Under A. Thomas Schomberg's knowing hand, shapes slowly emerge out of the formless lump of modeling wax. A man's head appears. Arms, legs, torso. Finally, a rock climber scaling an unseen precipice. "The look of determination is like Bernini's David," Schomberg says, unabashedly comparing the piece with one of the greatest works of Western art.
Schomberg is perhaps the best-known sports sculptor working today. When racetrack entrepreneur Robert Brennan wanted to adorn one of his tracks with a massive equestrian statue, he called Schomberg. When the U.S.A. Amateur Boxing Federation wanted a memorial for the team members killed in a plane crash seven years ago in Poland, it called Schomberg. When Sylvester Stallone wanted to immortalize himself in something other than celluloid, he didn't call LeRoy Neiman. Forget the National Gallery; Schomberg's works can be seen at the Superdome, the Astrodome and in the collections of such noted art connoisseurs as George Steinbrenner, Bowie Kuhn and Martina Navratilova.
In his denims, V-neck wool sweater and graying pioneer beard, Schomberg, 43, looks like a mountain man just arrived from the L.L. Bean warehouse. He lives and works in Evergreen, Colo., a town perched 7,000 feet up in the Rockies and 45 minutes from downtown Denver. Figures of javelin throwers, gymnasts, pole vaulters and ballplayers fill his studio and gallery. "Had I traveled west in the 19th century," says Schomberg, "I might have developed into another Remington, but living in these times, I was influenced by the competitive athlete."
Schomberg looks to antiquity for further inspiration. "We're all reincarnated Romans," he says, "and these athletes entertain us like gladiators." His own days in the arena were spent in Nebraska as a backup forward on the Wayne State College basketball team.
His homage to the U.S. boxers killed in Poland is a nine-foot bronze titled Down, but Not Out...Lost, but Not Forgotten. It depicts a fallen fighter struggling to get back on his feet. The statue was unveiled last November outside Warsaw's Builders Stadium, and each boxer's family received a scaled-down bronza replica. "The most emotional part of the whole project came in meeting the families," says Schomberg. "They still feel the loss."
But the Schomberg that most people have seen is his epic rendering of a make-believe athlete, Rocky Balboa. Stallone had previously purchased two of Schomberg's boxing sculptures, and while filming Rocky III, he asked Schomberg to bronze his likeness.
Schomberg's Rocky towers 13 feet from its base to the tip of its upraised boxing gloves. "It symbolizes people struggling to overcome the tremendous odds of life," Schomberg says. "It's a classical statement of perfection reminiscent of Phidias, the ancient Greek master." The insolent curl of Rocky's lips, he says, recalls Houdon, the neoclassic sculptor famed for his treatment of Voltaire and George Washington. Still, Schomberg's statue may be about as idealized as the movie. Stallone had the sculptor pare away some of Rocky's paunch.
During the shooting of Rocky III, the statue was placed atop the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, where Rocky had once paused to lift his arms and leap in silent tribute to himself. Stallone wanted to honor the city by having the statue stay there. But museum officials found Stallone's magnanimity slightly presumptuous. "A lot of greater men did the same thing," says Schomberg. "Caesar, Augustus.... You can't damn him for having an ego."
The local art establishment did. Schomberg's Rocky was called bad sculpture, a movie prop, schlock. But Philadelphians rallied around this Hollywood tribute to a fake boxer by an out-of-town sculptor. A local group organized the Rocky Must Stay Committee. Someone even submitted an ordinance that would have kept the orphan statue atop the steps. The conflict ended in a draw. Rocky was finally given a new home outside the Spectrum, where he won his mythic title.
Schomberg sees the whole episode as just one more attack on realistic sculpture. He doesn't hesitate to liken himself to Rodin and Carpeaux, whose The Dance was initially dismissed as too sensuous but now occupies a wall of its own in the Louvre. "Will the Rocky statue have a niche in the year 2131?" he asks. "I don't know."