Artful Remembrance: Sculptor Michael O’Keefe’s Tribute to Van Cliburn
The act of commemorating the life and legacy of another, whether through words or deeds, calls for an artist’s eye. In this Q&A, artist Michael O’Keefe shares his experience of working to capture the likeness and spirit of renowned pianist Harvey Lavan “Van” Cliburn Jr., who played for royalty, heads of state, and every U.S. president from Harry S. Truman to Barack Obama.
O’Keefe’s insights reveal practices for creating artful tributes to loved ones that even non-artists can follow. Here’s how he works, in his words:
Michael, as a long-time admirer of your art, I was enthralled to discover that you are currently creating a portrait of a famous public figure. Who commissioned you to do this portrait of Van Cliburn?
I have been working with a terrific group of people that are at the center of the effort to make possible the new Van Cliburn Performance Hall at TCU, and to have it named in honor of Van Cliburn. Many of these folks were dear friends of Cliburn’s for many years, and many of them have been involved in The Cliburn Competition. All of these individuals, and much of the city of Fort Worth it seems, are interested in keeping the memory of Van Cliburn alive, both his charming, warm personality and his profound contribution to the world of classical music.
When will the project be finished?
I was presented with the project in August of 2019. I have recently finished the final sculpture in February of 2020. The mold will go to the foundry in May and we plan to install the finished bronze cast in lobby of the Van Cliburn Performance Hall at TCU in August 2020, when the building opens to the public.
As an artist, you surely appreciate music. Do you have any comments on the virtuosity of Van Cliburn?
I feel his virtuosity when I listen to his music. Everyone does. The Russians and the whole world felt his virtuosity in 1958 at the first ever Tchaikovsky Competition. There was no way they wanted to give the first prize to an American during the height of the Cold War, but they felt his virtuosity. He inspired his listeners then and throughout his life. Van Cliburn was able to bring certain great compositions alive in his playing of the piano. It is something about music that has always intrigued me; the great composers are reliant on performers to give their compositions a body, to bring it to the ears of the audience, and to keep the music alive as it was intended to be. Cliburn once said, “I feel very strongly that when you are a performer, you are a servant.” My sense is that Van Cliburn was a devoted and effective servant to the piano as an instrument, and to the audiences which he served with inspired performances throughout his life, but also to the composers of the music that he brought to life. There is no doubt he was a virtuoso; you just know it when you hear a musician that has it all, has the intelligence and the emotion, and that has a relationship to the art form that transcends even the mastery of the tens of thousands of hours they have spent practicing their craft.
How do you begin to capture the likeness of someone?
When faced with the task of capturing the likeness of an iconic individual such as Van Cliburn, I first felt as though I had to get acquainted with him as a person and as a musician. I listened to numerous recordings of his performances, I watched as much interview footage as I could get my hands on, I talked at length with a few people that knew him well, and I read the two most notable biographies of Van Cliburn. All of this research combined to give me a good sense of Cliburn’s personality, his idiosyncrasies, his artistic sensibility, as well as his passion for classical music and his noble perspectives on his role as a performer.
A sense of the individual’s spirit and personality is as important to consider as the physical likeness. Having said that, capturing the physical likeness is no small task. I spent many, many hours studying Van Cliburn’s physical attributes, first in a preliminary sculpture, and then in numerous preliminary drawings of him at different ages and with different expressions. I covered a wall in my sculpture studio with many photos of Van Cliburn at different ages and from different angles. During the months of working on the large and final sculpture, I would refer to these photos, over and over again, as I tried to unlock the unique equation of planes, proportions, angles, shapes and spacing that create the visage of Van Cliburn. These photos challenged me to find the common denominators from one age to the next, and that underlie various expressions and gestures.
In the end, it was very clear to me that I needed to portray Van Cliburn with his head tilted back, eyes closed, as he often was while becoming lost in the magic of a beautiful composition. Van Cliburn once said, “But if it has equal parts of emotion and intelligence, it’s a masterpiece.”. He was clearly a deeply intelligent, well-trained, hard-working pianist, but Van Cliburn also clearly had a way of connecting to the emotion of great music. It seems to me that Van Cliburn went deep into his own emotional experience of the music and brought that forth for all of us to hear. It is an impossible thing to capture, really, but in trying to do so I will have contributed to telling the story of a great musician and creating a more lasting legacy.
What advice do you have for non-artists who yearn to create some form of personal remembrance for a loved one?
I think it is such an important and necessary human act. To try and give a body in some form – writing, photos, sculpture, drawing – to the individuals that we love and admire is what we humans have always done. In the process of making a personal remembrance of any kind, the one being remembered is brought to life in a unique way. After spending time with Van Cliburn’s achievements, his music, memories of him and, of course, his head, I feel an affection for him that will always be with me. And the fruits of my labor, the sculptures and drawings, will remain with others long after I am gone. This is one way that the human spirit lives on, in our remembrances, both grand and small.