Deontay Wilder, the man known as “The Bronze Bomber” because of his success in the 2008 Olympics, is about to see his nickname become even more literal.
On May 25th, the city of Tuscaloosa, Ala., will unveil a bronze statue of the native hero and former heavyweight champion. It’s an honor seven years in the making, and one conceived and executed by Alabama artist Caleb O’Connor.
O’Connor spoke with Bad Left Hook in advance of the statue’s unveiling ceremony about the long road from concept to completion, and why he felt it was so important for Tuscaloosa to honor Deontay Wilder in this way.
Over the course of a fascinating conversation, O’Connor shared the inspiration behind this statue, and how his time in Italy on a Fulbright grant inspired his passion for public art. He also explained how you get finely detailed hair on a bronze sculpture, how a native Hawaiian winds up doing his art in Alabama, and why it would have been “a bit weird” to sculpt Wilder out of marble instead.
A transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows.
BAD LEFT HOOK: This sculpture is a project that’s been in the works for almost seven years, and based on what I’ve read, it seems like it all started with you. What inspired you to make a statue of Deontay Wilder? And what about him as a subject kept you committed to the project for so long?
CALEB O’CONNOR: A friend of mine, Sean Shore, was making a documentary about Deontay Wilder. [Shore] was talking about him, talking about his daughter, how he’d arrived in boxing, and about the quality of person he was. That’s what initially interested me.
Because you see a lot of boxers, and it’s all about being boastful, it’s all about making money, it’s all about them. But, here was a guy putting himself on the front line for his family. And that immediately impressed me. He turned down college opportunities to take care of his daughter. I thought that he was a man of honor, and I was intrigued by what I heard about his personality.
I ended up going to Skyy Boxing. I was in the area, doing artwork for a federal courthouse, and it was just down the street for me. I was fascinated by how rustic and authentic it was. Here was a world champion, getting to the top, and I just thought it was incredible.
Have you ever been to Skyy Boxing and their gym?
I have not. I live almost 600 miles away from there, so I’ve never seen it.
Well, if you had ever seen the original Skyy Boxing gym, it was a hole in the wall. No air conditioning, just a couple of bay doors. Lots of guys in there working with rudimentary weights, decades of boxing posters on the wall. Very authentic. And I wanted to paint it!
But, then I met Deontay. I got to watch him fight. And I thought, “Holy crap, his name is The Bronze Bomber, and I do bronze sculptures!” [Laughs] So, I thought it was a perfect opportunity to sculpt someone who had achieved so much.
And it ties into my early years, trying to figure out what kind of artist I wanted to be. I got a Fulbright right out of college to study art in Italy, and I spent two years there sculpting marble and bronze. They have the best foundries in the world, the best marble fields in the world, and I think the longest unbroken tradition of realist artwork in the world.
Just to make sure, so I don’t misunderstand… Are you saying “realist,” like the style? Or “realest,” as in ‘most authentic’?
I mean realistic in the terms of ‘it looks real’. I’m trying to make things look real. I’m not trying to be an abstract artist where you aren’t quite sure what you’re looking at.
Not to say that any one style is better than the other, this is just the kind of thing that I like to do. I’m like a scientist when I study something. I want it to look exactly like it. I want it to embody the feeling I want, and I’m very, very particular.
When I was over in Europe, it was around the time of the Iraq war. Americans were not always appreciated at that point in time. But, I was walking by the fountain di Trevi in Rome, and I noticed all the spoken languages around me. Everyone was in a great mood, and everyone was there to look at this sculpture that was a fountain. People were just enjoying it.
And I realized then that art had a power and a justification in modern society. Because that was a question I was always asking myself: “Do I offer anything to society other than decoration?”
What I decided I offered was that I offered meaning. Context. This sculpture is here. This art that the community put up embodies this thing, this character that we think is important to honor. That these are the values we have in our community. And I recognized that Deontay Wilder was a successful African American man. He had achieved greatness. I thought the community would benefit from having a sculpture of him in it.
Initially, I wanted to put the sculpture in front of the YMCA. Because I had young kids at that point. He had young kids. And I want our kids to look up to good role models. They’re going to naturally gravitate to the “cool” guys. To the athletes, the musicians. But here was Deontay, and I think he’s kind of rare in that sense.
It’s nice when there’s someone who can be both cool and also a positive role model, right?
