Artist cooks up a presidential present BALTIMORE COUNTY


June 29, 1993|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

Drawing her knife-edged wooden spatula across the still-malleable clay, Ferebe Streett smoothed away minor rough spots as she put the final touches on President Clinton's birthday present.

The lifelike terra cotta bust of the chief executive -- before his $200 hairdo -- will air-dry for a couple of weeks, then be baked in a kiln at temperatures up to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit for about 15 hours. That process will make the sculpture stone-hard.

The unfired clay is gray now but during firing, "It will turn to a nice, peachy-buff color," said Ms. Streett, 37, who lives in Sudbrook Park in Baltimore County. If the firing goes well, the artist said, she will offer the 2-foot-tall bust to Mr. Clinton for his 47th birthday, Aug. 19.

Although the Clinton piece is Ms. Streett's second full-round portrait bust, she has been an artist since childhood and comes to the craft naturally.

Her father, Tylden W. Streett, 71, is one of Maryland's premier sculptors. Her mother, Lauretta Gordon, 73, is a multifaceted artist who began as a fashion designer and now does three-dimensional stained-glass projects.

Although her parents separated when she was young, Ms. Streett said, she was around her father frequently, and even took one of his figurative sculpture courses at the Maryland Institute of Art.

"He's had a lot more influence on me than he thinks. A lot of my modeling techniques I learned from my father," Ms. Streett said.

Father and daughter have collaborated on several of his commissions, including a bas-relief portrait of former Baltimore Mayor Clarence H. "Du" Burns. That piece is on the dedication medallion at the recreation center named in Mr. Burns' honor. They also collaborated on a medallion struck in honor of the late Baltimore City councilman, William P. Myers, and on sculptures at Waverly Elementary School and Fallstaff Middle School.

"She's multitalented. She can do everything," said Mr. Streett. "She's always done things with her hands and she's always had art materials around. But mostly what she's gotten from me is criticism."

Mrs. Gordon said that, although she believes her daughter's chief talent is sculpture, Ferebe had plenty of opportunities from childhood to work with different materials.

"I gave her her first watercolor paint set when she was about 4," Mrs. Gordon said. Then Ferebe reached the stage when children draw on walls. "Rather than yell at her, I put up sheets of brown paper, gave her a big box of crayons and let her go ahead. She did a mural which we had around for years."

Ms. Streett graduated from the Maryland Institute in 1977 and became a free-lance artist, mostly in graphic arts, doing paintings and drawings, photo collages and computer graphics for magazines, newspapers including The Sun, record companies, and the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions.

Early on she did a hitch as the "starving artist in a garret," living in the attic of a friend's house in Fells Point, searching out art commissions and working as a bartender at such prominent taverns as the Wharf Rat and Bertha's. She soon tired of the bar scene.

In 1990, she entered Towson State University to pursue a master's degree in fine arts in hopes of forging a teaching career. She now teaches sculpture and painting at a senior citizens center in Pikesville.

A show of her photo collages -- including the "Mount Vernon Steeplechase" series, which depicts horses using the decorative walls of Mount Vernon Place as timber jumps -- is at the Community Gallery in Lancaster, Pa.

Despite having been involved with art since childhood, Ms. Streett didn't begin to focus seriously on her talent until five years ago.

"I was scattered before. I had ability but I never followed through on anything," she said.

An emotional obstacle kept her from plunging into sculpture, her favorite art form. She felt she would be competing with her father. They discussed the issue, and he told her to give it her best. Last fall she set out to do just that.

Her first portrait sculpture was a terra cotta likeness of her husband, John Harris. Next, she began a series of quirky figures of naked women ice-skating with alligators. The series was based on pen-and-ink drawings by artist Heinrich Kley.

"He did the sketches of women ice-skating with alligators, polar bears and elephants and I wanted to bring them to life," she said.

Ms. Streett, who voted for Mr. Clinton, said she was so fascinated by the president's looks that she decided to sculpt a bust. She began the project two months ago, collecting dozens of magazine photographs showing the president from every angle.

She slapped blobs of wet clay on an armature made of a large wad of newspaper wrapped around a wood stick. The newspaper will burn off as the terra cotta is fired in the kiln.

After building up the clay to the size she wanted, she started shaping Mr. Clinton's features. She prefers his old look. The controversial hair styling he received on Air Force One made him look too shaggy, she said.

She also took great care to capture the bags under his eyes.

"I love the bags; they're him, especially when he laughs," she said.

Ms. Streett already has begun collecting pictures for her next portrait bust. Once again, the hairdo will be a major consideration. She has to decide which style to use before she brings Hillary Rodham Clinton to life in terra cotta.

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