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Fountain of youth?

Sculptor Lee Dunbar's woman at large



With fountains often literally at the center of city life, particularly in Europe, it’s interesting to recall that people probably started putting fountains in urban areas originally to remind them of nature, with all its gushing freshets and babbling brooks. People find comfort in watching and listening as water seeks its own level. Having a lot of fountains around can only contribute favorably to what Situationist thinkers in the 1950s described as the “psychogeography” of inhabited areas—the effects of urban planning and environment on one’s mental makeup. Which is also kind of interesting, because you know which city has more fountains than any other outside of Rome? Kansas City, Mo. The city where I grew up, on the other hand, had exactly one outdoor fountain that wasn’t also a concrete turtle in a municipal wading pool. The city eventually filled it in with dirt and made flowerbeds.

Sculptor Lee Dunbar is from Billings, too, so there probably aren’t many fountain-builders in North America who know less about what it’s like to grow up around them. Earlier this summer, Dunbar completed his first fountain in the driveway of a private residence on Missoula’s south side. Celebration of Woman is also the largest sculpture of his career so far. Dunbar says he’s been sculpting at a much smaller scale for years, but that the idea of working on something much bigger didn’t intimidate him the least bit.

“It’s actually harder to do smaller things,” Dunbar observes. “The bigger things seem easier. I was undaunted. I figured if I could impress myself with something an inch-and-a-half high, I’d be okay when I got to a nine-foot fountain.”

Dunbar created Celebration of Woman from steel-reinforced, hand-sculpted colored concrete, which means, he explains, “that it’s not from a mold, not from a cast. I actually shaped it with my hands.” The functional scuplture was commissioned by the home’s owner, a general contractor who originally suggested the idea of a fountain to Dunbar. Minus a few months when he didn’t work on it at all, Dunbar sculpted in his free time for two years, shaping individual pieces in concrete around rebar and steel mesh. Before starting the project, Dunbar studied pictures of famous European fountains (many of them taken on vacation by the general contractor) and just kind of “asked around” about what kind of plumbing and pump apparatus he’d have to accommodate.

“I visualized it in my head,” Dunbar explains. “I’ve been doing sculpted jewelry and small stone sculptures for over 25 years, so I at least had a good idea of what I wanted it to look like.”

Had Dunbar ever thought about building a fountain before his friend suggested one?

“No, not really,” he admits. “And it was quite a process. Actually, there were three firsts for me on this. First life-sized woman, first fountain and first concrete sculpture. That’s another reason it took so long.”

The process, Dunbar admits, has also strained his friendship with his patron. Aside from taking so long and requiring several stages of assembly to complete—the finished female figure had to be installed with a crane—the design for Celebration was not left wholly up to the sculptor. Dunbar evenly admits that he deferred more than he would have liked to suggestions with which he didn’t necessarily agree.

“I had another design, and it wasn’t quite like that,” Dunbar grins, gesturing with his elbow. “[The contractor] wanted the toga, that was fine, he wanted the pitcher, that was fine. It’s been done a lot of times, but this is a little twist on it and it still looks pretty nice. He’s traveled over to Europe, so he’s seen the most famous fountains in the world up close. I compromised the design with him.”

In any event, Dunbar adds, the man who commissioned it is quite pleased with the finished work. And so is the sculptor—although he’s clearly a little disappointed that public viewing of the sculpture will be restricted by the fact that it’s on private property.

Dunbar used three life models to come up with the female figure bearing the pitcher and the uppermost rose that spills water, not with a sustained ploosh like a garden hose filling a bucket, but with a gentle cascade spilling over the crenellated concrete petals of the sculpture. The woman is slightly larger than life-size—by any number of measures. I peg her at about a 44D. Dunbar corrects me by one size. It’s a testament to his confidence that he eventually opted not to use the Playboy centerfold he originally had in mind as a study. Who would have known?

“If it looked exactly like her,” Dunbar considers, “I suppose at some point...well, probably not anybody, but it’s just something that was a consideration and I’d prefer for it not to be a hassle at some point because of an oversight.”

Fair enough. Although the piece itself is called Celebration of Woman, Dunbar says that the woman never acquired a nickname or assumed a personality while he was sculpting her. Which, frankly, seems a little surprising given the time he spent shaping her, Pygmalion-style.

Didn’t they develop an intimate working relationship? “Nooooo,” Dunbar laughs. “Ha ha. I was shaping the body and [the general contractor] wanted certain things to come through and I agreed with him, and that’s more what I was representing. That’s more what I was thinking about.”

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