Vahe Gregorian

The Bill Snyder represented in K-State sculpture exists in fans’ hearts

Artists derive much of their emotional sustenance from the joy and frustration and pain and reward and integrity of the work itself.

But that doesn’t mean they live in a vacuum.

“Sculpture isn’t a black and white success or failure, right?” Kansas City artist Spencer Schubert said in his studio last week. “It’s not like, ‘I passed the bar,’ or, ‘I won the case’ or ‘I saved the patient.’

“So it’s always, ‘I think I feel good about it,’ and it fluctuates.”

So Schubert felt anxious when Sharon Snyder, daughter Whitney and other family members recently visited his studio to view the final clay version of what would become an 8-foot, 1-ton bronze statue atop a 4-foot granite base that was unveiled Friday at Bill Snyder Family Stadium.

And Schubert will remember for the rest of his life what happened when Whitney saw it.

“It made me feel like I wanted to hug him,” Whitney Snyder Hydeman said next to the result on Friday. “I wanted to hug the statue.”

That there even was a statue erected of Snyder, as part of the new $90 million West Stadium Center addition, was improbable for a zillion reasons, including that Snyder’s name already is emblazoned on the stadium and a highway bears his name.

But mostly it was unlikely for the improbability of his taking a historically inept shambles of a program and chiseling it into a power (twice, no less) and because Snyder wouldn’t be apt to go for such silliness.

“Why would we do a thing like that?” K-State athletic director John Currie recalled Snyder saying last winter.

Too late, Coach, Currie told him: “We already made the deposit.”

The timing, of course, could have worked out better, considering K-State’s loss at the hands of North Dakota State on Friday night.

But if that was a stinging reminder of the perils of such recognition during a season, it was the slightest of blemishes on Snyder’s gleaming record.

There can be other dangers, too.

Currie and K-State, of course, weren’t oblivious to one chapter in the recent history of football coaches and monuments: the sad tale of the Joe Paterno statue being removed by Penn State amid the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

Few could imagine any safer character to immortalize than Paterno, and the lesson might be that if it involves a human being, it’s a statue of limitations.

“It would be incorrect to say that that thought didn’t cross our mind, but it was really never a serious thought,” Currie said. “It’s entirely a fitting tribute and very important for representing what our university is all about. And as he says: It’s not just about him but the whole family (represented by hand impressions on the base of the statue).

“This project would not be complete without having this tribute.”

Schubert specifically remembers being told by K-State that it isn’t seeking to create “false idols,” and he has had occasion to think about such things.

He declined to comment on the matter of Paterno, but Schubert has been faced with questions before about just what it means to seemingly deify a subject with his art.

His work for the Missouri Capitol includes busts of not only the generally admired Buck O’Neil and Dred Scott but also the controversial Rush Limbaugh.

Everyone from “The Colbert Report” to CNN to The Huffington Post called wanting to interview Schubert, and by his estimate 700 angry messages of some sort or another were delivered assuming he was an advocate of Limbaugh’s.

Engaging a subject, Schubert said, doesn’t mean you agree with everything the subject has ever been about.

“Really, I can only say that the sculpting of Rush Limbaugh has been great for the one thing I care about other than my family, which is my ability to sculpt more,” he said.

Despite all this, and the fact he’s a Kansas graduate, Schubert entered this project from a stance of admiration for the 73-year-old Snyder.

And Schubert’s prime directive was to convey Snyder’s aura as much or more, even, as every nuance possible in his stance and appearance, down to the logos and creases in his jacket and slacks that are maybe too big.

“Whatever that undefinable, ethereal spark is that is inside each one of us, it’s important to as much as possible pay tribute to that in a bronze monument,” Schubert said. “And that seems like a strange idea with this cold material, right?

“But it’s the difference between things like the little turn of a lip on a person, or the eyes. It’s all of the little things that have the effect, or don’t have the effect, of (the difference between) ‘Wow, that’s Bill Snyder’ or, ‘Yeah, that’s supposed to be Bill Snyder.’”

To discern those differences, Schubert wanted to understand Snyder as well as possible.

“The personality is hugely important: 50 percent of what makes a sculpture an actual likeness of a person are undefinable things that have nothing to do with the length of his femur,” he said. “Usually, people are dead, so there is no interview. You have to do the research and then invent your own. It’s almost like creating a character based on history.

“With people who are alive, ideally, I would interview a person.”

Snyder was humble and polite as can be, Schubert said, but, “There was, like, this wall that was not going to be penetrated, you know what I mean?”

So he requested K-State’s help for a more succinct snapshot.

“Would it be possible that I could bring my photographer down here and my turntable and, just 10 minutes of his time, have him stand on the turntable and just take 360 photographs, one at every degree?” he remembers asking. “And they just laughed.”

“At that point, I realized, I’m in charge of the research here.”

Then it struck him.

“He is clearly this huge, larger-than-life, beloved figure,” Schubert said. “And so maybe the more important personality that I need to represent is the one that’s in the hearts and minds of K-State nation, right?

“Because, really, this is for them. This is for the fans who are able to have pride in their football team because of what this man did; it’s not necessarily for him.”

So he read all he could about Snyder, including an autobiography, “They Said It Couldn’t Be Done,” spoke with family members and those who have worked with him, and immersed himself in photos and sketches of him.

What informed Schubert’s work ultimately were the impressions that Snyder is sincerely kind and warm, devoted to his family but single-minded of purpose professionally, so much so that he has no concern about anything that’s not on-point or that he can’t control.

“My feeling is that only to the extent that it matters to his mission is he interested in it,” Schubert said. “I think that’s the beauty and also the difficulty of (portraying) him.”

Ultimately, Schubert was choosing between three versions of the same familiar Snyder pose with his left hand on his hip, his game notes in his right hand at his side and an air of cool amid the chaos.

(On the premise that it would look clunky and actually distract from the essence of the art, omitted from the scene after some deliberation was the headset Snyder typically wears.)

“He’s very clearly unconcerned with whatever he’s doing (physically); he’s clearly focused on something totally outside of himself, which is a unique thing,” Schubert said. “He doesn’t care that he’s wearing worn-out shoes and slacks that are too big. He’s just really totally focused on the game.”

Then Schubert set about studying details such as how far out one leg stands from the other, where Snyder’s weight leaned, whether an arm was out over the leg.

“Body geometry is a very important thing in monumental sculpture. I think a lot of people just assume, ‘Oh, a body is a body is a body, you’ve got all the pieces right there,’” he said. “But, really, if it was stiffer (or otherwise off), then all of a sudden it’s not Bill Snyder.

“And the whole equation for me is this fine line between making this piece of clay, and then piece of bronze, look like a person. Clearly enough that it’s, like, there’s no question about the craft but not so much that it’s disconcerting, right?”

Speaking of disconcerting, the deadline was so expedited that Schubert didn’t want to even speak about how fast he did the work.

But the contract, commissioned through consultant Paul Dorrell of the Leopold Gallery, was signed in January.

And from the first maquette, a French word for scale model, to the casting at Ad Astra Art Bronze Inc. in Lawrence, of all places, to the installation Wednesday, Schubert was consumed with the making of it.

“I’d find myself working, but also, like, standing in this pose and hunching my back and trying to (feel it),” he said. “It was very much like I’m trying to sculpt this guy from the inside out.”

As for from the outside in, Currie pronounced it “perfect.”

But maybe Whitney Snyder Hydeman said it best.

Twenty or 30 years from now when her father is gone, she’ll have a place to go where she can feel his presence.

“I’m going to climb up there,” she said, “and hug it.”