"I had these nightmares," said Phillip Ratner. "The bronzes would be too small. Too big. Wouldn't fit through the door. But yesterday I walked into the lobby of the Statue of Liberty--and there they were!"
His whole face smiled.
"Imagine! My stuff in the most famous place in the world!"
Never was a sculptor so pursued by a project.
It has pursued him right into the U.S. Senate rotunda, where 20 of his pieces are being shown this week, through Saturday.
Three years ago Ratner's wife Mimi urged him to take some time out from his lucrative art career in stained glass, tapestries and vinyl sculptures. There was plenty of money, she said, and she had her income as executive director of the American Digestive Disease Society. Why didn't he try some sketching?
That spoke to him. For years he had been haunted by the great American saga of the Ellis Island immigrants. All four of his grandparents had come to Washington from Kiev (one grandfather was concertmaster of the National Symphony under Hans Kindler; there was Ratner's music store at 13th and G), so he started drawing immigrant scenes from old photos.
A few days later Eleanor Sreb of the American Folklife Center was talking with him about a set of his biblical lithographs that a friend had bought and donated to the Library of Congress. He mentioned the immigrant sketches. She got excited, sent him to Ross Holland at the National Park Service. Holland saw the sketches, got excited, sent him to David Moffitt at the Statue of Liberty.
And David Moffitt had a dream. He had always hoped to ring the lobby with sculptures that captured the spirit of the immigrants.
But there was no money.
A week later Ratner just happened to meet a man who took one look at the sketches and offered to donate the entire set of four-foot-high bronzes if he could add a small plaque honoring his immigrant parents.
By now slightly obsessed, the sculptor started work on 30 more pieces, smaller ones to go eventually into the refurbished Ellis Island hall. He brought his drawings to a party in Los Angeles. In an hour he had commitments for 12 pieces at $5,000 each.
Besides the eight bronzes in the statue lobby and the 30 on Ellis, there will be four life-size portrait sculptures in the statue's garden on sites set aside for them in 1935. They will portray Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, the Statue of Liberty's sculptor; Gustav Eiffel, the engineer; Joseph Pulitzer, the money man, and Emma Lazarus, the poet of the immigrants.
"The best thing for us at the National Park Service," said Holland, "is that it isn't costing the government a penny. But after all, that's how the Statue of Liberty came to us, too: paid for by the people of France."
Meanwhile, the small pieces will tour the country for the next year or two to raise money for Ellis Island, and a book of lithos and photos will be published soon. Last week Ratner presented a copy to President Reagan at the White House.
The sketches on which they are based have an appealing energy. Ratner dashed off "about a thousand for the 39 I kept." They show the world of the immigrants: family groups, brave solitary children ("we have four children ourselves"), fruit vendors, organ grinders, newsboys, necktie sellers, an Ellis Island three-tiered bed, the old people, the young couples dancing while they await processing ("I found this old piano at Ellis . . . "), the laundresses and dockworkers, the forlorn ones sitting on trunks, the sleek first-class passengers ("oh yes, not all the immigrants came in steerage"), the pregnant, the weary and the just-born.
Who is Phillip Ratner, anyway?
"I'm a Washington boy, born here 45 years ago. I sold shoes at the Mary Jane stores downtown when I was 14 years old. After I got out of Pratt Art Institute I spent four years in New York but came back. Everyone told me this was no place for an artist."
After getting his M.A. at American University he went to Anacostia High as an art teacher. Stayed for 20 years. It was only in '79 that he broke away to work full time on a career that now threatens to get ahead of him. He lives in Potomac now.
"I have as much work as I can handle. And it's just starting. My next thing is a major commission for a sculpture garden in Jerusalem commemorating the Torah."
Though he has never put much stock in galleries, shows and the conventional art scene, he has a knack for getting his work shown. His sculpture portrait of the Warren Supreme Court found its way onto postcards published by National Geographic. His life-size Holocaust memorial and a stained glass Ark of the Covenant are among his several landmarks at suburban churches and shopping centers.
He works in vinyl, soft as clay, which he daubs onto welded steel armatures, bakes in a low-fire kiln and coats with bronze paint. "You really can't tell it from bronze, but it's much lighter." The figures are elongated, sometimes 12 heads tall, to give them a monumental, heroic cast, but they are not at all like the skeletal people of Giacometti, whom Ratner admires. They are character studies, the expressions suggested with a few skillful pinchings. They recall Daumier the most.
"I'm good, I'm very good, but a lot of others are too who aren't recognized, and some terrible artists who are. It's not luck but grace, a blessing. What you need to make it are talent, grace--and a couple of millionaires."