Sculptor Says Robinson-Shuba Statue Will Stand Among His Top Works
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – In creating the Jackie Robinson-George “Shotgun” Shuba handshake statue, Marc Mellon’s task was to capture a moment in time that reverberates to this day.
But it’s not so simple to transform a photograph into a 7-foot sculpture of two people who are both in motion.
The landmark handshake came after Robinson, the first Black in professional baseball, hit a home run in his first appearance with the Montreal Royals, a minor league affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers. As he crossed home plate, his teammate Shuba, a Youngstown native, extended a congratulatory hand. The date was April 18, 1946, and the congratulatory gesture was considered a brave act of interracial respect at a time when hostility toward Robinson was high.
Mellon’s sculpture was to be dedicated on Sunday – the 75th anniversary of the handshake – in Wean Park, downtown, but the date has been moved to mid- to late July because of the pandemic.
The New York-based sculptor discussed his creative process in a recent interview. It was a balance between art and the necessity of being structurally sound, he said.
“It’s complicated when you have two figures in movement, both gesturing,” he said.
To get it to work, he had to make some minor adjustments.
As is the case with all massive sculptures, Mellon started by creating a miniature version of the sculpture – known as a maquette – about 18 inches tall. Then came a 30-inch version with more detail.
The final, full-sized work was done in clay, from which a cast was made, and then finally produced in bronze.
“The full-scale bronze is not yet complete,” Mellon said Thursday. “They are still casting the last sections and will be welding it together.” The seams will then be polished and a patina, or final coloration, applied.
If one compares the sculpture to any of the iconic photographs of the handshake, it becomes clear that it is not a mirror image.
“Artistic license is an important thing in the studio,” Mellon said. “There are three photos I was aware of from different points of view of virtually the same moment, all within a half-second of each other. One had Robinson fully in the air, about to land on home plate. Of the two others, he had just landed in one photo, and was more fully on home plate in the second one. So the gestures [of the players] change from moment to moment – eye contact, grins, the handshake.”
Mellon had to decide how to keep the energy of the celebratory moment intact, while making a sculpture that was structurally sound.
“I tweaked it a little bit,” he said. “It’s something we do as sculptors. It has to be around forever, so it involves some structural engineering. By planting one foot on home base, I guaranteed this.”
Mellon said the Robinson-Shuba statue is among the most memorable he’s done, and reminds him of his childhood.
“I’m from Brooklyn,” he said. “I was too young to see Jackie Robinson play when I was a kid… but as kids growing up and looking for sports heroes to emulate, we had Jackie. Now, I’m doing a project that recognizes two great athletes in a moment that was the dawn of the civil rights movement. It beheld great things to come.”
The statue, when installed, will be surrounded by benches and information plaques. It’s expected to attract tourists, students and others.
Mellon said the statue’s surroundings will increase its connection to the city.
“I’m very enthusiastic about how they’re making it a site where kids can learn about the moment,” he said. “First and foremost, it’s about teamwork, being part of a team and how you welcome success on your team. It teaches sportsmanship, and celebrating our successes together. At the same time, it celebrates our successes off the field. It’s a moment of mutual respect.”
The statue’s unveiling will be “a huge story for Youngstown,” Mellon said, adding it’s also huge for the whole country.
“It comes at a point in our history where many of us who never paid much attention to race relations are starting to ask questions… Black athletes are calling for equality and the reason is that we still have issues that are deep and worrying. Much progress has been made but more needs to be made.”
If the statue’s unveiling take place on July 17, it would be part of Youngstown State University’s Summer Festival of the Arts. The two-day festival will take place that weekend in Wean Park.
Mellon said he will attend the unveiling ceremony.
It won’t be the first time the sculptor has visited Youngstown. An exhibition of his work was displayed at the Butler Institute of American Art about a decade ago.
In fact, it was Butler director Louis Zona who recommended Mellon for the handshake statue project.
“We exhibited Marc’s work as a group about 10 years ago but we continue to exhibit a couple of his pieces,” Zona said. “We anticipate receiving the maquette of his sculpture sometime soon from Mr. Mellon. It will draw permanent attention to the primary sculpture in downtown Youngstown.”
Zona described Mellon as “a wonderful talent.”
The Robinson-Shuba sculpture, he said “is destined to become one of his major works. The subject, of course, is powerful and his technique is flawless.
“A major star has crafted a major work of art. Youngstown will be most proud.”
As the date of the unveiling nears, the statue is attracting attention from national media.
ESPN recently posted a video on the handshake and the statue that includes archival footage of an interview with the late Shuba.
The Undefeated, an online magazine that explores race and sports that is overseen by ESPN, also posted an article on the handshake last week.
Image: Marc Mellon works on the full-size clay version of his sculpture of the Jackie Robinson-George Shuba statue in his New York studio. The clay statue is being used to create a bronze one that will be placed in Wean Park in Youngstown.
Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.