Written in Stone

Francisco Sotomayor wants to 'Wow' the art world.

Sure, Michelangelo was a really, really good sculptor, Francisco Sotomayer says, but what made him special was the 'Wow' factor.

"It's a very simple rule. You look at the pyramids, and they make you say 'Wow!' You look at the accomplishments of Rome, and they make you say 'Wow!' You look at Michelangelo, and he makes you say 'Wow!' That's what separates good art from great art. Does it make you say 'Wow!' or not? When people come in here and see my work, pretty much only one word comes out of their mouths: 'Wow!'"

Even though he's completed only six sculptures, 45-year-old Francisco is not shy about the nickname "modern-day Michelangelo." Everyone calls him that, he says, from "people off the street to the critics to my fellow sculptors." In August, he'll even appear at Atlanta's High Museum to demonstrate marble sculpting at an exhibition featuring the Italian master.

"Once people see what I can do, it's the first word that comes off their tongue," Francisco says. "We're like a chip off the same block."

Until recently, Francisco also laid claim to having created the most expensive sculpture by a living artist: a $3.85 million study of two ballet dancers titled "Pas de Deux," which he priced himself. But in May, a gilded rendition of Michael Jackson and Bubbles the Chimp sold for $5.6 million. That doesn't worry Francisco, though. He says he'll bounce back.

"I want to bring art back to the American people," he says.

Francisco is the middle of three children born to a Puerto Rican drill sergeant and a German housewife. Although he took one art class in the tenth grade, his artistic career really took off in 1976, when he was studying creative writing at a community college in Colorado Springs. One day he noticed an art student struggling through a portrait of a man. Francisco asked, "Can't you see? His eyes are too far apart." The woman replied, "No, I can't. Maybe you should draw it." So Francisco picked up the pencil and went to work.

Not long afterward, Francisco realized he was better at drawing than writing and decided to switch majors. But in art school, he says, a teacher told him, "Your work is more advanced than I can teach you, so why don't you go in the corner and paint what you want to paint and draw what you want to draw?" Instead, Francisco dropped out. He returned home to Woodland Park, studied the masters and "pushed and pushed myself to see how far I could go."

Without formal instruction, Francisco developed his own techniques. Unlike many sculptors, for instance, he does not use a clay model; he works from drawings or photographs. And instead of roughing out a form before completing the details, Francisco finishes each element as he goes. "Since I had no one to teach me, I had to plunge myself into it and feel my way along," he explains. "But that's the beauty of my whole process. In art school they teach you how to do things one way. But sometimes you need a fresh mind and a fresh eye to come in and say, 'Why do it that way? Let's do it this way.'"

In 1987, when he decided to create the three-ton, life-sized "Pas de Deux," Francisco had completed only five sculptures: one from clay, one from plaster, two from wood and one from marble, none larger than five feet. "The best artists of the past put their best foot forward into marble," he says. "It has a timeless dimension to it and a natural bond to humans. It's just the coolest material around. There's no room for error. I was attracted by the challenge."

Two and a half years later, Francisco emerged victorious -- but "Pas de Deux" never left his studio. To attract attention to the piece, he entered the sculpture in a ten-day online Yahoo auction last summer. The first bid came in at $1.72 million, an Internet record. That same day, the price jumped again -- although by only ten dollars, Yahoo's minimum bid raise. "It was on ABC, NBC and CNN," Francisco says. "It spread unbelievably all over the country. Yahoo had a film crew out here and everything."

Then the bottom fell out.

The final bidder, a man from Arizona, never contacted Francisco about picking up the sculpture, much less paying for it. After Yahoo officials investigated and discovered that the bidder couldn't back up his offer; the company apologized to Francisco and changed its verification policy, but there was nothing more Yahoo could do. So Francisco contacted the original bidder, a man in West Virginia, but he'd changed his mind. His wife wanted an antique car instead.

"Some good came out of it," Francisco says. "It set a benchmark of what my art could be worth. It also brought my art before the public eye."

These days, though, not many eyes are seeing his work; it hasn't appeared in major art museums, exhibitions or publications. "Pas de Deux," as well as Francisco's paintings and drawings, are displayed primarily in his brother's gallery -- the B. Sotomayor Gallery, at 1955 West 35th Avenue -- and on Francisco's Web site (www.Franciscosfineart.com).

For the moment, Francisco says, he's content to have admirers wander in from the streets and on the Web. In fact, he insists, he prefers an audience of plumbers, housewives and schoolkids: Today's artists have lost touch with everyday people and everyday concerns.

"The modernism of today is just an -ism of the arts," he says. "The best artwork has to relate to an individual on a humanistic scale. Yes, a blue painting can be a blue painting, but it doesn't relate to an individual as more than just a blue painting. The beauty of my art is that the public can understand it without an explanation. My art approaches the American public in a way that is not this elitist mentality that needs an art critic to tell them why it's art. I'm a hardworking blue-collar individual. I'm down in the trenches working thousands of hours to complete a sculpture. People can relate to that. They can understand it. They work hard themselves. They want to see hard work. They want the 'Wow' factor."

And he plans to wow them some more with wholesome, romanticized studies of the human figure. Francisco's already well into his next piece, "American Woman." "It represents the epitome of the American woman at the 21st century," Francisco explains. "The kind of woman who wants big eyelashes, plucks her eyebrows and wants big puffy lips. What every woman wishes they could be. But I didn't want it to be Julia Roberts or a specific woman. I wanted it to be a composition of multiple women. A little bit of Madonna. A little bit of Marilyn Monroe. I didn't want it to be vulgar. She's not a Playboy bunny. She's not a modern-day stick of a model, either. She's a waitress. A blues singer. The girl next door."

Literally.

"The model used to live a few houses down," he says. "I made 32 drawings of her, and her pay was to pick one out."

Not only will "American Woman" surpass "Pas de Deux" in vision and design, he says, but it will present technical challenges as well, such as "balancing five tons of weight on three spindly legs." The figure will also include features never before seen in marble sculpture. "Eyelashes," Francisco says.

Once "American Woman" is completed, Francisco will leap into a "life-sized male figure leaning back on this really cool American bike," he says. "What it will represent is James Dean. Marlon Brando. Peter Fonda in Easy Rider. Arnold Scharzenegger in Terminator. He's going to have one hand on the throttle, and, like the David sculpture, he's going to be looking toward the future. It will be called 'American Bad Ass.'"

And like his other work, it will be done in the "Americana," style, he says. Or "neo-realism," or "American neo-realism," or "high American realism," or "just high-realistic marble sculpture."

"Or Americanism," says Mindy, Francisco's wife.

"Something like that."

"Or Americana-ism."

"There you go."

But no matter what you call his style, Francisco promises that plumbers, housewives and high school kids can count on finding one thing in his work: It will definitely have the "Wow" factor.

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