Bronze comes to life at the hands of Key Pen artist


Karen Lovett, KP News

Paul Michaels has worked with many mediums, including wood carving and bronze. He poses in his home with one of his works, a carousel horse. Photo by Karen Lovett, KP News

If you’ve ever been to the ballpark at Cheney Stadium and noticed the smiling face of Ben Cheney seated in the stands, or better yet, been photographed sitting next to the life-size bronze statue, you may not have known you were viewing the creation of local artist, Paul R. Michaels.

Michaels grew up in Tacoma and focused on fine arts at Wilson High School. He holds a BA in Fine Arts from Washington State University where one of his specialized mediums was bronze.

After graduation, Michaels said he lacked the nerve to pursue a career in the field of art. Instead, he worked in a lime plant on the Tacoma tide flats for 15 years while creating projects for his own pleasure. Eventually, he carved a couple of wooden carousel horses and over the next four or five years, sold a dozen of them.

Nineteen years ago, he quit his job and began a full-time art career, just after he and his wife purchased land on the Key Peninsula. He built a gazebo and shop and gradually developed the land. The house they live in features antique woodwork he salvaged from a 1924 era apartment building.

His favorite material is bronze, and he has been working in that medium for the past 12 years. In that time he has made four large public statues and has been commissioned to create a couple of busts.

Many of his smaller plaques and statues can be found around Western Washington.  Michaels said, “It takes three to six months to sculpt a large image. Working from photographs, I make a Marquette (clay model), for life-size, a two-foot rough image.”

He makes a metal framework (skeleton) on a rolling cart, and then applies oil-based clay until it looks like the desired image to make the mold. Finer detail can be added at the wax reproduction stage.

Wax is harder than clay, so more precise detail can be made in the wax. Rubber is molded over the clay and lost wax is poured in at a thickness of ¼ inch. Plaster is molded around the wax. The wax is burned away, hence the name “lost”.

Bronze is poured into the mold in the space formerly filled by the wax. Large pieces are done in sections and are welded together later. Bronze is coated with wax to protect the patina.  Casting the bronze is done at a factory and takes another three to six months for a large sculpture. The factory in Tacoma closed so now the nearest one is located in Portland.

If the statue is not unique, the mold can be used many times. Limited numbered editions sell for larger sums than mass productions.  Michaels said, “I like to add fun details. Ben Cheney liked the number 24, so I added the number 24 to his seat. The logo for the Cheney Studs kid’s teams is on the pocket of his statue. The statue of Allen C. Mason in north Tacoma has cigars in his pocket.”

Michaels is waiting for warmer weather to resume carving on 34-foot totem pole. The pole is cut in half and is hollow on the inside.  His museum-quality shop contains a vast assortment of antiques. Logging tools, saws and machinery and a lesser number of nautical paraphernalia dangle from the ceiling and cover the walls. He is restoring the ship’s wheelhouse of the 1913 Halibut Schooner.  The wheelhouse will join other restored artifacts and cases at the Willapa Seaport Museum, Raymond, Wash.  The statue of Ben Cheney at the Ballpark was installed in Cheney stadium in 1996.  His work is also featured at Ruston Way in Tacoma, where Sawmill Markers were installed from 2003-2006; The Top of the Ocean Monument was installed on the Shoreline of old Tacoma in 2007; a statue of Allen C. Mason was installed on the grounds of the Wheelock Library on the corner of N. 26th and Adams in 2008, and bronze wolf tracks were set in the sidewalk at Albertson’s grocery in Port Orchard.

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