Deconstructing Marilyn: Sculptor breaks down inspiration, creation behind Stamford statue
In life, she was about 5-foot, 6-inches, and taller with heels. In the 56 years since her death, Marilyn Monroe has only grown in stature — wielding a larger-than-life presence in pop culture and serving as a muse for numerous artists over the decades.
Sculptor Seward Johnson, 88, has directly channeled that mammoth influence in his statue “Forever Marilyn,” which has been spending her summer in Stamford at Latham Park. At 26-feet tall and 30,000 pounds, in one of her most famous poses, she is hard to miss. The statue recreates the scene from the 1955 film, “The Seven Year Itch,” when the actress stood atop a subway grate donned in a white dress with a billowy skirt. It didn’t take much of a breeze to kick it all up.
She joins more than 30 life-size sculptures situated in realistic poses throughout the city as part of an art exhibition, “Timeless — The Works of Seward Johnson.” This is a repeat appearance for the New Jersey sculptor, whose work has been featured in previous “Art in Public Places” series presented each summer by Stamford Downtown Special Services District.
Giant Marilyn is celebrity writ large, but there are many small decisions that went into making her — from her pearl earrings to the veins near her ankles. As we deconstruct Marilyn, Johnson shares his insights.
“The sculpture was originally created in life-scale and then made monumental. So I had an opportunity to work on her fine details when I was eye to eye with her,” Johnson says, by email. “I wanted to do things like make the earrings pearlized and the red toenail polish high gloss. Those are little things to convey something in the overall piece. There are some nice veins near her ankle that people do enjoy.”
The pose, while iconic, had to work as a statue. When dealing with the human figure, it has to look as if the weight balance would work. “I have to think about where the hips go that make the two legs and two feet support the body. We do this naturally as we move about, but making it work with a sculpted figure can be tricky.”
Johnson certainly has had his practice. More than 450 of his life-size cast bronze figures are in private collections and museums around the world, according to the Hamilton, New Jersey-based Seward Johnson Atelier. He has enlarged some of these works to large-scale depictions, exploring additional themes. He muses on how scale might effect sensuality in “Forever Marilyn.” His mammoth “Crossing Paths,” which features two older ladies sitting on a public bench, moves them from being part of the scenery to being the scenery itself.
“Whenever scale becomes an element of the composition EVERYTHING changes,” he writes. “The perspective from the viewer’s position is, of course, one of these things, but also how the image is perceived. (In “Crossing Paths) if they stood up, they would be 40 feet tall. And one reason that I made this piece was to play with the use of scale and how these “innocent” little ladies came to have great power and strength when towering above all of us. I loved how it made the new statement for the subjects.”
The time to share perceptions and statements will soon be over, however. “Forever Marilyn,” as well as her smaller cast cousins, depart after Labor Day.
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“Forever Marilyn” comes in five parts — her legs, her arms and torso, her skirt and parts of a base.
When traveling overseas, it resides in a shipping container. For U.S. travel (it came to Stamford from Seward Johnson’s Hamilton, N.J., studio), the parts are tied down on an open, flatbed truck.
The statue has spent time in Chicago (where it debuted); Bendigo, Australia; Palm Springs, California; Stamford; and New Jersey. A replica “Marilyn,” is permanently situated in Dalian, China.
It’s made to be outdoors, but is touched up between visits.