Sculptor Ray Kaskey is near the end of his odyssey, not to mention his tether. Standing in a Northeast Washington warehouse, he is supervising the final stages of what has taken almost three years and cost $165,000 thus far: creation of "Portlandia," a nine-ton beaten-copper statue now lying in seven heavy pieces awaiting transport to Portland, Ore.
When the Portland Arts Commission gave Kaskey $198,000 in 1982 to make the multiton beauty, a sort of Portland Statue of Liberty, he was "elated. It was the biggest thing in my life up to date."
Now, even amid the spiritual jungles of postcreative letdown, "it still won't go away."
Kaskey might as well have been assigned the 12 labors of Hercules. Since 1982, the 42-year-old sculptor/architect has contended with bureaucracy, administration, management, insurance, labor costs, setbacks, enormous transportation costs and construction problems that might boggle a skyscraper contractor.
"The logistics of it -- it's like a war. Just when you think you're on top of everything . . . " He trails off.
In Kaskey's world, where art and industry go hand in hand, "it's been about 60-40 industry, but since last summer, 100 percent industry. We've been hammering the copper, cleaning the welds, painting the steel, making the struts.
"It has not been as much fun (as the actual sculpting). But solving problems, if you do it with a certain elegance, can be satisfying."
Nevertheless, Kaskey, whom Hercules could have tossed across the Aegean like an undersized discus, is closing in on Labor 12. After the big journey west, "Portlandia" will be assembled for the first time. "The proof of the pudding will be in Portland."
The people of Portland will find that, as copper maidens go, "Portlandia's" a big one. If she were to rise from her permanent crouch she would stand more than 50 feet. One of her fingers is the size of your thigh. When assembled, she will hold a 500-pound, 32-foot-long trident. A foot that would squash a Datsun cools its heel at the edge of the work space, the big toe delicately curled down, gripping its "rock" surface.
"She symbolizes sea trade," says Kaskey. The statue is inspired by the city seal of Portland, which contains the image of a woman holding a trident. Behind Kaskey, "Portlandia's" head sits in a corner, the dull copper eyes gazing impassively into a curtain of polyurethane. By September she will gaze benevolently on businessmen and city officials from above the entrance to the municipal arts building on Portland's Fifth Avenue.
Catherine Gleason, public arts program manager for Portland's Metropolitan Arts Commission, says the woman on the city seal was called Lady Commerce when she was created a century ago.
"She stood by a river and looks like one of these ancient fertility figures, like Demeter or something. She's a translation of 19th-century industrial optimism." Michael Graves, the architect who designed the municipal building, dubbed the woman Portlandia and the name stuck.
"Peter, one thing we don't want to forget is to shave the bevel," Kaskey tells an assistant who is nailing together two-by-fours. A shaft of sunlight pours through the skylight on Kaskey and his three assistants as they continue the slow process of mounting Portlandia's limbs and sections of billowing cape onto wooden platforms. Conversation is punctuated by screaming drills, howling chain saws and banging hammers. The smell of newly-sawed wood mingles with the metal-musty scent of copper.
Kaskey walks outside the "studio" to where pieces of a smaller, plaster-cast "Portlandia" lie unceremoniously in trash cans, a white foot looming from one receptacle.
"I have to pack my whole life and move it to Portland," says Kaskey, who looks slimmer than a hungry artist. His eyes dart skyward when he talks, intensity warring with repose (and maybe resignation) beneath a heavy rumpled headful of graying curly hair.
The whole point of this piece of art, he says, "is sculpting at the full size, rather than fabricating or casting. I think that's what makes for sculptural interest.
"The whole pose is a play on historic forms. The idea was to take familiar classical body parts and mash them together and force you to see them in a new way. The drapery is totally abstract. You'll find if you look at it that it's physically impossible -- it dies right into the skin. It would have to be sewn on to get that shape."
