By Bob Bahr

Sculptor Jocelyn Russell had two years to finish a commission. That should be plenty of time, right?

OK…even if the commission involves five full-size elephants and five lions?

Now that is a stretch.

It meant that Russell worked at the foundry during the day and created maquettes for the next sculptures at night in her hotel bathroom. It meant finding a backup sculptor willing to take over the project if she were to be hit by a bus or something. It meant a 30-page project, a $750,000 fee, and a $300,000 indemnity clause. This commission even started off crazy—Russell received the Request for Proposal on a Friday (because of her travels), and it was due on the following Monday.

“It was an insane deadline,” says Russell. “The whole thing was frightening because of the immensity of the project, and it was a new client, and I had to enter into a sort of marriage with a new foundry because they were the only ones who could get the sculptures done fast enough.”

The finished bronze sculpture group, highlighted by a 12-foot tall bull elephant, replaces a fiberglass sculpture that has adorned the entrance to the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans. It is situated in a pool, with the bronzes mounted on five-foot tall concrete pillars that will soon by covered by rocks or rock-like structures.

Russell was uniquely suited for this commission. In addition to having handled large sculptures in the past, she has extensive experience as a wildlife artist and plenty of reference photos of elephants and lions from her trips to South Africa and other locations in Africa.

But the demands of his monument were significant. “I had to have five elephants and five lions interacting, and it needed to look natural,” she says. “I made up poses for the animals to fit the parameters of the 66-foot pool. The animals needed to be moving, but not running. They needed to be dynamic, but not menacing. I settled on a mild confrontation between the bull elephant and a lion. I sculpted the bull, the cow, two juveniles, and a baby elephant. I had a male and female lion and three cubs there were meant to be about four months old.” Russell says it was her first time to tackle an elephant in 3-D, while she had some experience sculpting lions.

Examining the bones of an elephant’s foot in preparation for the commission.

Russell examined elephant skeletons in museums, then produced 7″ sketches of each piece, then 20″ maquettes, in preparation for the sculptures. The maquettes were done in full detail so she could sell them separately as bronzes for the home. The maquettes were then scanned and milled by a computer at full-size in polyurethane foam. “It’s a rigid, lightweight foam that is kind of buttery,” Russell explains.

The maquettes were “blown up” from 3-D scans and milled into full-size polyurethane foam pieces.

She tooled every square inch of the foam, assembling the pieces and suspending them, balanced from the ceiling to work them over. She then used a machine that sprayed 1/8″ of hot clay on the foam form. Then further details were added, such as veins in the ears and wrinkles in the skin, and the pieces were ready to be cast. Crucible Foundry, in Norman, Oklahoma, did the casting using sand casts, and finally, poured bronze.

The pieces of bronze were welded together to form the sculpture, like a giant 3-D puzzle.

“The molten bronze was poured at 2200 degrees,” says Russell. “Then it was a 3-D puzzle, which they welded together. Next, they sandblasted the bronze, then applied potash to turn the elephants black. Finally, I polished the highlights and tusks.”

The lion sculptures traveled by U-Haul to their destination, but the elephants were loaded onto a flatbed truck in Oklahoma and hilariously took in the scenery on their way to New Orleans. Russell traveled in a vehicle accompanying the flatbed truck, which was emblazoned with her name and website URL. It cost $40,000 just for the cranes for the installation.

After all this work, Russell did not go home and rest. She came to TexArt, the wildlife art workshop run by SKB in Kerrville, Texas, and reconnected with her tribe of artists. The relief and sense of satisfaction was evident in her face. Ω