Jim Maher

IMG_3743Bronze sculptor James Maher is used to seeing his finished artwork wearing little more than a patina.

So the handpainted faces and elaborately texturized fabrics that are bringing his latest pieces to life are a whole new artistic experience for the Belle Fourche sculptor.

“I find them really striking, especially the way the eyes are done. The folks painting the pieces are really doing a great job. I was pretty amazed by it all,” Maher said.

As the artist sculpting most of the heads for the Founding Fathers Black Hills exhibit, Maher has enjoyed his role in turning John Trumbull’s “Declaration of Independence” painting and its 47 figures into a three-dimensional, life-size sculpted diorama that people view from four sides.

Maher also sculpted 11 of Rapid City’s City of Presidents statues, including presidents Ronald Reagan, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson and Abraham Lincoln. LBJ and Lincoln were two of his favorite statues to sculpt, even though he finds it hard to be completely satisfied with his efforts.  He is thrilled to be part of yet another patriotic-themed tourist project in what USA Today calls “America’s most patriotic city.”

“I think its a great idea that we would celebrate what these men have done. It was a risky deal they were engaged in. They  put everything they had on the line … and it’s a great heritage that they’ve given us. That’s something that should be remembered and not forgotten.”

If the oft-sculpted Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were an artistic challenge, the lesser-known signers – like Thomas Heyward Jr., – pose a practical challenge because Maher has fewer images of them from which to work, since they lived before photography was invented. “Many of these fellows that were the signers of the Declaration of Independence were fairly wealthy men … so many of them had their portraits painted,” Maher said.

He’s studied those paintings, but the likenesses can vary greatly, depending on the painter.  So Maher’s goal for the project is to stay as true to the  facial images from the Trumbull painting as possible, something that has been a challenge when reproducing a complete figure from a face that was painted only in profile or partially hidden in the painting’s dark background.

“There’s a lot of ambiguity to it. Some of the figures are done with just a profile to work from,” he said.

But instead of lending his own interpretation of America’s founding to the artwork, Maher is trying to convey exactly what Trumbull painted. “That’s different from the way I usually work, where I try to capture the personality of someone. Here, I’m trying to capture that painting in three dimensions and be faithful to it… and let that show through.”

His own Irish ancestors didn’t arrive in America until the mid-19th century, so Maher doubts that he is a direct descendant of any of the men whose faces he sculpted.  Born in Pierre and reared in Rapid City, Maher studied animal science and biophysics, not art, in college. He was in the horse business when he discovered his talent for sculpting. He worked for  another western South Dakota sculptor, Dale Lamphere, for four years,  an education that has proven invaluable to Maher’s success today, he said. “Dale is definitely a mentor. He’s such a generous man and a great teacher.”