Sculptor gives Spiro T. Agnew a chiseled look

April 20, 1995|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Sun Staff Correspondent

TRYON, N.C. — An article in the Today section of April 20 incorrectly stated when the bust of former Vice President Spiro T. Agnew would be unveiled in the U.S. Capitol. The unveiling will occur May 24.

The Sun regrets the error.

Tryon, N.C. -- The sculptor insists Spiro T. Agnew is not smiling through the marble. It's just not done, he says. Marble is magisterial, sepulchral, funereal; it gives no license for levity.

But when you look a little closer, a little longer -- as everyone will have the opportunity to do when the bust is unveiled in the fall to join the other vice presidents in the U.S. Capitol -- you might think differently.


It is only the faintest beginnings of a smile, at the instant before the edges of the mouth begin to curl. And it is joined by the small, button-like eyes, diminished as ever by the great nose. What are these once familiar features trying to convey? Is the smile, if indeed it is a smile, saying: "I'm baaack!?

William Behrends, the sculptor of this vice presidential head, feels protective of his subject. He has had four sessions with Mr. Agnew, during which he modeled him in clay as a start. He said he found the Agnews amiable and homey, the former Maryland governor natural and unpretentious.

"I liked the guy," says Mr. Behrends, who graduated from college in 1968, about the time Mr. Agnew's political star was rising. "When we sat, we would talk about all different subjects. We talked about the Orioles, about crab cakes. He talks a lot about his kids."

Mr. Behrends leans against the door of the small shed where he works seven to eight hours a day on the bust. The shed is attached to a Tuscan villa, the Villa Barbara, complete with a loggia, climbing wisteria and fig trees. It was built in 1911 atop this hill facing into the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, currently bringing forth a splendor of springtime color.

The sculptor agrees that not everyone shares his opinion about Mr. Agnew, who in 1973, after pleading no contest to tax evasion charges, resigned as vice president.

"I got a note from somebody in Maryland saying the next time you talk with Mr. Agnew ask him what he did with all the money he stole."

William Behrends is 49. He is a soft-spoken, handsome and tentative man with hardly a trace of a southern accent. He was born in the dairy farm country of Wisconsin, moved to Tryon as a teen-ager. He regards this hilly little town nestled in the salubrious horse country of North Carolina as home.

There were no artists in his family, no one to encourage him in the direction he took. The eldest of his two daughters, Trinity, 23, is a painter and print-maker with little interest in sculpture, a state of affairs Mr. Behrends, a single parent, is not too happy about. "Frankly it would be nice if one of the two wanted to be a sculptor. All these things you learn over the years the hard way, it would be good to pass them on."

Mr. Behrends studied painting and architecture in college, then in 1969 began modeling with clay.

"Before that everything was two-dimensional. Clay was much more expressive than what I was doing on paper. Now I work in clay. Everything begins in clay. Even the sculptures in marble."

He studied sculpture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, then in Italy in a town called Pietrasanta, south of Carrara, where the few remaining Italian carvers of fine sculpture hold out. He no longer draws or paints.

By any measure, William Behrends is successful. He has a number of major pieces to his credit, including a massive bust of Henry Ford II in the Renaissance Center of Detroit, and a bronze of Andrew Johnson, one-and-a-half times life-size, in the Tennessee Capital Building in Nashville. He was chosen to sculpt a small head in sterling silver of the 1990 winner of the Indy 500 auto race. He is a portrait sculptor mainly. He likes doing portraits but regrets that the usual subjects "are not those who deserve it, but those who can afford it."

He was selected to do the Agnew bust two years ago by the Architect of the Capitol, George Malcolm White. He will be paid $40,000 for the work.

"The money is not big," says Mr. Behrends. "But this is an important commission for anybody doing portrait sculpture. It is an honor to be asked to do it."

Mr. Behrends was determined to use the best material for the Agnew commission. For this he returned to Italy in search of a large piece of bianco puro, possibly the best sculpture marble in the world. Many of the other busts in the Capitol were done with this medium when it was more readily available. Today, acquiring it can be problematic.

"You don't just go to a store," says the sculptor. "The best marble is not easy to get. Most of the sculptors who buy marble are over there all the time. You have to be there when something good comes up."

The marble cost $3,000 and weighed about 1,400 pounds. It has been carved down to about 300 pounds, and will lose more weight before it is finished.

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