What do you give a man who’s trying to convince humanity that it doesn’t need to have everything?
It turns out you give him something recycled. One of the gifts President Obama presented to Pope Francis on Wednesday is a stainless-steel sculpture of a dove that incorporates a sinuous iron bar from the Statue of Liberty’s original armature. (The president also presented the pope with a key from the Maryland home of Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first native-born American to be declared a saint.)
The avian artwork was created by sculptor Zachary Oxman of Bethesda, Md. In late August, the 47-year-old artist received a phone call from the State Department’s protocol office asking whether he would be interested in creating an official U.S. gift for the pontiff. And would he like to use something that once was part of Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s massive statue in New York Harbor?
“It’s a pretty incredible piece of history,” Oxman said of the three-foot-long iron bar, a relic of Liberty’s supporting structure, which was designed by Gustav Eiffel. It had been removed and replaced during the statue’s centennial restoration.
“It takes a moment to sink in,” Oxman said. “It’s just the thought of the hands that created this bar. Bartholdi did the Statue of Liberty and Gustav Eiffel [designed the armature]. They were involved with it personally. And here is a sculptor given the opportunity to, not change it or melt it down, but to add to it, to give it this other life.”
Oxman is accustomed to famous customers. He designed menorahs that were used in the Clinton White House. A seder plate he created was a White House gift to Israeli statesman Shimon Peres.
Yes, the artist who created one of the official U.S. gifts for his holiness is Jewish.
Oxman said he can see the irony in that, but he thinks that Pope Francis transcends religious affiliation.
“He is a pope that, even as a Jew, you connect with his message,” Oxman said. “His message is a very universal message, which is part of his amazing appeal. . . . And, quite honestly, I’ve had many non-Jewish, Christian people who absolutely connect with my work.”
Oxman had to work fast. He was called by the State Department on the last Friday in August and given the Statue of Liberty bar the next day. By the following Monday, he had sketched a design and refined it in a 3-D computer modeling program.
Oxman’s work runs the gamut from small, door-frame-mounted cases for holding mezuzahs (pieces of parchment inscribed with Torah verses) to a 125-foot-long piece of public art unveiled in June in the District’s Shaw neighborhood. The curving iron bar that is the new sculpture’s centerpiece once supported a section of Liberty’s billowing copper fabric. It was like a doodle from which Oxman had to extract meaning.
Oxman decided against cutting the bar or reworking it in any way. He didn’t even want to heat it too much by welding something onto it, fearful that the bar might lose some of the rich patina it had acquired over 130 years: rusty brown with dabs of orange and white paint.
When positioned vertically, the bar reminded Oxman of the path a bird might take when launching itself into the air. He decided to adorn the bar with a stylized dove, a motif that has figured in some of his works.
“It’s such a significant symbol of Catholicism, and it’s used universally for a symbol of peace,” he said.
Oxman set to work shaping the parts of the dove in wax. He dipped them in a solution of liquid ceramic that when fired in a kiln became the molds. Molten stainless steel was poured into the molds at a foundry in Pennsylvania. The process — called lost-wax casting — has been used by artists for centuries.
Last Friday, three days before he had to deliver the sculpture, Oxman stood with a reporter in his studio, a former auto body shop by the railroad tracks in a Rockville, Md., industrial park. The artwork’s tail section and body section had been affixed to the iron bar with screws. The rough surfaces of the two wings still needed to be ground down and buffed to a sheen before being put in place.
Oxman said he had been too busy fashioning the sculpture to spend much time thinking about its famous recipient, which is probably a good thing.
“It almost can overwhelm you,” he said of what may be his highest-profile work. “That’s probably why I keep myself from going there. It’s really hard to put it into words. When I really step back and think about what was in my hands, what I’m doing, what I’ve been given the opportunity to do — and with such freedom — it’s powerful, it’s amazing. It’s so many emotions. It really is. It’s humbling beyond belief.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.