Benjamin Victor and his son Caleb, who is 12, walked briskly the other day from the White House to the U.S. Botanic Garden, on the Mall side of the Capitol. They arrived unflushed; Caleb is young and vital, and his father, 35, is clearly an athlete, with broad shoulders and a thin waist. But the journey was longer than they imagined.
“Phew,” Benjamin Victor said. “Made it."
Benjamin Victor is from Aberdeen, S.D., and is carrying a little pouch that houses a camera. He might be mistaken for millions of other tourists in cherry blossom season, but if Victor is a mere springtime visitor, he will leave a Washington legacy more enduring than most of the rest of us in this town. The work of guileless Benjamin Victor will be around long after we are forgotten.
In 2005, he sculpted the figure of a woman named Sarah Winnemucca, a Native American from Nevada, for the National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol. Tuesday, dignitaries will gather on the Hill to commemorate another of his works, the bronze sculpture of a man named Norman Borlaug.
Borlaug is not a household name, but he deserves to be. He was an Iowan, a Norwegian Lutheran of the Lake Wobegon mold: quiet, stubborn, intense. He bred strains of wheat that would endure in the Third World. He spent much of his life in Mexico, away from his family, so that he could develop varieties of wheat that would offer success to farmers working with challenging soil and climate. His model of agriculture — it is called the Green Revolution and looked upon warily by the local food gurus who hate industrialized anything — was adopted in India, Pakistan and other places. He believed that freedom from hunger equated to freedom from violence, and in 1970, he won the Nobel Peace Prize. He is credited with feeding and thus enabling the lives of one billion people.
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For Benjamin Victor, the competition started as yet another commission but soon became something far greater. He began to read about Borlaug and came to understand that Borlaug was as important to agriculture as, say, Charles Darwin was to our understanding of natural evolution or J. Robert Oppenheimer was to the atomic bomb.
Victor was one of 65 artists who submitted applications. Ken Quinn, who is director of the World Food Prize, based in Des Moines and which commissioned the statue, said Victor stood out for two reasons: One, he was a gifted figurative sculptor who brought Winnemucca to life in the Capitol, and, more important, he brought a passion to the persona of Norman Borlaug that could not be denied.
Victor admits that Borlaug, who lived from 1914 to 2009, got under his skin. Why would a young man who moved to Mexico and quickly became sick keep on breeding strains of wheat? Victor keeps asking this question.
Away from mountains, away from trees, the Plain States live with the wind. The wind is a player in life, a constant companion. It is a world unknown to Washington. Borlaug was a sculptor’s dream. He was trim and handsome, and when he moved out to the field, he was shaped by the wind.
Victor decided that Borlaug — part farmer, part genius hybridizer — would be sculpted by the wind. Victor put Borlaug’s hat on the back of his head and had the wind form diagonal creases in the trousers and shirt. Most of all, Victor decided, Borlaug would be a guy of the field, in clothes and demeanor, and then, only then, would he be a man of science, clutching his notebook.
Victor decided that Borlaug, even in his 60s, would be muscular, his forearm would be strong and have raised veins as he cradled a notebook. It would be of a guy who grabbed life. Victor thought of Michelangelo’s Moses, clutching the tablets.
Early in the commission, Victor found some farm clothes and stood in a field and got his assistant to take photographs all the way around.
In the two years it took to transform Borlaug into clay and then bronze, Victor was thinking constantly of what his subject did to make our world a better place. It didn’t hurt, Victor said, that Borlaug was a handsome guy.
Victor is handsome, too, garlanded by youth and a broad smile and hazel eyes and a shaved head that renders his skull sculptural. He is a native of California, but went east, young man, and in South Dakota and in D.C., he has discovered virtue and truth, a rare thing in this town.