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Size Matters

Funds are slow in coming for a sculptural tribute to Big Joe Burrell


Published October 25, 2006 at 3:18 p.m.

The sculptor commissioned to create a memorial to Burlington's larger-than-life sax man says he wants to ensure, above all, that "Big Joe Burrell is big." And it's precisely because Shelburne sculptor Chris Sharp was asked to cast a lifelike image of the Unknown Blues Band front man that sponsors are having trouble raising the money needed for the tribute. Burrell, who died in 2005 at age 80, stood 6-foot-3 and weighed around 300 pounds. Not surprisingly, the cost to cast him in bronze is big as well.

Less than half of the necessary $75,000 has been pledged in the six months since fundraising got underway. The amount is considerable, explains Burlington City Arts Administration Director Sara Katz, because "the foundry process is so intricate and the price of the material is so high." Even so, she adds, Sharp's version won't cost nearly as much as what a California sculptor wanted to charge for a similar piece.

A metalworking and art teacher at Burlington High School, Sharp has work on display at the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park in Massachusetts as well as at the entrance to Burlington's Fletcher Free Library. "Archways," a metal-and-Plexiglas piece he co-created with John Mazuzan, has graced the library's exterior wall since 1988.

Sharp won't settle for shortcuts in paying homage to Burrell. "A lot of cheap, new processes are on the market now," he notes. "You can spray metal on top of something else, but if I did that, 20 years from now the city would be wondering what to do about the piece because it would be decaying."

In a clay model Sharp has shaped from a photograph by Josef Cernikowsky, a bespectacled Burrell stands with one hand holding his instrument and the other pointing toward an invisible audience. Fans of the late sax man will recognize the characteristic gesture. Sharp says he aims to "show Big Joe connecting with his audience. He's not depicted in as flamboyant a way as a rock star, but there is this sense of classy action."

The finished, three-quarter-ton sculpture is also meant to be "approachable." Sharp says it's OK with him if "a child sticks his head in Big Joe's sax." He's not seeking to fashion "some somber piece of statuary like a war hero that's intended to put you in your place."

The clay model is the product of the "couple of hundred hours" Sharp has so far devoted to the project. He says he won't take any money for his work until the sculpture is ready to be installed outside Halvorson's Upstreet Café on the Church Street Marketplace. Burrell played there nearly every Thursday night for years before his death.

It was a love for jazz that led Sharp to accept the commission for the sculpture after a local review panel had considered - and rejected - 15 entries from across the country. Sharp says he knew and liked Burrell, but has been inspired more by the music than by the man in creating this piece. He describes his work in general as "figurative sculpture that depicts philosophical and emotional struggles we go through."

The struggle to raise funds for this example of Sharp's work has recently gained some momentum, says Toni Trombley, chair of the 10-person committee charged with bringing the vision to fruition. Nearly $30,000 is now committed. Contributors have been coming forward in larger numbers since it was made clear that this piece of public art is not being 100-percent underwritten by the public, Trombley notes.

However, the City of Burlington is the source of the single-largest gift - $5000 - so far given to the Big Joe Burrell Statue Fund. Burlington City Arts has also donated the time Katz has spent on the project in the year and a half since it was launched.

Trombley, the partner of Burrell's nephew Leon Burrell, says she's still hopeful the money will be raised in time to ensure that an unveiling takes place as planned during next June's Discover Jazz Festival. What's needed now, she says, is for "a big underwriter or two to step up, whether an individual or a corporation."

The fundraising drive's slower-than-expected pace can be attributed to "intense competition for donations, especially in this political season," Trombley suggests. It can also be difficult to generate generosity for public artworks, she adds, though she's not sure why this is so.

But even if the $75,000 goal remains beyond reach eight months hence, "We're going to keep fundraising till we get there," Trombley declares. "It's just a question of when."

Trombley suggests that those who admired Big Joe Burrell's chops should realize how lucky Burlington was to have been the base of "such a homegrown icon" of the jazz scene.

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