes of history. Working alone, Van Nuys spent more than a year on Clymer, wishing to perfect the process on this experimental sculpture before beginning the most important figures.

After working alone on a second figure, Van Nuys assembled a team to help with the rest of the sculptures. “I was very fortunate to get some of the region’s best artists to work with me,” Van Nuys says. “Jim Maher took over sculpting the heads, Leah Nixon perfected the painting of faces and hands, and Julie Farrell gave the characters their proper weight and bulk, as well as deciding on the color schemes. I developed the poses, then I chopped, modified, and rebuilt the mannequins and helped put all the pieces together into convincing figures.”

Each Founding Fathers figure involved the use of traditional artistic tools such as clay and paint, yes, but also acrylic gels, glass beads, fiberglass, aluminum, duct tape, plumbing fittings, wood, fabric, craft foam and cans of spray insulation. “We spent more time in hardware stores than in art supply stores,” Van Nuys quips.

With members of his team specializing in various aspects of the sculptures, the process became much more efficient and sophisticated. “I believe we really managed to create figures that have value as unique works of art, in addition to their function as historical symbols,” says Van Nuys, “I think they’re quite beautiful.”