Julie Farrell planned a career in marketing and communications, but a fortuitous phone call from her college art teacher steered her toward the Founding Fathers project and what she calls “the best job I’ve ever had.”
Farrell, a 37-year-old mother of three, has had many different jobs, including extensive experience as a bookkeeper, photographer, graphic designer and a trophy engraver. But being part of the creative team that is bringing John Trumball’s historic painting, “Declaration of Independence” to fruition as a three-dimensional, life-size sculpture has been a dream come true for the Rapid City woman.
“It’s so much fun,” Farrell says of the project that she joined in December 2012.
At the time, Farrell was a non-traditional student just one semester away from completing her undergraduate degree at Black Hills State University, where she majored in communications and minored in art and business. She grew up in the northern Black Hills town of Lead and is a 1994 graduate of Rapid City Central High School. “I’m a Black Hills girl.” says the 2013 BHSU graduate.
Farrell first heard about the project in a phone message left for her by BHSU professor emeritus of art Jim Knutson. “He mentioned something about James Van Nuys and mannequins and told me I should check it out,” she recalled.
When she joined the team, Don Perdue’s Founding Fathers vision was still very much an artistic work-in-progress for Rapid City artist James Van Nuys.
Knutson had been impressed by her drawing and painting talent, and so was Van Nuys. Her eye for color, combined with her creative problem-solving skills, have made Farrell an invaluable part of the artistic team, he said.
“When I started Thomas Jefferson wasn’t much more than a naked mannequin,” she said.
Farrell proved essential in developing the technique the team has employed to sculpt the fabric that clothes the 47 male figures in Trumbull’s painting. The fabric is stiffened with acrylic glue before being draped and folded to reflect the postures and movement of the men. The clothing, all originally black, is then layered with various texturizing agents and handpainted in colors appropriate to that historical era.
Farrell’s gift for translating the subtle color palette of Trumbull’s painting onto cloth has been a revelation to Van Nuys and a boon to the project. “She has a good sense of color. When we first started, I would tell her what colors to use … but I soon learned to just leave it to her,” he said.
Her artist’s eye is inherited, she said. Her mother has a creative flair and an uncle worked for Walt Disney Studios. Jim Maher, the Belle Fourche-based sculptor who has created the heads and faces for the Founding Fathers exhibit, is a distant cousin.
“It’s in the family, I think,” Farrell said.