Oysterponds students visit artist Bob Berks’ studio

05/31/2011 6:06 AM |

For many years, students from Oysterponds School have taken an annual field trip to the Orient studios of famed sculptor Bob Berks.

They went again last week, but it was far from just another visit.

Mr. Berks, whose portrait subjects included John F. Kennedy and Albert Einstein, died on May 16 at the age of 89. The next morning Tod Berks, the artist’s wife of 59 years, called teacher Donna Dunn to confirm the appointment with the students. She was determined to press forward with the studio tour, Ms. Dunn said.

“I wish we had done this a few months ago so we could have met him,” one student said during the tour.

The tour was timed to take place just before a class trip to Washington, D.C., where the students will visit Mr. Berks’ larger-than-life statue of the larger-than-life Albert Einstein.

Ms. Berks had sent a video that Ms. Dunn shared with the students showing how the Einstein sculpture was created.

Talking with the students last week at the studio, a former Oysterponds schoolhouse, Ms. Berks said she was actually married to two Mr. Berks. One was the sculptor the world knew. The other was the engineer in him, who brought to his work techniques necessary to convert a small model into a much larger statue and properly balance its pieces so they stand and stay together.

“His parents were artists and he was born with a gift,” she said.

Mr. Einstein posed for Mr. Berks for about five hours, Ms. Berks told students. Those sketches were the basis of the 22-foot sculpture on the grounds of the National Academy of Sciences.

She showed the students armatures — what she described as the bones of a body — that serve as the foundation of Mr. Berks’ sculptures. He created the armatures and placed pegs to guide him when he was ready to apply the clay.

He worked from a cherry picker lift that enabled him to work on various parts of the larger pieces, Ms. Berks said. And he used a turntable so he could face a piece in progress toward the sun or an overhead light when he worked at night, which she said was a frequent occurrence.

In addition to the Einstein piece, the students seemed mesmerized by a sculpture of Mr. Rogers, the former children’s television star. A smaller cherry picker used on that work now sits inside the Orient studio. Ms. Berks showed the students the molds her husband created for the Mr. Rogers piece.

She also showed them a 3D enlarger Mr. Berks created that enabled him to make a small model and then determine the dimensions required for a large sculpture.

“Bob was keen to make affordable portraits,” Ms. Berks said, showing off small statuettes of various famous people he has sculpted through the years, from which copies have been made.

She recounted various trips with her husband — to the White House for sittings with former President Lyndon Johnson and to Hawaii for sittings with former General William Westmoreland.

Abraham Lincoln clearly didn’t sit for her husband, Ms. Berks joked, but it didn’t stop Mr. Berks from creating that sculpture.

Walking around the studio, students recognized Arnold Schwarzenegger, but not President Ronald Reagan. They knew President Kennedy, but not presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman or Mr. Johnson.

What’s the future for the works, students wanted to know. A museum, Ms. Berks replied, “but that’s in the future.”

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