Calvin Johnson’s HOF bust almost complete: ‘I’m beating myself up trying to get it right’

Detroit Free Press

Ben Hammond was a high school senior in the rural town of Pingree, Idaho, when his art teacher saw his affinity for sculpture and arranged an opportunity for him to visit the studio of a friend’s son who had made a career out of the artwork.

When the sports-mad Hammond arrived at Blair Buswell’s studio, he was greeted by a monument of NBA legend Oscar Robertson and saw the busts of NFL players Terry Bradshaw and O.J. Simpson sitting on a shelf.

“I’m just like, ‘Holy cow, do you do busts for the Pro Football Hall of Fame?’” Hammond recalled saying. “He’s like, ‘Yeah I do.’ I’m looking and I’m just like, ‘Wow, you’re not a starving artist. You have a studio, you have a home and you have cars and stuff like that.’ So that was when it opened my mind. I’m just like, ‘Wow you can actually make a living doing (this).’”

Hammond and Buswell struck up a friendship, and after Hammond got a job at a local foundry — where he learned the process of bronze casting — Buswell asked him to help with an odd job.

For the next six years, Hammond apprenticed under Buswell, one of the nation’s most renown sculptors, and in 2007, Buswell, the Hall of Fame’s chief sculptor, tasked Hammond with doing his first bust: Cleveland Browns guard Gene Hickerson, one of the lead blockers for legendary running back Jim Brown.

Hammond has done more than 40 Hall-of-Fame busts in the past 14 years, including Terrell Davis, Marvin Harrison and Emmitt Smith. He spent a day in Michigan earlier this month working on the bust of Detroit Lions great Calvin Johnson, which is due to be finished this week.

Johnson’s bust is one of three Hammond is doing as part of this year’s Hall of Fame class, along with Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Alan Faneca and Steelers scout Bill Nunn. He spent about 30 minutes with the Free Press this week talking about the process, his art and working with Johnson.

Some questions and answers have been condensed for brevity.

What is the process you go through when creating a bust?

“So what happens first is when they’re announced, they’ll usually go to the Super Bowl and get measured. And Blair will take those measurements at the Super Bowl, some skull measurements, so when I get assigned who I’m going to sculpt, I’ll get that measurement sheet and I’ll do kind of a rough block in with those measurements of the individual. Once I’m done with that, I schedule a time for the inductee to come to my studio. If they can’t come to my studio, like in the case of Calvin I went out to Detroit, which is always hard. You have to ship the bust and everything like that. It’s always kind of stressful to have the bust go on the airplane, in the belly of the airplane and hope it doesn’t like get thrown all over or something like that. But I’ve only had a couple damaged.

“But anyways, then I set up shop at the inductee’s home and have him sit for me. It’s just boring. It’s eight hours of just kind of sitting still. The nice thing is it’s not like an oil painting where they have to just hold the exact head just at the right angle or anything like that. I need them to move around and it’s nice when they get up and talk to me and get close. I’m also trying to capture their personality, too, while they’re there and visiting with them, getting to know them a little bit better. But the posing sessions, sometimes by the end of it, it’s not like I have it nailed. It definitely looks better after they pose for me, but more than anything it’s for me to physically see the individual. And once I physically see them, I take what I learn from that, I take some HD video and then I go back to my studio and then the real hard work begins to really refine it and get it right.”

How long did your session with Johnson last?

“Eight hours, it’s good. I mean, after standing there for eight hours, I’m done. I’m about done. This year, Faneca, he came out and man, he was there for almost 12 hours because his wife and kids came out and they just hit it off so well with my family. We all had kids the same age and we could never find our wives or the kids, so he’s like, ‘Well, I’m here, I might as well just keep posing for you.’”

Calvin shared some pictures on social media, including one of his son helping to sculpt. Was he helping form the actual bust?

“The best lighting ended up being kind of in the kid’s playroom, in his play area, so he was there, all of his toys were there, so he’s driving around. And people with kids are always worried, they’re like, ‘Oh, he’s hitting my legs and riding his truck into my feet.’ I’m like, ‘I have four kids, that doesn’t bother me at all.’ I would do anything for my teenagers to be 3 years old again where they were actually nicer and didn’t hate their parents.

“But yeah, anyways, so he was just looking up and I could tell he was interested in it so I just picked him up and gave him some clay and I’m like, ‘Do you want to put this on?’ It was just really — it was really cute. I’ve done that a million times. My kids come to my studio all the time and I’ve got pictures of all my kids helping me on some monument or putting clay on something.”

Did you experience any cargo horror stories with Calvin’s bust?