Yeah! He’s cool! He’s badass! He’ll knock your ass out! But, he’s also a really good person.
Just to put it simply, he’s a badass guy who has a heart of gold. He’s all about his community, and his kids, and making a future for his family more and above himself. What better role model could we embody in the YMCA? Where he also trained initially!
It never worked out to put the sculpture there, unfortunately. But, I think it’s going to a better place where even more people will see it.
The sculpture project began back in 2015, a little after Wilder won his first world title. You said back then that it would be a long process, but did you expect it to take all the way until 2022 to unveil for the public?
NO. [Laughs] No, I didn’t.
I knew it was going to be a big hurdle, but I had no idea it was going to be that big of a hurdle. But, I’m glad we stuck with it.
I wanted to ask you about the particular pose and presentation of the final piece. I’ve seen alternate concept miniatures from years ago that featured Wilder holding his daughter after a fight or preparing to land a signature big right hand. And there are obviously major moments from his career like his Olympic medal or his world championship that you also likely considered. What led you to choose this specific final form for the statue?
I was reacting to him. He has this inner dialogue. He has this way of speaking to create what he envisions. I was trying to make a sculpture that showed that determination.
I called it “The Vow” in my mind. He says “I’m going to do these things.” He builds it. He creates it. He speaks it. And then he realizes it. And you can hear him saying those words often when he’s giving speeches or talking to the media. And I wanted to do something that showed that absolute willpower. That fortitude. That inner strength coupled with that outer strength.
It’s hard to deny he’s one of the most ripped dudes there is. To show that outer strength mirrored by that inner strength is like what the Greeks would say about Mind, Body, and Spirit. I think he’s one of those guys that has those three things, and people naturally gravitate towards it. He’s very positive. He’s unabashed.
He’ll just start singing in a crowd. A lot of people would be mortified to do something like that! He’ll go up there and put his heart on his sleeve every single time. Fight his heart out. Typically, he wins, but once in a while with Fury he wasn’t as successful. Nonetheless, he gave it everything he had.
I’ve always loved the story of the 300 Spartans standing in the gap. They did it for everyone else, and they did it at the cost of their lives. I’m sure at some moments they had the same expression on their face, looking into the distance, wondering what’s going to come, but being ready for anything that would. And that’s the pose I chose for the sculpture.
The sculpture is a little over 7 feet tall, right?
No, it’s his exact height. [NOTE: Wilder is 6’7” tall]
I thought it was slightly larger, and I was going to ask how that affected accuracy and realism. But, if it’s his exact height, never mind!
Would it be harder to create a likeness of someone in dimensions that are relatively close but not exactly their real size?
I think it’s easier to do one-to-one, personally. I can enlarge, and I can make him small. It’s all about proportions. It’s about relative proportions.
Not to get too sculptural on you, but when you’re sculpting someone, you can create a likeness of accuracy at any scale. As long as I can get the components to relate to each other, the size of the head to the shoulders, to the arms, to the legs. Once you get the big shapes working together, then you go for the smaller ones, and that’s how you get the accuracy. But, it is easier to do one-to-one.
I wanted to ask about some of the striking fine detail in the sculpture, specifically Wilder’s hair and beard. How hard is it to translate that from your original clay sculpture through the bronze casting process? Did you worry at all about how that would present in final metal form?
I did. And that’s why I brought it to Italy to get it done.
Italy has the longest unbroken tradition of bronze casting. I’ve been all over the world casting stuff through the nature of what I do. And I’ve yet to find a foundry that can match the quality of the Italian foundries.
I did all the hair in wax, because it was originally done in clay. And the first version, from back in 2015? If you look at his pictures back then, he had no beard. He had a shaved head. That’s it. It wasn’t until later that he grew the beard, mustache, and put his hair in a different style.
So, when I went to Italy to cast it, Deontay’s appearance had changed. He requested that I put his beard in, his hair as he had it then. I did, and I think it turned out more powerful. I like the look.
It looks really, really good. It’s the first thing I noticed, even as a completely ignorant layman, and I was really amazed.
Thank you, I’m glad.
You mentioned your sculpture work in other media, but I’m assuming that this was never going to be a marble statue. Given Wilder’s “Bronze Bomber” nickname, this one had to be in bronze, right?
