Bas relief is a difficult method to explain. The liminal, and intuitive areas between two and three dimensions make it possible both to reveal and to hide things. This is most interesting for portraiture: to make a lifetime present at once through gesture and illusions of detail.
Joe Burk was the world’s greatest oarsman in 1939. He changed the sport of rowing by paying attention to stroke rate and applying numbers to the length of a racecourse. As he won the highest awards as an oarsman, he also was decorated for his service as a PT boat commander in the South Pacific.
Using the same methods that brought him success, he coached winning crews at the University of Pennsylvania crews from 1950-1969. His legendary accomplishments and style brought unusual devotion from the men whom he coached. In 2004 they commissioned me to make this work for the front of the University of Pennsylvania boathouse in Philadelphia.
By all accounts – and in my own correspondence with him – Joe Burk was a modest man. A heroic statue would not fit his character. I decided to work in relief, set forward by a bronze cast of a loud hailer that he would have used. The style reveals my appreciation of Giacomo Manzu’s technique. He worked from wax to bronze in an unusually low relief where a lot of the image’s power is in the range of gouged lines. As a portrait, the work shows the influence of my teacher Frank Gasparro, who modelled coins at the Franklin Mint.