Statues are forever: New York-based sculptor Karen Atta tells all on creating Axxess’ Ric Flair statue
The “Nature Boy,” Ric Flair, styled and profiled his way to immortality at WrestleMania Axxess with the unveiling of his very own statue during tonight’s session. The 16-time World Champion now joins the likes of Andre the Giant, Bruno Sammartino, The Ultimate Warrior and Dusty Rhodes as Superstars immortalized in bronze by New York City- based sculptor Karen Atta. A few weeks before the statue’s unveiling, WWE.com traveled to Atta’s studio and talked with her about the process she takes to create an icon … and, briefly, the one statue of hers that met a less dignified fate.
WWE.COM: Ric Flair obviously isn’t the first statue you’ve done for us. How did you first get involved with WWE?
KAREN ATTA: We got involved with WWE through some portraits that we did for the New York Giants. I believe that Triple H saw them and, through the Giants somehow, got our info and got in touch with us.
WWE.COM: Were you ever a WWE fan?
ATTA: To tell you the truth, I didn’t know that much about WWE other than hearing about it. I believe the first project we did was a recreation of Andre the Giant. [WWE] gave me some tickets to WrestleMania, which was here at [MetLife Stadium]. I was blown away, honestly. It was amazing. So, I know a bit about WWE now, and I’ve learned to appreciate it. It’s really a great organization, a great group of people. It has really been fun working on these projects.
WWE.COM: Coming from that place where you aren’t inherently familiar with the subject, how do you approach a subject when you’re commissioned to create a statue?
ATTA: We do research, usually online, like most people these days. Check out the visual and do a bit of the background history, that sort of thing.
WWE.COM: This year you sculpted Ric Flair, who obviously has had a lot of different looks and iterations. How did you settle on this one?
ATTA: It was really your choice. [Laughs] The higher-ups [at WWE] settled on the time period. I would say all of the statues we’ve made for WWE represent the wrestlers in their prime, which is cool. One thing that was really cool when we did Bruno Sammartino, was that he actually came here and we did a casting of his face. What a nice guy.
WWE.COM: Can you talk a little about creating the statue? Flair has a lot of stuff, a lot of robes. How do you create that whole look?
ATTA: When you think about it, if you look at most pictures of [Flair] when he’s wrestling or getting ready to wrestle, his robe is a lot of him. Of course, the portrait is the other main thing, his face, but the robe is the thing. So we’ve gone through great lengths to recreate that as accurately as possible. I asked WWE if it was OK to use his butterfly robe, because to me that’s the most sculptural and it emphasizes his name, The Nature Boy. We’re pretty excited about it.
WWE.COM: Can you talk a little about how you go about selecting a model for his face?
ATTA: The face was sculpted in clay from photographic reference. Generally, we take a life cast of someone who’s close in stature and we can build off on. It’s kind of an armature, and then we sculpt on top of it.
WWE.COM: Obviously, when you think of Andre, you think of his size, and Warrior, his intensity. What aspect of Flair did you want most to come across in this piece?
ATTA: They all tend to be theatrical, but he’s especially theatrical, I think. I mean, Warrior’s very theatrical, but [Flair’s] kind of like an ‘80s rock star, in a super-cool frock. [Laughs] We’re just trying to capture his essence.
WWE.COM: How long in advance do you tend to get notice to create these statues?
ATTA: It varies anywhere from, I would say, three to six months. But you never know with WWE. Sometimes they say, “We want to do this!” which we love. We love the spontaneity. If we’re pressed for time, we can make something happen.
WWE.COM: [Pause] Sorry about that. How long, from start to finish, does it take you to do a statue like Flair when you have that advance notice?
ATTA: If you broke it down into hours of work, it’s probably like 200 man hours. How that gets distributed, we’ve sort of been working on him for several months. We did his face, we did his body casting, now we’re sort of putting it together. We had, here, until recently, one of his actual sequined robes. We used that as a basis to make a pattern for this, basically, muslin blanket that we put on him and are hardening now. Once it’s hardened, we’ll go back and fill it with foam so it’s rigid. Then we’ll start tricking it out.
WWE.COM: Obviously, when you did the portraits of Dusty and Andre, they were no longer with us. Do you feel any added pressure to sculpt someone who is still living?
ATTA: I think that whenever you’re doing a portrait, there is always some kind of pressure. Even if the person is deceased, there’s usually a relative or family member who’s involved. For Andre, it was his [handler], Tim [White], who came by. That was a very rewarding experience being that it was the first statue we made for [WWE]. And when he came here, he just about broke into tears because he was so moved by it. That was the ultimate compliment.
WWE.COM: Last year, the unveiling of Dusty Rhodes statue was an incredibly emotional moment for his family and friends. What does it mean to know your work is provoking such a passionate response?
ATTA: I saw the unveiling [of Rhodes], and it was pretty amazing. It’s very rewarding, and absolutely the ultimate test of whether we’re doing what we’re supposed to do.