Sculpting History

Dayton, Ohio, sculptor Major
selected to create Madison statue

Mike Major is working on a Madison Bicentennial statue

(July 2018) – On a hot, sunny afternoon, Mike Major took a break from his work to talk about his love of art as a child and the development of his career. The 68-year-old artist is now renowned for his work as a sculptor.  As the breeze cooled the porch of his Indian Lake, Ohio, home, he reminisced about growing up in Pleasant Hill, Ohio, near Dayton. His school was small, with K-12 all in one building. There were no art classes. 
Recently, Major was selected as the winner of the competition to create a sculpture to commemorate the Madison, Ind., Bicentennial. Many proposals from different artists were reviewed by the Bicentennial Legacy Gift Committee as it searched for just the right interpretation of Madison’s key features and history. It all came together in the proposal from Major.

Photo provided

Clay models are pictured that sculptor Mike Major used to make an 11-foot-tall bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln that in 2015 was placed in downtown Dayton, Ohio. It was commissioned by The Lincoln Society of Dayton – founded to commemorate the anti-slavery speech delivered by Lincoln at the courthouse in downtown Dayton on Sept. 17, 1859. Major, who was born in Dayton and later attended the Dayton Art Institute.

For Major, the proposal represented the culmination of his previous connections developed as he had spent time visiting, drawing and studying Madison’s unique riverfront community. A 2007 framed drawing of the Milton-Madison Bridge and riverfront is still displayed near the Madison mayor’s office in City Hall.
As an elementary school student in the sixth grade, Major was able to travel from Pleasant Hill to Saturday art classes at the Dayton Art Institute. Everything about those classes was so interesting. He can still remember the smells of the art equipment and the different media. Both the instructors and his classmates were inspiring, he said. It was a wonderful environment for learning new things.
For example, while Major loved drawing, a new medium was the scratchboard. Using a scratchboard was the opposite of drawing, since the design is revealed by scratching through the medium with a sharp tool. These classroom experiences gave him the confidence to pursue an art career.
His art education continued at Ohio University. Soon he changed his focus from graphic design to studio art. He wanted an art career, not commercial art. His father thought he would never be able to support himself as an artist.
During graduate school at the Pratt Institute in New York in the 1970s and ’80s, he found a job in a publishing company using his graphic design skills. That early training later proved useful, even as he focused more intently on his art. Drawings progressed to paintings, then to printmaking in his master’s program.
The Ohio “artist in residence” program of the Ohio Arts Council was his first professional opportunity. It provided the two most important qualities: an income plus freedom. He had one year to launch as an artist. He enjoyed working with students, but the real benefit was the freedom. His program was renewed a second year, so the income and the freedom continued. He was recruited to become an art teacher. The job offered security, but after having two years of artistic freedom, he decided to take the risk of becoming a full-time artist. He knew it was the right time to take the risk and did not want to ever regret passing up the opportunity. 
That opportunity had a cost. “It was difficult for the first decade or two,” Major noted, “but when you have a vision that is exciting, if working hard is in your DNA, and the vision is in high definition, you will not let go.”
He survived during those years by doing drawings of Ohio communities and publishing those drawings in books. To control the quality of the books, he started his own printing firm. His prior publishing company experience during grad school proved useful at this point. The books included Ohio locations of such as Athens, Columbus and Ohio State, Delaware and Ohio Wesleyan University, Lancaster, Springfield and Urbana, as well as Champaign and Miami counties. He also created a book of drawings of Washington, D.C., and Georgetown.

Photo provided

Mike Major made this bronze bust of the late Ohio State University football coach Woody Hayes.

His first professional opportunity as a sculptor was the creation of Simon Kenton, the Great Frontiersman, considered the “Daniel Boone of the Northwest Territory.” That successful installation led to the creation of a bust of Woody Hayes, commissioned by the coach’s wife. A subsequent article about the Hayes sculpture in USA Today brought national attention that resulted in an opportunity at the Mayo Clinic.
The Sisters of St. Francis wanted to recognize Mother Alfred Moes, the determined nun who convinced Dr. William W. Mayo and his sons, Drs. William J. and Charles H. Mayo, to start a hospital, which led to the development of the Mayo Clinic. The 1883 tornado that had devastated the community of Rochester, Minn., resulted in sick and injured patients being housed in makeshift facilities as there was no hospital. Mother Moes assured the Mayos that she had a vision that their names would be nationally renowned if they agreed to help her start a hospital.
The need and her hope, energy and persistence convinced them to open St. Mary’s Hospital in 1889. Her story was an inspiring challenge for Major. As he worked on the sculpture, he experienced a new level of respect for his expertise as an artist. The architects even consulted with him as they designed the new main entrance at the Mayo Clinic. 
Sculptures of other famous figures, such as Jackie Robinson and Vince Lombardi came next. The demand grew for more and larger sculptures. In Springfield, Ohio, he created George Rogers Clark and other historic figures, over 8’ tall. Dayton commissioned an 11’ tall standing Abe Lincoln, as well as a 16’ tall seated Abe Lincoln. 
Working in his studio in Urbana, Ohio, the sculptures are created in bronze, using the lost wax process, which is very time-consuming and labor intensive. The resulting sculptures, however, are timeless, since bronze castings are considered to be the longest lasting of human creations.
It was a serendipitous meeting with Jan Vetrhus, chair of the Bicentennial Legacy Gift Committee, that first brought Major to Madison. Vetrhus met Major at an art education presentation in Portland, Ind. They began talking about sculptures for Madison at that time. Vetrhus said she was impressed with Major at that time.
“He was a breath of fresh air. He got it,” she recalled. “There is a business side to art that includes the cost to maintain public art.”
Major had been involved in restorations of historic sculptures, so he clearly understood the durability requirements of an external public sculpture. The discussions resulted in the brief art residency for Major in Madison in 2007.
Fast forward to the Madison Bicentennial project. Major entered the competition to create a commemorative sculpture for the city and was the unanimous choice of the committee. Recently, he presented his vision for the sculpture to members of the Madison Area Arts Alliance, the Madison-Jefferson County Public Library, and the Bicentennial Legacy Gift Committee, as well as other community members, at a June 6 reception at the library.  

It has been a long road to achieve the success as an artist that brought Major back to Madison, to the competition and to the winning entry. Reflecting on the challenges he has experienced throughout his career, his advice to aspiring artists is, “Never Stop. Persevere! Ninety-nine percent perspiration, 1 percent inspiration – Einstein.”

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