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Sculptor 'dances with clay' to create likenesses of the famous

Sunday, December 28, 2003

By Angela Boseman, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Often without ever meeting them, Susan Wagner has managed to capture the essence of many well-known people.

Some have been deceased for years or led lives she could only dream of, such as sports heroes. But they come alive like old friends in her sculpture.

Darrel Sapp, Post-Gazette
Susan Wagner with her "Tribute to the Steelworker," in the studio of her home in Friendship. Her previous works include the Roberto Clemente statue at PNC Park.

Wagner, who is in her early 50s, is an entrepreneur who markets herself as a freelance sculptor. She has received private and public commissions for 12-foot statues, life-size models and busts, and bronze bas-relief portrait plaques for the Baseball Hall of Fame.

"I'm not famous," she says with a laugh. "The people I sculpt are."

She is probably best known in Pittsburgh for her statues of Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell in action at PNC Park, and she recently did a bust of Clemente for a new part of the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center's Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum.

Baseball's prominence in her art is purely coincidental. Wagner has never been a die-hard fan, though she enjoys attending games.

But the soft-spoken, petite woman with dark, curly hair has always had a passion for art.

"I've been sculpting since I was a little girl, and I always wanted to be an artist," she said.

When Wagner was a first-grader, her mother was told she was a gifted child. Still, Wagner baffled teachers because she read constantly but struggled with math. This became a stigma that overshadowed her artistic talent. Told she wasn't college material, she became a full-time waitress in Monroeville.

One day, Wagner happened to wait on someone who worked at the University of Pittsburgh, and he told her about job openings. She jumped at what she thought was an opportunity, as a Pitt employee, to help her younger brother get an education. When she found out that siblings couldn't use Pitt's family tuition discounts, she enrolled herself.

After five years, at age 31, Wagner graduated with honors and a double major in anthropology and fine arts. She also became only the second student from the arts department to be awarded a chancellor's teaching fellowship.

Wagner later discovered that she had a learning disorder called dyslexia, which had contributed to her math difficulty. Grateful for a clinical explanation for what teachers considered a flaw, she became more determined to succeed at other things.

At first, her goal was to get married, have children and become a professor. She married while in college and eventually moved to Friendship. She had hated the suburbs and instantly fell in love with her new neighborhood and the city that surrounded it.

Plus, the city gave her an opportunity to work at her craft like never before. It wasn't long before her art career took off. She was drawn to realism.

She did projects with several companies in the Tri-State area before doing commemorative plaques for the Baseball Hall of Fame and other charges. Working from photographs and film, she developed a knack for creating realistic images of people she'd never heard of before.

"I do research, interview people and study videos to see how they move," she said. "I don't keep track of statistics or anything. It's the man I'm sculpting. I work to sculpt them as they were. I work to capture their essence."

That attitude helped her approach each project with confidence, in the face of critics who disapproved of her realism and her effort to convey movement in some of her more renowned pieces.

"I think when people criticize in a way that is not constructive but to just tear me down, they just want attention for themselves," she said. "I don't become upset because it's just their opinion.

"I welcome constructive criticism and, when I do a monument, people appreciate that I make the sculpture look like that person. It's my job. That's what they want and that's what I do."

Besides, it can be argued that the best critics are the fans and those who knew the people she has portrayed; they are almost as proud of her work as she is.

"Everything I've presented to the public has been well-received," she said. "No one knows me, so at the unveilings and other times I just watch people's reactions to the statues and when I see their faces light up, I know I have gotten it right."

Those reactions are part of what drives Wagner, who speaks of her art the way a proud mother speaks of a son or daughter.

Sometimes, she is sought out for a specific project. Other times, she enters competitions for which she has some social or creative interest.

"I spend months researching and developing ideas," she said. "Monuments are expensive to create, and I don't get rich off them. I sculpt for my pure love for them and to make people think."

That's how the Clemente commission came about. Wagner was certain she would lose the competition because of the formidable local and national talent she was up against.

"I had no chance. I was an unknown artist and a woman, but I had to sculpt him because I knew who he was, what he did and what he stood for," she said. "I knew he was a good man."

Wagner was going through a tumultuous time. Her mother was in and out of the hospital battling illness, and she died two months before Wagner received word about the competition.

"When the Pirates called to tell me I got it, I was shocked as hell," she said. "I screamed and screamed. I just couldn't believe it. I went hoarse."

She then began calling loved ones to share her good news. She thought of calling her mother before realizing she was gone. In that moment, she missed her mother more than ever. The happiest moment of her professional career to that point was bittersweet.

Wagner was terrified after realizing the magnitude of the job. She had to her credit only one other major sculpting project, a Gulf War memorial in Greensburg, something she didn't reveal to Pirates officials.

"I walked into a conference room and there were all these big men and little me. They all sat back in their chairs when they saw me," she said. "Then I found out they wanted a 12-foot-statue. I was scared to death!"

Despite her nervousness, she kept going forward, driven by her desire to do a good job, because she knew how much Pittsburghers loved Clemente. Then, when she went to the foundry in upstate New York and saw the gigantic lump of blank clay that would become the 12-foot-image of the man, her fear returned. She couldn't speak for three days as she tried over and over to begin the yearlong process of making the clay take its proper form.

Steve Greenberg, a Pirates vice president at the time, was on the committee that chose Wagner. He visited the site to monitor her progress and offer assistance.

"Susan was really easy to work with, and she was so passionate about her job," he said. "She listened to my input."

And she continued working.

"I remember finally getting his face right with that look he had and I cried," she said.

When Greenberg came to see it, he had a similar reaction.

"I was impressed," he said. "I mean, it looked exactly like him."

He, too, teared up.

Later, Wagner would remember a conversation in which Greenberg conceded that she might not have gotten the commission had the Pirates known how inexperienced she was.

Since then, Wagner has done numerous projects, including a 14-foot statue of Jackie Robinson at Journal Square in Jersey City, N.J., a boy and a girl with a sea lion at the Pittsburgh Zoo and others such as Stargell.

Greenberg said Wagner was "the obvious choice" for that commission. There was no competition. He personally asked her to take the job.

"She does amazing work," he said. "She managed to capture his power and strength, and I couldn't have been more pleased."

Now she's focusing on her commission to bring the artistry of Gene Kelly to Downtown. The late dancer, choreographer and director was a native of East Liberty, and many Pittsburghers are curious about how Wagner will depict Kelly's famous scene from the movie "Singin' in the Rain."

She hopes to begin working on it soon.

"I miss it terribly. I ache to sculpt," she said. "It's an ecstasy. I call it dancing with clay."

She met with Kelly's widow to get her input, just as she met with relatives of Clemente and others.

"When I do bigger projects, the family gets involved and I welcome that," she said.

Her dreams have changed over the years. She divorced without having children and has set aside hopes for becoming a professor, although she has taught at the University of Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts.

Her art has become her dream and her reality, and for that, she feels blessed.

"I feel very fulfilled. I was given this gift for a reason and it's my way of giving something back," she said. "I'm making emotions tangible, and that's a good feeling."

Angela Boseman can be reached at aboseman@post-gazette.com.

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