Yeah. I had thought of sculpting him in black granite. But in the end? He’s the Bronze Bomber. And the bronze, when you patina it right like we did? It looks like skin. So, I thought bronze was perfect. It’s durable, it’ll last outside for ages.
Marble sculptures can, too. But, you know, it’s white. And that would look a bit weird. [Laughs] So then, I was going to do it in black granite, but it’s really hard to get. It would have been unreasonably expensive in time and materials.
In the end, I think bronze was the way to get the texture and details that I wanted. Getting that kind of detail in granite is amazingly difficult just from the nature of the material and how it fragments. But, with bronze, I could get skin textures, hair textures, a lot of things in it that were important to me. Because I wanted it to really look like him.
You said earlier that this was originally planned for outside of the YMCA. How did the piece find a final public home at the Tuscaloosa Tourism and Sports visitors center?
It’s been a very long process from 2015 to now. At first, the Y was trying to help raise money, and it just didn’t really work out. Then, it just got tabled for a while. I made the molds, everything was ready, I was trying to find someone to help pay for it. Because I do alright as an artist, but it was still a lot of money [to finish the bronze statue].
I was looking, looking, looking. Then I got this big job to do the Bicentennial work for the state of Alabama, and it paid me real well to the point where I had the extra funds to maybe do it on my own and just write it off.
One of my friends works with the mayor, Walt Maddox, and told me that he really wanted to honor Deontay. I asked what they were going to do, and he said some kind of little relief plaque or something. I said, “Well, I have something a lot better than that!”
[The Wilder sculpture] had just placed as a finalist in the biggest international portrait competition in the world. So it had these accolades that showed it wasn’t just any piece of art. It had been awarded things. I was able to go to them and say, “This is a local hero, so let’s do more than a relief plaque. Why don’t you guys tell me what you can bring to the table. Anything you do can help me, and let’s get it done.”
So, they came to the table [with approximately half of the finishing costs plus shipping], and we were able to finish the project. They did it just as I was packing it up to ship to Italy. They stepped in right in time, and it was really a blessing. And I always want it noted that the city paid for everything. I thought it was important that Deontay was honored by the city.
And not that he paid for his own statue to go up.
Right! When we first went around [raising money], some people reacted by saying, “Well, he just made blah, blah, blah, HE can pay for it.”
Well, that’s not the point, man! The point is that he’s becoming a legend. He’s become a hero. He’s worked his ass off. He always speaks well of Tuscaloosa. He does a lot for the city, and he’s a role model for the youth. We need to get this up. We need to do this, and whatever small thing this is pales in comparison to what he does give back. What his continued presence means to this community.
He works with kids, he’s on TV reaching people all over the world saying great things about our city. I think he’s a great spokesperson.
You mentioned your time in Italy as a Fulbright grant recipient, and you’re also originally from Hawaii. How did you find your way to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and what made you settle there?
Well, that’s a great question. I was showing work in Chicago, Illinois, and I was killing it! I was selling paintings four months before they were done. But, I was a hermit. I was never leaving my studio.
I had just come back from Italy with that burning desire to do public work, and found out it was ridiculously hard to get into. You couldn’t just go around and compete for these things. I didn’t even know how they were being given out, or how they were being decided.
So, I put that on the back burner and just focused on showing in New York, Chicago, just trying to make it, painting whatever came out of my head. And I enjoyed it, but there was still that desire to do public art.
Then, in 2008, I got an email that I found in my junk mail from this thing called the GSA, the General Services Administration. And they were requesting that I submit a proposal to do artwork for this federal building being built in a place called Tuscaloosa, Alabama, which I’d never, ever heard of. I looked at it, and it was exactly the kind of thing I had been wanting to do. Works that will be put up in a public space, become part of a community, and reinforce some of the values and historical lessons of the area.
Even when I responded to the email, I thought it was probably bullshit or something. [Laughs] But some very official guy named David King called me and said, “The residents of Tuscaloosa have decided they would like to come visit your studio in Chicago. When would you be available?”
[A collection of dignitaries including a federal judge] showed up on a private airplane, came to my house, which was on the border of the ghetto in Chicago, and went to my gallery to see my work. When they came in, they saw the works, and I could tell they were sold. At the time there were not a lot of realist painters, I was kind of an oddity in the sense that I was only doing realistic painting and sculpture, highly attentive to facial expressions, motion, things like that.