The fanfare in Portland should be considerable. "Portlandia" has become something of a cause ce'le bre in the city before even setting her Brobdingnagian foot there. Last year, an article about Kaskey in The Oregonian put the sculptor's budgetary plight rather bluntly. "I was ready to give up this winter," he says. "I told [The Oregonian] I'd go bankrupt if I didn't get help."
"There has been a tremendous outpouring of support for him," says Gleason. The Portland City Council set up a trust fund for contributions. Donations poured in from such diverse sources as Mayor Bud Clark ($250), an elementary school that launched a paper recycling drive ($500), the Eleanor Lieber Charitable Trust, which gave $10,000, and an Arkansas woman who sent in $10.
Yet, even with the help, Kaskey figures he still needs $24,000 to cover statue-installation and living expenses in Portland, as well as other windup costs. He estimates he has paid his four assistants almost $70,000 for help with "Portlandia." He recently took out a second bank loan to improve cash flow.
"I've paid myself a salary of about $24,000 for three years of work," says Kaskey. "My wife and I are the biggest donors to the City of Portland."
Donated services and materials have come in abundance from Georgia-Pacific Corp., which donated wood for framing and packing, to Southern Pacific, which, with help from CSX (the Chessie System), will railroad "Portlandia" across the country free..
Kaskey will be given a warehouse, gratis, to assemble "Portlandia," as well as free cranes and welding equipment. A helicopter company has offered to airlift the statue ("with FAA approval," says Gleason) along the Willamette River to Waterfront Park, where a trailer company will give her the final ride to the municipal building (not to mention a hop over to the train in Washington at the start of the journey). Kaskey also has been given a pricey electrostatic filter to clean the warehouse air of hazardous fumes.
"Everybody's been very sympathetic," says Kaskey. "There's been an interest in terms of the statue's imagery and the use of the hammered-copper technique. There haven't been a lot of pieces done this way since the Statue of Liberty. It's caught people's fancy."
The technique "we had to reinvent for ourselves," says Kaskey. The work "turned into a major manufacturing job. There weren't any options, you just put your head down and kept on working."
Kaskey used a customized pointing machine (read $4,000) to scale up the statue. The intricate process involved following the contours of the first statue at one end of the machine, while the other arm inscribed an upscale outline on plywood. Kaskey then had to mount successive parallel layers of plywood to create a three-dimensional figure, "like building a sandwich."
He then hammered the copper plates against the wooden shapes. The job took a year. Then came the riveting, the welding, the brazing. And now, the pieces. "It was a nightmare . . . There were times where we really didn't know if it could be done. But I think if it had been made or fabricated in a more conventional way, it wouldn't look as sculptured. Every inch has been considered, as to form, texture and how it all goes together. You make a lot of visual decisions that wouldn't occur if you turned it over to other people to fabricate it."
There were some breakthrough moments. Perhaps the most significant was in creating the statue's inner support. Kaskey had intended to imitate the method used by the Statue of Liberty, "with iron straps next to the skin, following the contour on the inside. But my inventor and guru, [Yale architecture professor] Kent Bloomer, dissuaded me." Instead, working with a building firm, Kaskey devised a scaffolding network of steel struts inside the figure.
Kaskey remembers his relief "the first time we got the statue bottom together. We got a chain horse to rotate it so we could see it . . . It was the first time after a year and a half that we saw the whole thing from 360 degrees."
Have the labors affected his personal life? Has "Portlandia" come between him and his wife Sherry? Kaskey weighs his answer before speaking: "She's very thrilled at the breakthrough but, like me, she's tired of the turmoil . . . We'd see one another at dinner. I wouldn't say it hasn't been a difficult time. But we weathered it."
But the Big Phew! The Great Aah! -- when it will be all over -- is yet to come. Portland expects a September dedication ceremony for the statue.
"Once I get it to Portland, I think I'll be re-elated," says Kaskey. "But I plan to take off as much time as I can afford to recover from this."
And to ponder, like Sisyphus, the potentially endless task he may have begun: "Once you've done this kind of thing," he says, "that's what people ask you to do again."