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Sculptor connects Wrigley Field and Joe Louis Arena

Monday, 12.29.2008 / 1:37 PM / Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic 2009

By Noah Liberman - Special to NHL.com

Omri Amrany would be overjoyed if you and your buddies argued about the Harry Caray and Ernie Banks statues outside Wrigley Field for the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic 2009 on Jan. 1 (1 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, RDS, NHL Radio, XM Radio). Or about the statues of Detroit Red Wings stars Gordie Howe, Alex Delvecchio and Ted Lindsay in Joe Louis Arena next time you're there. Are those statues beautiful and inspiring or what?

"I want that feedback," Amrany said. "Otherwise you're walking next to a cold, dead bronze. A form of art that doesn't have a backlash or response or an argument, it's a dead art."

This is just one way Amrany wants his art to imitate life, which he says captures the spirit of sports in America. One of the great things about sports in the U.S. is "the love of arguing about it," said the Israeli-born sculptor.

So go ahead and warm up for one of American sports' best grudge matches -- the New Year's Day outdoor hockey game is the 701st contest between the Red Wings and Blackhawks -- by arguing about the art outside Wrigley Field.

Amrany and his wife, Julie Rotblatt-Amrany, work out of studios in the Chicago suburb of Highwood, and over the past 15 years have become arguably the most sought-after sculptors of sports memorials in the U.S. They -- and the artists who work under them --have done nearly a dozen pieces in each of Chicago and Detroit, plus pieces for the Green Bay Packers (Curly Lambeau and Vince Lombardi), Marquette University (Al McGuire), the Philadelphia 76ers (Wilt Chamberlain), the Arizona Cardinals (Pat Tillman) and many others, including three pieces set to be unveiled in late 2009 for the Washington Nationals.

The couple already was well established when selected from among 10 studios to create the Michael Jordan commemorative bronze outside the United Center in 1994. In fact, Amrany has said they had to be well established to vie for the project, because they knew it would take months of expensive labor that the commission wouldn't fully cover.

But they knew the payoff could be considerable, and it has been. Amrany said sports sculpture now nearly is 50 percent of the studio's work worldwide. Other work includes fine art pieces and commemoratives of all kinds, such as one of Apollo 13 astronaut James Lovell outside Chicago's Adler Planetarium and another in Hong Kong of movie star Jackie Chan.

The Chicago-Detroit hockey rivalry conjures all sorts of images of two rugged Midwest cities and their distinct histories. Amrany sees his sculptures in this context.

He suggests that Detroit may cling tighter to its sports stars as sources of pride. Chicago has been more preoccupied with progress in the recent past.

"With the turmoil and repression Detroit has gone through in last few decades," he said, "a form of artwork like this is more likely to have a deep appeal to the public. But in a non-stop city like Chicago, its (effect) is more diminished because of the normal activity it has every day."

Amrany recalled the passion the Bulls dynasties evoked and he sees another sports renaissance for Chicago if the 2016 Olympics are awarded to the city. He sees president-elect Barack Obama influencing this.

 
 
"Obama has become the world star, not just in the United States, but the light to the world, the hope to the world that things can get better," Amrany said. "Obama is tied very strong to Chicago, If Chicago gets the Olympics, you will see a huge change in the culture of sports and art."

One thing Blackhawks and Red Wings fans can agree on is that the Amrany sculptures are not conventional commemoratives, not the smooth marbles of earlier eras, not the stoic bronze renderings of many war heroes.

Amrany's works are instead are full -- too full, some say -- of detail, such as muscles, veins and clothing textures. And many feature very unconventional ways of showing movement, such as the multiple sticks in Gordie Howe's hands and the multiple bats in those of Detroit Tigers slugger Willie Horton, which Amrany calls "fractals, or repetitive movements."

For fans who prefer straight-ahead realism, these sculptures take a little getting used to. The Harry Caray statue outside Wrigley Field was dubbed "Harry From The Black Lagoon" shortly after it was unveiled, a reference to the myriad folds and textures of the piece, and the complex montage of Wrigley Field fans beneath him. But the piece -- like Jordan at the United Center -- now is a landmark. And Amrany notes -- not sounding boastful but grateful -- that his patrons say "our art flies the best."

In the Jordan statue, he points out how he and Rotblatt strove to make it appear Jordan was expending great energy, but that the player also seemed frozen at the peak of his jump, with the players below him appearing to be falling away. Amrany likens it to the sense a driver gets when he's passing another car and his own car seems to be standing still while the other cars recede.

This complex combination of stillness and movement represents the fact that Jordan -- like all of Amrany's sports subjects -- has achieved a permanent fame through motion. And Amrany now has achieved a permanent, stock-still place in the history of sports and art.

Argue all you want about the artistic details -- Amrany would love it -- but you can't argue about that.

Noah Liberman is a Chicago-based writer and author of "Glove Affairs: The Romance, History and Tradition of the Baseball Glove" (Triumph).