And that’s what they wanted. So, they asked me if I would visit their community. I did. I saw the scope of the project [sixteen different 14’ x 9’ paintings] and I realized I couldn’t just do it in Chicago and ship it on budget. Plus, with all of them being of a historical nature, I realized I needed to be in the area.
So I decided, “Hey! Let’s move out there! This is gonna be two years of work, let’s move out there and see what it’s like.” So, we did! And we loved it.
There’s a lot of things said about the South when you’re from other areas. But I’ve found a lot of it is not true. It’s a really great place and the people are really nice. Cost of living is awesome. And it seemed like the kind of place where my kids could go outside and ride their bikes, hang out with their friends.
In downtown Chicago, that was just not an option. [Laughs] I remember when my wife and I moved in [to our Chicago apartment]. There was a police cordon around the block, and my wife noted that there were a lot of officers patrolling this area. I said, “Yeah! It must be really safe here!” And then I heard from a police officer in the alley that there had been, like, a gang war. One gang tried to wipe out another gang in a building on the corner just across the street. [Laughs] And they thought that the guys were still at large in the area. I just thought, “Oh, crap.”
So, I was trying to get out of that, too. [Laughs] Just one of those experiences that young artists have. We live where we can. None of us are graduating college to jump into a six-figure job. So, it was a make-do kind of thing. And when we got that opportunity to move [to Tuscaloosa], the community really welcomed us. The work turned out very successful, they gave me a studio, and they just made a lot of things happen.
I realized that they valued art and history more in this area than in most every other I’d ever lived in. And I’ve lived in many. I’ve been around a bit. And I thought this was a unique kind of place. They loved their art, they loved history, and they liked realism art. It worked out great for me.
Your art is prominent across the state of Alabama. In Tuscaloosa, you’ve done a series of murals at the Federal Courthouse and a Minerva statue that’s 30 feet tall and weighs almost five tons. You did a series of historical reliefs in Montgomery’s Bicentennial Park, and you did a statue in Birmingham of Willie Mays making a leaping catch.
I assume it’s a bit like asking someone to pick their favorite child, but is there any one in particular that stands out in your mind, maybe because of the opportunity, the process, or the finished product?
I have favorite pieces of each. I love the Moundville mural I did for the courthouse, the one of the prehistoric culture. I love the Minerva sculpture a lot. They let me have a lot of creative control on that one. I was able to do a figure leaping in midair, which I’ve always wanted to do.
And I love the historical panels in Montgomery, because I love the civil rights one of Edmund Pettus Bridge. It felt like I was really able to capture the drama of that day. The chaos, the pain, the moments where they’re helping one another.
It’s interesting when you see moments in history that aren’t made up. They aren’t from a movie. They’re real, they’re things that are documented. And I get to put them back together and study them in great detail. Probably to a degree that most people never will, just because I’m looking at it for hundreds of hours while making art. And you start to notice things from that process.
The thing I could say I love about the work here, and more than one piece in particular, is that I get to study history. Like any symphony, it has its highs and lows. You have your dark moments and your moments of pure light. They all work together to make the beautiful symphony. I look at the federal building paintings that way. I look at the Montgomery relief murals that way. Minerva is more of a symbol. A symbol of education, a symbol of humankind moving forward and following wisdom.
I like them all. But, I’m always going to tell you that I like whatever I’m working on now the most. That’s the one that I’m in. That’s where my heart is. My heart and mind were in all of them, but it’s always in the thing I’m doing now.
This is a bit of a philosophical question, because Wilder has openly speculated about whether or not he still has the passion and motivation to keep fighting professionally.
Based on the time you’ve spent with him over the years, do you think an honor like this strikes him like a capstone on a great career, or as something that motivates him to keep boxing?
I think Deontay is motivated to live. To experience his life to the fullest. And I think right now, he’s exploring his music. He’s exploring his family, He’s exploring himself.
He just went through a lot, and I think he’s recovering to a degree. He’s put his body through a lot. But I do know that the fighting spirit is there. I have heard him talk about future fights, in the sense that there will be them, and he’s just waiting for the opportunity.
I absolutely could see him fight in the future. He’s as strong as he ever was. He may be wiser and more determined. He’s just gathering his energy. He’s expressing himself in other ways. And I think it’s super healthy. I think it will only make him a better fighter.