Q&A: Francisco Sotomayor has captured the "American Woman" in all her marble glory

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When we think back to the ideal of the true American Dream, images of freedom and the great frontier contribute to the Manifest Destiny that shaped our country. Artist, sculptor and Colorado native Francisco Sotomayor combined that revolutionary mindset with imagery from American culture to form his most monumental piece: "American Woman." Seriously, it's monumental. Carved from a 21-ton block of white marble, Sotomayor's "Woman" depicts a lovely lady lounging atop a grand piano. Weighing about 10,000 pounds, this gorgeous gal has been touring the country, so far traveling more than 28,000 miles and stopping in 46 cities and venues.

But "American Woman" doesn't end with Manifest Destiny. Sotomayor also wants her to be shared and experienced by the entire country. During shows, he signs three-inch chunks of marble from the original block so visitors can return home with a piece of the "American Woman."

And although the sculpture won't be returning to Colorado anytime soon, there's no better time to celebrate the piece than on Colorado Day, when we mark our state's 136th birthday and its admittance as the 38th state of the Union.

Westword spoke with Sotomayor in more detail about his patriotic lady.

See Also: --Written in stone --Richard Vincent and his 16th Street Mall sculpture now a memory --Photos: International Snow Sculpture Championships in Breck --Photos: 2012 Cherry Creek Arts Festival

Westword: What was your original idea for this project?

Francisco Sotomayor: Years before I started the sculpture, I had seen movies with Michelle Pfeiffer, like the Fabulous Baker Boys when she gets on a fabulous piano, and other singers like Madonna on a piano. As an artist, I thought it was just a gorgeous composition. If I could figure out the engineering to put 10,000 pounds on three legs and make it easy and safe to move about the country, I would.

How did the name come about?

It's an American sculpture because it captures a signature of our country. When I was carving it, the title was not "American Woman," and then I realized I was truly capturing what the American woman meant to me. As a 56-year-old artist, I was influenced by Marilyn Monroe and Michele Pfeiffer as a full-figured woman on top of a concert grand piano. That's why she's been appreciated -- because you see her not as a runway model, but as a real woman. Another reason it's called "American Woman" is because six models posed for this one sculpture, so it can't be recognized as one woman, but as the best parts of all the women. Women around the country can see a little bit of themselves in the face or figure. It's not just a celebrity, but an icon of a multitude of women.

When and how did this project finally start?

The sculpture started in 2001 as a carving and was finished in 2003. The thought process before that was probably another half a dozen years thinking about it, acquiring the stone and finding the quarry. I used Colorado marble from the Yule Marble Quarry. That block weighed 42,000 pounds, or 21 tons, and it took them approximately six months to find because of my demanding specifications.

I looked for clarity and really good consistency with no fractures. Marble is metamorphic limestone that lays down in bedding like the ocean, which makes its strength. I had to make sure the grain patten was through the piano and not perpendicular for maximum strength. The wrong direction of bedding makes it five times weaker. Plus I needed the clarity of the stone to ensure the veins or distortion of imaging with the face of the "American Woman" herself. That's what I shot for as a sculptor was the face, and everything else follows in a top-down method. A documentary was made showing the progression of the sculpture. I started with the head and face, which gave me the correct proportions for the rest of the piece.

How do you manage to move "American Woman"?

The engineering was the greatest problem because of the weight. You don't know how many architects and engineers come and tell me you can't do it. They think I've hollowed it out or something.

Marble weighs a lot; one cubic foot weighs about 170 pounds. The piece is solid from the bottom of the piano to the top of the head, and the woman herself weighs about 900 pounds, and the rest is all in the piano. Part of the engineering and solution to moving the piece was that the three legs had to be detachable for transport but solid enough to be stable and mobile. I used solid stainless steel rods down the center of each leg to take the pressure of 10,000 pounds away. Then that rod attaches to a plate at the bottom of the piano. I had a custom trailer made and a motorized cart that goes under the structure. It has incredible steerability to handle 10,000 pounds, dismantle the plate, attach the legs and lower the cart to settle into the legs. After that engineering happened, it takes about two hours to set up and has been to 46 cities and traveled over 28,000 miles. It's that mobile.

How much did the complete piece cost in terms of money as well as time?

The trailer itself was about $10,000. Then the cart was custom-made and engineered, which is a feat in itself, adds another $3,000 or $4,000. Fox News filmed the whole procedure, actually. I was sponsored by the quarry owner to a degree, but the block was about $10,000. An equivalent block without sponsors is about $30,000 or $40,000.

I would work sometimes all day and sometimes just several hours. When I created ","American Woman I owned a woodshop business that is my main bread and butter. I would work in the woodshop for six hours a day, then I'd work on the American Woman. It was made in three hours a day five days a week for two years for a total of about 1600 hours. Even at three hours a day you can create a sculpture of this magnitude. People say they don't have time, but I created the American Woman in my spare time.

What are you most proud of with your work?

The inclusion of the general public when I do these shows. Sponsors bring me to shows and supply the photographs, and I sign them and marble chips from the original block that have a flat side caused from my diamond saw. I typically date it and put your name, American Woman and Francisco. This is a defining point in history that proves I met this individual at this time and date. How important would it be if Michelangelo did that?

I've signed 35,000 chips. People line up for hours for that chip, not the photo, because that is something special to pass down to their children. That's why Sharpie is my sponsor now, so I sign every chip with a Sharpie marker. They've supplied about 10,000 markers that I also give away after about ten signings. We're pushing about 70,000 signatures total. I've signed chips for a couple at their 60th wedding anniversary, soldiers on tour, people who have passed away and unnamed babies in the womb. I will sign 1,000 chips a day, and I really enjoy it. It's fun and inspirational. I love communicating with the public through this very positive aspect. Plus the chips are like your Willie Wonka Golden Ticket to get into future debut events.

You are an artist of many trades. What is your favorite medium and why?

I would have to say marble sculpting. To me it's the highest of the art forms because you're bound by every stroke. There's very little room for error. A curator once told me it's like walking a tightrope without a net.

Because you're bound by the chisel, you can't make any mistakes, which is part of the challenge and excitement of carving. I would say a lot of my work is still old-school hand and chisel, and then new-age and high-tech tools allowed me to cause less vibration on the stone to make finer and finer moves. This was important in the eyelashes that really accentuate her face to give her more reality instead of a blank stare like sculptures have in the past. She's the first sculpture with eyelashes.

What sentimental value does the American Woman hold for you?

I have a certain attachment to it because of the six models that posed for it: One was my wife and three were my daughters. In a way, they are in the sculpture. Where do you want "American Woman" to end up?

Preferably she'll stay in America, in a public institution, to continually create a positive outlook for the public. I want it to stay in America because it's trying to capture the identity of the American woman in the 21st Century. It would be disheartening if a private owner bought it for their own viewing only.

Francisco Sotomayor's American Woman continues to tour the country. Visit his website to learn more about her construction or his other work.

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