Henrico County VA

Shaping a legacy

Lakeside resident James Robertson (left) and Paul di Pasquale with their work-in-progress.


While downtown workers toil all around him in towering, climate-controlled high-rises of glass and steel, one Henrico man is spending his summer in a 120-year-old un-air-conditioned Shockoe Bottom warehouse, adjusting, smoothing, adding to and subtracting from what looks like a giant six-foot tall, two-ton mound of brown Playdoh.

But Playdoh – and play – the mound certainly is not.

In a matter of weeks, the large batch of clay will assume its final shape and travel to a foundry in New Mexico, where it will serve as a mold to be cast into a bronze memorial almost 20 feet in height.

In the spring, the statue will return to Virginia to be installed, with much fanfare, as the Virginia Beach Police Memorial. The three oversized figures topping the statue – symbolizing law enforcement officers from the Virginia Beach Police Department, the Sheriff’s Department and state and federal agencies – will anchor the northern end of the boardwalk and become the centerpiece of an annual observance for the Virginia Beach Police Foundation.

For world-renowned sculptor Paul di Pasquale, it will be the second of his creations to grace the Virginia Beach Boardwalk.

In 2003, di Pasquale submitted the winning model – out of 50 entries from around the world – for what would become the iconic King Neptune statue. (In 2010, he donated a smaller-scale model of his Neptune statue to the Cultural Arts Center in Glen Allen and it was installed near the entrance.)

And for 32-year-old James Robertson of Lakeside, assisting di Pasquale in such an endeavor has been a privilege and a one-of-a-kind learning experience.

Art comes to life
On a recent morning, Robertson began by removing layers of plastic that had covered the clay overnight after its “bedtime” moistening.

“We use about 20 gallons of water a day to keep it wet,” he said, gesturing toward a pump sprayer.

As di Pasquale went to work on details of an officer’s belt and accessories, Robertson began working on the figures’ clasping hands.

The interlocked hands symbolize the officers’ support for one another, while their free hands reach out to the citizens below, symbolizing their help to the community.

“Pretty soon, we’ll have to do a gun,” Robertson mused out loud as di Pasquale adjusted the dimensions of a canister of Mace.

Although the two men began sculpting in April, the design process began in 2009, when di Pasquale was approached by members of the Virginia Beach Police Foundation.

“They liked Neptune,” he said with a shrug and a smile.

For a year, di Pasquale met monthly with a committee while they finalized the design. The finished statue will have a hexagonal base that resembles the Cape Henry Lighthouse featured on the Virginia Beach seal; the officers, cast in bronze, will be two times life size.

Hindi math
Di Pasquale and Robertson first met when Robertson was a senior at James River High School, and the noted sculptor came to make a presentation to his art class.

Afterwards, the art teacher summoned di Pasquale to the studio to ask his advice about casting some figures sculpted by Robertson. On seeing his work, di Pasquale recalls that he was overwhelmed by Robertson’s talent.

“Here was this fabulous sculpture,” he said, “of figures you don’t see students trying.”

As for Robertson’s memory of the encounter, what stands out is that di Pasquale “had this confidence and air of expertise that really calmed me down. Just being in the presence of someone who knew what to do [was calming].”

Soon after, when Robertson read about di Pasquale’s work on the Arthur Ashe statue, he called to thank him for his inspiration.

“Thanks to you,” he told him, “I believe I can make a living at sculpture.”

Over the next few years, Robertson studied sculpture for awhile, then went to England to learn stone carving. After returning to Richmond, he started a business in masonry and historic preservation; among his projects were the restoration of the Lee Monument on Monument Avenue, and the installation of the Indian Garden Pavilion at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

“There were thousands of pieces of stone,” he recalled of the four years he worked with a team of conservators at VMFA to repair and reassemble the 19th-century pavilion. “One of the hardest parts was we had to translate the numbers and measurements – which were in Hindi.”

‘I love it all’
More than a decade later, it was Robertson’s talent for stonemasonry that led the two sculptors to reconnect.

Di Pasquale had long wanted to construct some granite steps for his Fulton Hill home, and a friend recommended Robertson.

After the two got in touch by phone, Robertson asked di Pasquale, “Do you remember me?”

Di Pasquale remembered him, alright – and once the memorial statue project came up, he was quick to contact Robertson about helping.

Asked what he has learned in working with di Pasquale, Robertson said that much of what he has absorbed relates to the business end of sculpting. “[Di Pasquale] is very good at teaching and passing on his own personal knowledge. I’m a lot more exposed to the realities of that [business side] working with Paul than I would be working alone.”

Di Pasquale’s handling of the administrative details – from purchasing materials to talking on the phone with donors – is not only educational, said Robertson, but also tremendously freeing.

“I’m allowed to do sculpting,” he said. “I can focus on just honing my skills.”

Working on this project, said Robertson, has him thinking about making the transition from historic preservation work back to sculpture as a full-time occupation.

“I think sculpture is fascinating,” Robertson said. “Because you’re not only an artist, but you have to be an engineer too; [you have to] construct a platform and base, and deal with mass and weight.”

“I love all of it,” he said of his work in stonemasonry, preservation, and sculpture. “But there’s only time to be good at so many things in life.”

On May 5, when the memorial statue is unveiled near 35th Street and the boardwalk, Robertson expects that he will do what he has done at most unveilings, including VMFA’s.

“My initial feeling, whenever I’m around a public unveiling [of my work], is I’m just nervous,” he said. “I like to just stand back and make myself anonymous and listen to people’s reactions. People sometimes say things that are shocking, or amusing. But they also say, ‘How beautiful!’ and lots of reaffirming things that make me feel pride.”

Robertson notes that one of the things that makes sculpture so rewarding – as opposed to artistic endeavors such as music – is the permanence and continuity. When a musician plays in a concert, he or she hears the immediate reaction from the audience, and the concert is over.

“But a sculpture is meant to last as long as you can maintain it,” said Robertson.

“So I can think, ‘How’s it going to feel when I take my grandchildren to see this?’”

For information about the memorial, visit http://vbpolicefoundation.org .
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