“Nope. The Detroit Delta cargo gets my stamp of approval. They did just fine. The only Delta cargo that I would complain about is Philadelphia’s. Cause I’ve had two busts get damaged, both out of Philadelphia. So if anybody from Philadelphia Delta cargo reads this, just like, come on people. Don’t drop a crate when it says fragile on it.”

What was the best part of your experience doing Calvin’s bust?

“It’s interesting that now I’m sculpting people that are younger than me and that my kids know about. So that was kind of cool, like my kids are actually excited. When I’m sculpting Marvin Harrison or Gary Zimmerman or Terrell Davis, they’re kind of like, ‘I don’t even know who that is?’ And I’m like, ‘How do you not know how they are? These guys are awesome.’ But like when I sculpted Megatron, they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, Megatron, that’s so awesome.’ Like they’re a little more interested in what I do for a living now that I’m sculpting people that my kids know about, so that’s probably the best part about it.

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“The thing they’ll always ask like, ‘Oh my gosh, you got to spend eight hours with this guy? What is he like?’ And my answer is almost the same for every single Hall-of-Famer I’ve sculpted. It’s just like, they’re incredibly nice. They’re just good people. I don’t know if there’s some relationship with being a good human being and being successful enough to be in the Hall of Fame that you’re just — most of these guys are driven, they’re usually doing some other business on the side so they’re involved in something else. They’re usually just good, driven people, down-to-earth people. Most of the time we talk about this rising generation, nobody knows how to work hard. I think we kind of are old man on the porch. I think when you’re successful at anything it’s because you’ve worked hard at it.

What happens if you make a mistake while working on his bust?

“Well, you’re doing the original in clay, so it’s not like you’re carving it in marble and if you make a mistake it’s done. You do a very — I mean, you’re using water-based clay just like you do in a ceramics class. Sometimes you’re adding, sometimes you’re subtracting so you just build it up and sometimes you take off. Sometimes you’re carving, sometimes you’re adding. You’re just fixing, refining.

“With Calvin specifically, we’ve been going back and forth a little bit because he wanted a more tough, or like kind of an angry expression, and now we’re softening it up a little bit. He decided, I’d rather have it a little toned down. Not smile, but just an intensity instead of “way intense,” so that’s what we’re doing. It’s working with the person that’s most important to make happy, (that’s) Megatron. Make sure he’s happy with what I’m doing. And then secondary, I have to make sure that Blair is, he’s the head sculptor so he gives final approval. He’s been doing it the longest. He understands the artistic side of it, so that’s the secondary thing. So make the inductee happy and then between the artists. And really, it’s not like that’s — nobody’s a harder critic than the artists that are making it. We’re our own worst critics. I’m beating myself up trying to get it right.”

What happens after the sculpting session?

“So afterwards it’s just been sending images back and forth with him, trying to just get it right. I asked for feedback, like just this morning I sent a text that’s like, I think it looks good from the side, it looks good from three-quarters. There’s just something off on the straight on. Like is there anything jumping out at you? I have pretty thick skin. It’s not like, ‘I’m the artist, leave me alone.’ It’s like, ‘If you see something that’s off, let me know.’ So family, wives are always really great sounding boards. They’ll usually recognize what’s off a little bit.

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“It’s interesting. Sometimes Hall of Famers like feel bad like they shouldn’t critique the artwork and I try to make that clear it’s like, ‘No, this is your bust. I want to make sure you’re happy, so if something looks wrong, let me know and we’ll get it taken care of.’ The hardest part with Calvin is he’s got that cool longer hair, sort of like the Kid ‘n Play flattop thing going on right now and it’s like I want to sculpt that because it looks so cool with the shape of his head and everything, so artistically I want to add that on but he never had that hair when he played so I got to make sure it looks like it did when he played.”

What feedback has he given you about his bust?

“It’s mostly just been getting the eyes and the cheekbones. He’s got really distinct cheekbones. It’s like crazy, I don’t know how to describe it. It’s just unique. It’s just like everybody’s head is so unique, and that’s the thing about sculpting portraits is you have to kind of, every time you sculpt someone you have to kind of forget what you know about the human head and start from scratch each time and be like, OK, what makes this person look like them?

“And that always starts with the skull, so I always have to break it down and kind of imagine the person without any flesh on their face and like, OK, what does your skull really, really look like? So with him, it’s been that refinement. It’s just like, I keep thinking it’s wrong and he’s like, ‘Ah, something still seems off at the cheekbone,’ and sure enough, yeah, I didn’t have it right. And other times I’ll just like nail it like right on, like after they pose for me.”

