Sculptor's model fine tunes his pitch Being the Babe

June 03, 1994|By David J. Williams | David J. Williams,Special to The Sun

Next year, an 18-foot-tall bronze statue of Babe Ruth will stand before Oriole Park at Camden Yards, only two blocks from the house where the baseball legend was born.

Although the statue won't be unveiled until Feb. 6, 1995, Ruth's 100th birthday, it is said to portray a young Ruth leaning on a bat, glove held at his hip, with a self-assured grin on his face. With Ruth's birthplace to his back, he gazes upon the ballpark. Its sculptor creator, Susan Luery, says the design portrays "a man looking at his destiny."

From the neck up, it's all The Babe, the former Baltimore Oriole whose destiny was made beyond the outfield fence in ballparks across the country. But from the neck down, the statue reflects the form of another Baltimore man -- Michael Carter, a handsome, 210-pound, 31-year-old bricklayer and aspiring opera singer who stood as the model for the sculpture.

That's right: bricklayer, opera singer and sculpture model. You just have to love this guy.

To be fair, Mr. Carter never modeled for anything before in his life. But last fall, he was taking an Italian conversation class to help him with some operatic music he was trying to learn. There he met Ms. Luery, who had once studied art in Italy. While she had been commissioned to create the sculpture of Babe Ruth, she had yet to find a model for the project. Then she saw Mr. Carter.

"I was awed, I really was, because I've seen a lot of Babe Ruth look-alikes, but Michael looks more like the profile than any of the people I've seen."

Although Mr. Carter closely matched Ruth's height and weight, his proportions were somewhat inverted to Ruth's, whose belt line in his later, more famous years bulged with the effects of indulgence.

"When Babe Ruth left Baltimore, he was a very, very young man," explains Ms. Luery. "So the sculpture I did was of him as a 19-year-old player, a kid. He weighed 200 pounds and was 6-foot-1. So, we're talking about someone who was fairly well built, not someone who was overweight as he looked later when he drank a lot. Michael really matched the physique I was looking for pretty closely."

But why, without much coaxing or any firm agreement of compensation from Ms. Luery, did Mr. Carter agree to take the job?

"I thought Susan was pretty cute," he admits. "But then I realized her situation and I did it as a favor more than anything else. We went out for a cup of coffee after class. Susan's pretty smart, and she probably sensed that I kind of liked her. I was looking at her like, 'Hey, I'd like to get something going.' And she's looking at me like, 'Hey, this guy would fit the uniform.' I think that was running through her head from the moment we started talking."

Singing for his sculptor

So, during four long months last winter, Mr. Carter stood in a corner of an industrial space near Baltimore's Mount Vernon area, wearing a vintage baseball uniform, holding Babe Ruth's glove, turning this way and that as Ms. Luery molded the intricate details. As she worked, Mr. Carter sang -- not something light with a beat you could dance to, but heavy, bombastic opera.

For Ms. Luery, who often plays loud classical music when she works, his singing set a creative mood.

"It was a really great winter because everything kind of added to the whole feeling. The isolation of such a cold winter with the snowstorm and ice storms created a very removed feeling from what was going on, which was great considering that I was trying to isolate myself with a work of art," says Ms. Luery.

"Michael's got this really loud voice that resonates, and he would sing so loud that walls would just shake. The people in offices where I work were so surprised."

Perhaps the young bricklayer would appear more likely as the lead singer in a rock band. For almost 10 years, that's exactly what he was. Mr. Carter's band, The Throbbing Wolfpack, performed around Baltimore, wrote more than 30 original songs and eventually recorded an album. But as the band members grew older, some got married and started families; others married their day jobs, and the Wolfpack played less frequently.

Struck by Mr. Carter's theatrical style and stage presence, fans and friends encouraged him to try drama as an outlet. He did, and he soon found himself drawn to opera, where drama and singing are married. In his heart, he says, he knew that he had found his place, doing something he loved, surrounded by people who were more like himself.

Hitting the bricks

The modeling is over now, and the 28-inch wire and clay sculpture is in various stages of production, being cast and recast into a 9-foot bronze Babe. Looking back, says Ms. Luery, "In a lot of ways, I felt Babe Ruth chose Michael and sent him to me. There really was no other reason why that should happen. And I just stopped questioning it. I was just awfully lucky."

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