How many hours total will you spend on Calvin’s bust?

“The whole process where I’m actually touching, putting clay on the bust and refining it’s anywhere from 50 to 80 hours just depending on — it can be a big difference. Sometimes I’ll struggle. Like Calvin’s been a little bit more of a struggle for me, so Alan Faneca went really smooth. Bill Nunn was the other one I did this year. That was a posthumous bust, so I didn’t have him pose for me so that’s a whole different process. So yeah, sometimes they go swell, sometimes it’s more work.

“I even told Calvin, I’m like, cause it wasn’t looking super great when we were done working. I was like, ‘I didn’t have my best game today but I’m going to get this right so don’t worry.’ He’s like, ‘Well, it already looks way better.’ But I’m like yeah, sometimes I can get this even better. Like I said, I’m my own worst critic. I want it to be awesome all the time and sometimes it just can’t be awesome in that moment.”

The induction ceremony is in August. What’s your deadline for finishing the bust?

“Basically the end of May’s usually when I’m done with all the busts. Faneca’s actually getting molded right now. Bill Nunn’s already been molded and actually, I had to do him early so he’s actually on display at the Hall of Fame already. And so Calvin’s really close. Once I give final approval in the next — I think we’re almost there. Within the next 24 hours I’ll be done and then it goes to get molded and once it’s molded, it gets sent to the foundry, the mold does. And then it gets cast in bronze.

“That’s what’s funny, when people are like, ‘So what do you do after you make a mold?’ It’s like, ‘Well, I actually just let it sit in my studio and dry out and then I break it off and start next year’s. So Calvin actually, his bust was, last year he was Harold Carmichael. So Harold Carmichael was on that sculpture stand and then I just took my hammer and busted all the clay off and started again.”

How much pressure is there to sculpt a famous person’s face, someone whose images have been plastered in our minds for years now?

“The only pressure is first and foremost making the inductee happy. If they’re happy with the bust then I’m happy. There’s always going to be trolls on social media that are going to be like — I mean, I see it all the time, they’re like, ‘Bro, that doesn’t even look like him.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, you’re a moron. It actually looks just like him.’ So for me, it’s not — I know I can make it look like him and I know I can make them happy. Like, there’s not a single bust that gets displayed in the last 25 years in the Hall of Fame, and almost 40 years since Blair started doing it, that the inductee (does not give) their approval. They’re like, ‘Yep, I’m happy with it. That looks great.’

“And some people are obviously more picky or other people are just like, ‘Yeah, whatever it’s fine. It looks good.’ But for me, I don’t send it to get cast and bronzed until I’m like, ‘OK, yeah, this looks great. It looks like him.’ And there’s always things that I’m like, ‘Oh, I wish I would have changed that just a little bit.’ Or, ‘I could have fixed that.’ It’s never perfect, but that’s what makes it look awesome. I mean, even if they did an exact scan of the inductee and just cast that in bronze and put it in there, it doesn’t look the same as an artist’s hands manipulating.”

Describe Calvin as a subject.

“He’s been great. And I’m glad, like I said, it was hard to do a real mean-looking expression on his face cause my time with him, he wasn’t a mean person. He’s just a super nice guy. No, he’s been great to work with. Like I said, I don’t have a negative experience to speak of, not only with all the guys that I’ve sculpted but even the guys that I’ve had an opportunity to meet working with Blair and things like that.

“Everybody’s been really kind, and I’ve gone back to the Hall just once since I’ve started doing this and people that I’ve sculpted 10, 15 years ago come up and say, ‘Hey, Ben, thanks again for the great job you did on my bust. I love it. Thank you so much.’ I’ve gotten personal letters from inductees and those mean a lot to me. That means that I created something, I used my art to do something that not only am I proud of, but somebody else is really happy with.

What does it mean to you to be a little part of football history?

“It really is cool. Sometimes I forget how cool it is. Like I said, I’ve been back to Canton just a couple times and both times I’ve been like — I walk through the Hall of Bust and I’m like, ‘Oh, wow. I’ve done a lot of these.’ This is — my job is awesome. So, yeah, it’s great. It’s a great feeling. And it’s something that’s a little different. All the other jobs I do are more on the artistic side and have a different kind of fanfare when you’re doing monumental work.

“I mean, when you’re in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and it’s so much a part of American culture and it’s our game and stuff like that, it’s my favorite sport. I just love football. I mean, it’s pretty dang cool. How many people would like to have pictures with Emmitt Smith and I got to spend time staring at him and have him be like, ‘Quit looking at me so much.’ I’m like, ‘Sorry. It’s kind of my job.’”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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